Enlargement: EU’s Trump Card in COVID-19-Infested Geopolitical Race

Srecko Latal
Regional editor for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN

Amidst new health, political, economic, social and cultural challenges, the outbreak of COVID-19 has raised geopolitical stakes in ethnically and politically divided regions like the Balkans. China, Gulf countries, Russia, the USA and Turkey used the start of the pandemic to deliver protective gear and other medical equipment to the ill-prepared Balkan countries.

This approach, as documented by a recent briefing paper “COVID-19 Raises Geopolitical Stakes in the Balkans”, provided some of these countries with an opportunity to score easy PR points and advance their positions in the raging geopolitical competition in the region. Meanwhile, EU’s initial reaction to this challenge was pitiable. The Union closed down its internal and external borders and blocked export of its medical equipment, angering many EU and Balkan countries alike and fueling debates about EU’s waning solidarity and growing internal divisions.

The situation changed by April, when Chinese and Russian “mask diplomacy” seemed to be in slight retreat, while the EU at least partially restored its position in the region by pledging 3.3 billion euro assistance for its recovery and development in the coming years. Since then, the European Commission has been working on combining grants and loans with badly needed reforms for each of the six West Balkan countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. 

The new package, which is expected to be presented this fall, may be the last chance for the EU to restore its tainted image the region and keep its enlargement perspective alive. This will be a major challenge for the EU, in a situation where China, Turkey and especially Russia remain determined to keep their positions in the region. The latest White House-led initiative for the resolution of Kosovo-Serbia disputes, which is duplicating a similar EU initiative, is also threatening to undermine the EU presence in the region.

Yet the single biggest challenge for the EU will be the EU itself. Without recognizing its current position in the Balkans, understanding its importance for the EU itself, and thoroughly changing its approach to the region the EU stands little chance to win over the fragile region. Another EU’s failure in the Balkans on the other hand may have dire consequences for all of Europe, like few times before in history.

EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, showed to be aware of the danger in his interview to the Financial Times on September 13, in which he stressed that EU’s neighbourhood was “engulfed in flames”, and called the Balkans a “powder keg.”

Enlargement: a story of failure

In this interview Borrell stressed that only the EU was able to stabilize the Balkans, repeating the mantra that was present in Europe since the end of Balkan wars in 90’s. Even the strong American presence – which was a key factor in ending the conflicts and in the normalization in the first post-war years – was supposed to be gradually replaced by the EU and its enlargement process.

Yet this plan coincided with the EU’s biggest crisis, which started with the 2009 global recession and continued with the 2014 migrant crisis, the rise of right-wing populism in the EU, UK’s 2016 BREXIT referendum, further EU’s internal divisions after the 2019 European Parliament elections, and finally this year’s COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the single biggest blows to the EU internal cohesion and external positioning came as a result of a major shift in the US foreign policy following the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Trump’s “America first ” doctrine that was openly hostile to the EU, has gradually brought to an end America’s concept of military and geopolitical protection of Europe, which was established at the end of the World War II and which the EU took for granted ever since

All these developments have had a heavy impact on the Western Balkans as well, where they halted and reversed the democratization process and brought back nationalist, populist and autocratic politics similar to those from 90’s. The EU, US and Balkan’s parallel crises have over the years undermined the enlargement process, weakened EU and US positions in the Balkans and opened space for other global actors to establish or strengthen their positions in the region.

As outlined in another recent policy paper “The Western Balkans: Between the EU and a Hard Place,” some of the top Balkan experts in the EU have been warning Brussels and EU capitals that the enlargement has been “a story of failure.” Most Balkan leaders have stopped believing that EU involvement would bring any serious economic growth to their countries in the near future. At the same time they are concerned that implementation of difficult EU reforms would cost them their positions, possibly even land them in jail. As a result, Balkan leaders have grown distant from the EU, and are even ready to “write off” their countries’ EU membership, experts warned.

Nevertheless, both the EU and the Balkans still pay lip service to the idea of continued enlargement but neither side believes it is a realistic goal in the next two-three decades. Such a distant EU perspective has become irrelevant for Balkan leaders and people alike, and so they have started turning even more towards other strategic allies – Albanians with the USA, Bosniaks with Turkey and Serbs with Russia. Although a new player in the region, China quickly became another preferred partner for all Balkan leaders, thanks to the abundance of its loans and absence of difficult political criteria and transparent procurement procedures.

As a result of these processes, 17 years after the 2003 Thessaloniki summit confirmed their common shared values and joint future, the EU and Balkan find themselves at a critical crossroads of their relationship. 

What is EU’s own interest in the enlargement?

Many EU and member countries’ officials ask why they should be bothered with the region that in their view is only creating troubles and stubbornly avoiding reforms. Some are convinced that the Balkan people are exclusively responsible for their predicament and that the EU has done everything it should have. They believe that now it is up to the Balkans to decide whether it wants to do what it takes to eventually join the EU family, or not, and face the consequences  of its choice.

According to the opposite school of thinking, years of American and EU inconsistent approaches, failed experiments and other foreign influences have had a key role in the cyclical destabilization of the region witnessed over the last three decades. Any new serious instability in any of the Balkan countries could lead to new violence, which could spread across the region and – in the situation of the heightened geopolitical stakes – endanger the rest of Europe or even wider.  

These conflicting hypotheses have been the subject of many heated debates among diplomats and experts over the years. While it is questionable whether a single truth about the Balkans will ever be found, one thing that is certain is that these debates so far failed to alter the EU opinions and actions in the region in any significant way. While Brussels, Berlin, London and other EU capitals in recent years launched many new initiatives in different Balkan countries, they all reverted around the same, repackaged ideas and approaches.    

The main reason why the EU was not successful in the Balkans was the fact that from the very beginning, the EU was focused more on how much the enlargement was important for the Balkans, rather than how much this process and the Balkans were important for the EU itself. Since the 2003 Thessaloniki summit the enlargement mantra was focused on the stabilizing effect that the EU accession process was expected to have on the Balkans. Yet even back then many EU officials were concerned that the enlargement process would inevitably import some of the Balkan’s problems into the EU. While the EU leaders may have been willing to accept that risk at the times when the EU was considered to be in the peak of its political and economic glory, they see little or no interest in continued enlargement while the EU is facing its own identity crisis, as well as complex multidimensional challenges at home and abroad.

Recognizing the EU’s own interest in continued enlargement is the crucial first step for any real change of its approach to the region. As long as EU decision-makers see the Balkans only as a trouble and challenge rather than possible opportunity or benefit, the enlargement will be left hanging in the air, waiting to be revisited at some better times. Although the Balkan’s destabilizing effect is a fact that should be counted on in the foreseeable future, continued enlargement has been a key for the stability of Europe.

With its rich ethnic, religious and cultural makeup as well as critical geographic position, the Balkans was historically one of the areas where Eastern and Western civilizations meet and every now and then trigger tectonic shifts and quakes. Yet with a proper EU assistance this contested area could be transformed into a bridge that reconnects the two worlds in peaceful coexistence.

Given its global and regional links and different influences, the Balkans is also the key for EU’s own geopolitical positioning – the topic that has been in the focus of many EU officials and experts. Many of them believe that at times of heightened geopolitical stakes, the European Union needs to restore its internal unity, continue expansion in the Balkans and repair relations with China, Russia and Turkey. Only that way the EU will be able to join the big geopolitical league and in the emerging multi-polar world act as a buffer between the USA and China, whose growing hostilities threaten global stability. Failure to do so will facilitate new crises in the Balkans and the Middle East, which China, Russia and the USA will be able to use to further undermine an already internally divided and weakened EU. Looking from that perspective, the enlargement is not only a key for the stability of the Balkans, but also the EU’s key trump card in the raging geopolitical game.

This was also clearly recognized by Commissioner Borrell in his interview to the Financial Times: “If we don't stabilise the Balkans, it’s going to be very difficult to be considered a geopolitical power. Because nobody else will do it — only the Europeans.”