In 2003, during the Greek Presidency of the EU Council, the European Union confirmed its project of political integration of the Western Balkans, officially declaring at the Thessaloniki Summit that “the future of the Balkans is within the European Union.” It was a time of euro-enthusiasm, between the introduction of the common currency and the upcoming eastern enlargement. The hope was that by 2014, the centenary of the First World War, all the countries of the Western Balkans could achieve the same result.
Eleven years later, the situation is less encouraging. The enlargement dossier has not been among the priorities of the last semester of the Greek presidency, and the EU / Western Balkans Ministerial Conference held in Thessaloniki on May 8, 2014 ended without any significant results. The European integration of the Balkan countries has proceeded in the last decade, but has done so slowly. The idea of a new regional enlargement which includes all the Balkan countries by 2014 has quickly faded.
This is not East-Central Europe
On the one hand, the Europeanization process has not worked for the Balkan countries in the same manner as for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. For the latter, European integration was grafted on a window of opportunity given by the economic and democratic transition of the 1990s, by the political legitimacy that the new elites were finding in the “return to Europe,” and by the strong feeling of “continental unification” that was heard in Paris and Berlin as much as in Prague and Warsaw.
For the countries of the Western Balkans, however, the 1990s did not develop in the same way. The post-socialist transition had developed either through war and the redrafting of borders (Yugoslavia), or through the collapse of state structures (Albania). The transition to capitalism and democracy was slow, and in many cases it was only possible after a decade of authoritarian consolidation of the elites, often the same ones as the socialist period. Administrative weaknesses and the challenges of young statehood meant that the incentives and procedures, which had worked in Central and Eastern Europe, did not have the same effect in Southeastern Europe.
Are the EU Member States back in control of the enlargement policy?
On the other hand, after the experience of enlargement with Bulgaria and Romania, the EU has become more demanding with regard to compliance with the requirements for membership, considering not only the adoption of laws but also their administrative and practical implementation.
The “bloc” process of enlargement, with a fixed date of entry that was deemed unable to provide the needed incentives for reforms to all the candidates, has given way to a “regatta” process, in which each country is pushed to compete with their neighbours in order to reach the finish line of EU accession first, on its own merits.
Moreover, due to the increasing salience of EU enlargement for the national public opinions that have been linking it (rightly or wrongly) with immigration issues, the enlargement process has become less technical and more political. In what Hillion called a “creeping nationalization” of the enlargement policy, EU member states reaffirmed their central role with respect to the Commission in what is a constitutive policy, since it defines the boundaries of membership of the EU polity.
The candidate countries have thus often faced obstruction from one or more member states, who have tried to delay their progress towards the EU, sometimes successfully, due to bilateral issues. This is an attitude that is deprecated by the European Commission, since it risks jeopardizing the consistency of conditionality, according to which every reform carried out should lead to a reward in the process of approaching the EU. Yet, it happens more and more frequently: the controversy on the sea border in the Bay of Piran led Slovenia to block Croatia; Germany and the Netherlands showed reticence in respect to the advancement of Serbia and Albania; and even Romania and Bulgaria pitted themselves against Serbia for issues completely unrelated to enlargement (the refusal of the other member countries to accept their entry into Schengen). Finally, the never-ending and metaphysical question of the name still causes Greece to oppose Macedonia with no prospect of a short-term solution; not to mention the boycott of Turkey by Cyprus and France, which prevents Ankara from opening urgently needed new negotiating chapters. On the other hand, something similar happened in the 1960s to the United Kingdom, twice rejected by the veto of General De Gaulle.
The unique exception of 2004
With the benefit of hindsight, one can now see how the 2004 enlargement was truly an exception. First, it was a process guided by the European Commission, while member states were committed elsewhere in the debate on the Constitutional Treaty. Second, it enjoyed a strong symbolic legitimisation in the discourse on the “reunification of Europe” split by the Cold War. Finally, it found a probably unique window of opportunity in the period following the transition to democracy and capitalism of the applicant countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which were seeking new legitimacy in a wider European context.
These are all conditions that no longer exist in the current round of enlargement, in which the governments of the EU member states are very wary of the reactions of their increasingly sensitive electorates to immigration issues; in which the Balkans are not considered a part of Europe to be re-unified in the EU, but at best as a turbulent periphery to be stabilized; and in which the same candidate countries are still plagued by the consequences of the wars of the 1990s and by political elites who often use ethno-nationalism as their source of domestic legitimacy.
Progress and realistic expectations
There have certainly been steps forward. Croatia has shown to all the other countries in the region that the target is achievable, and it is committed to foster the integration of the other countries in the region rather than slowing it down. The normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, which was negotiated by the EU in 2013, is allowing both countries to move away from identity politics and proceed in parallel towards European integration. The 2013 elections in Albania demonstrated that, even there, a democratic change in power is possible, allowing Tirana to achieve the status of candidate country.
Other issues, nevertheless, remain open: the constitutional reform in Bosnia, the issue of the name between Macedonia and Greece, democratic change in Montenegro, as well as the legislative reforms for the adoption of the EU acquis in all countries. A realistic view of the path still to be covered indicates the years 2022/2025 as a target date for the accession of Serbia, and the following years for the other countries in the region – provided that other bilateral issues do not create more stumbling stones.
The last ten years have allowed the European Union to adjust its strategies in relation to the candidate countries of the Western Balkans, whose specificity had not initially been considered. The next ten years will tell us whether this recipe is actually the right one.