Enlargement beyond the double Enlargement fatigue. Eu integration of the Western Balkans in a shifting geopolitical order

Ervjola Selenica
University of Bologna

European integration, regional and national stability

On October 6, the European Commission adopted a comprehensive Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans mobilising up to €9 billion of funding for the region to support economic recovery, foster regional integration and convergence with the European Union (EC 2020). A wide consensus both within the European Union and the Western Balkans has seen in the integration and enlargement process a key element of national and regional stability, in particular since the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003. Central to the summit - and ensuing initiatives such as the Central European Initiative, the Adriatic and Ionian Initiative and the Berlin Process - has been the assumption that a perspective of integration and enlargement of the Western Balkans would lead to greater security for the region and the European Union.

However, already during the Summit and in its aftermath, analysts in the region, policy makers and scholars were pointing to an emerging Enlargement fatigue, the result of which was identified in previous Enlargement waves throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s as well as internal dynamics of the European Union and EU member states. What appeared then as a clear and strong commitment in that Summit for the integration of the Western Balkan countries in the EU within a reasonable timeline, was later further weakened by a number of global and regional economic and political crisis that followed the financial crisis triggered in 2008: the Ukrainian crisis (2013), the ‘migration crisis’ (2014), and forms of euro-scepticism culminating in hostility within the EU (e.g., the Visegràd Group, the Brexit referendum (of 2016).

The outbreak of the global pandemic of COVID19 in 2020 further challenged the EU. These crises have affected the EU from within by threatening its identity foundations, its appeal as a soft power and unified actor, and the delicate balance that exists between supranational (European Commission) and (inter-)national (European Council) dynamics and bodies within the Union. They have also negatively affected the integration prospect of Western Balkan countries by pushing it onto an indeterminate timeline.

By the end of 2020, the EU Enlargement fatigue is mirrored by a similar fatigue in the Western Balkans, both among political leaders and in societies, with increasing frustration and disillusionment among young people. Western Balkans political leaders are now putting forth plans for regional integration in the economic and education fields as intermediate or alternative steps to EU integration. The initiative launched by France and furthered by the European Commission in March 2020 may suggest that the EU integration process in the Western Balkans is at a delicate and important turning point.

The Kosovo-Serbia deal, the US and the lack of EU engagement.

While there exist differing views as to whether the EU and the EU integration perspective have substantially contributed to the Europeanization and democratization of the region and its respective countries (Elbasani 2013), there is ample consensus on the fact that they have been key factors for its stability and a propulsive force for those political and economic reforms that were implemented with the aim to align with the acquis. However, years of slow progress and mixed results in the integration process of Albania and North Macedonia and the troubling and even more unpredictable integration prospects for Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo have created a political and economic vacuum that has been accompanied by a geopolitical repositioning and de facto competition in the Western Balkans of other great and middle powers such as Russia, China, Turkey, among others (Bonomi 2019).

While politically, economically and military linked to the EU and the Western order, the region is increasingly permeated by other geopolitical powers that have consolidated their presence through different economic and military modalities and agreements (Martino 2018; Bonomi 2019). The Western Balkans region is currently a testing ground where shifting regional and world dynamics are being reflected and played out. To accommodate different geopolitical interests present in the region today the Balkans dialogues were launched on March 29, 2019. Convened by the EastWest Institute and the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, the dialogues comprise decision makers and experts from the six countries of the Western Balkans (WB6), including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, along with the European Union, United States, Russia and China with the aim of building trust and deepening understanding by local and international actors and agendas in the region.

Tensions remain between the main international actors competing in the region. A case in point illustrating how a lack of EU clear and strong commitment to integration is being replaced by other agendas and actors is the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue and the deal that the US diplomacy brokered in Washington between the Serbian president and the Kosovo Prime Minister. Since its onset in April 2011, the EU-led Brussels Dialogue has sought to find convergences between Serbia and Kosovo on a number of technical issues, seeking to build peace and tackle the issue of sovereignty over the northern Kosovo and the Kosovo’s status through incremental steps and agreements rather than a comprehensive all-in-one peace agreement (Beysoylu 2018). It has represented one of the EU’s most challenging peacebuilding tasks in the Western Balkans and beyond, defined by scholars as a neo-functional peace – i.e., breaking a tough political issue into small technical ones with the aim of facilitating discussions and normalizing relationships through the spill over effects of agreements on easier ‘technical’ issues facilitating agreements on bigger ‘political’ ones (Visoka and Doyle 2016).

The EU has successfully employed its tools of membership conditionality ranging from the initiation of the dialogue to getting parties to agree on a number of issues by stipulating upfront that no accession can be realized without normalization of Kosovo-Serbia relations (Council of Europe 2008; Economides and Ker-Lindsay 2015). Upon the completion of the technical agreements Serbia was granted candidate status and a feasibility study was launched on the Kosovo’s Stabilization and Association Agreement (Beysoylu 2018).

Notwithstanding such successes, the normalization of the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo and the implementation of the agreements signed so far have proceeded with a very slow pace accompanied in some instances by low scale violent incidents (Big Deal: Lost in Stagnation 2015). Kosovo has been the most eager Europeanizer of the entire region, with an 89 percent of its population supporting EU membership (Regional Cooperation Council 2015). However, Kosovo Albanians, who represent the vast majority of the country, have become increasingly dissatisfied with the EU integration process and the EU-led Brussels dialogue. In many aspects of the EU integration process, Kosovo is at a standstill and political black hole, exacerbated by the isolation for being the only country in the Western Balkans not having reached visa liberalization with the EU.

It is in this context that the involvement of president Trump in one of Europe’s most intractable issues takes place. While the US has historically a strong standing in Kosovo whose NATO bombing was backed by the then president Bill Clinton, Trump’s recent engagement in addressing the long-running dispute between Kosovo and Serbia has more to do with US general election rationales in November 2020 and his attempt to present himself as a peace broker. However, it is also symptomatic of the decreasing appeal of EU role, presence and membership conditionality to bring the Kosovo and Serbian political leaders around the same table and the consequential orbiting of Western Balkans political leaders towards other geostrategic allies.

On November 2019, Trump appointed US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as the new special representative for the Kosovo-Serbia negotiation. His appointment coincided with Kosovo’s general elections, which were won by the Self-Determination party, an opposition force that has always aimed at removing previous corrupted political elites and parties. At the Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s refusal to participate in what he defined ‘hasty’ meetings with Serbian representatives in Washington, Grenell defined Kurti and his party as anti-American and eventually supported a no-confidence vote in March, in the middle of mounting alert for the quick spread of COVID 19 pandemic, as the country entered a lockdown.

In September 2020, the new Prime Minister of Kosovo, Avdullah Hoti, and the president of Serbia met in Washington with President Trump and signed under his auspices what the Administration defined an historic deal (Hajdari 2020). Very little was known before the meeting about its content: total lack of transparency has characterized the whole process, which was defined by analysts as bizarre and grotesque (D’Urso 2020). In the end, the final agreement comprised a rerun of deals that were already signed by the two countries in talks brokered under EU mediation. The only novel element in the Washington version is the inclusion of Israel’s recognition of Kosovo and the commitment of Serbia and Kosovo to move their embassies to Jerusalem.

A European Union spokesperson argued that the deal “calls into question the EU’s common position on Jerusalem” and is “a matter of serious concern and regret.” (Hajdari 2020) Days after the Kosovo Prime Minister declared that it would rename a disputed lake shared between the two countries, whose name is a cause of disagreement, ‘Lake Trump’ - “in a sign of honor for his extraordinary role in reaching a historic agreement on normalizing economic relations between the Republic of Kosovo and Serbia.” (RFERL 2020). With a hindsight, not only did the deal fail to solve one of Europe’s most difficult foreign policy issues, but also it has intertwined the Kosovo-Serbia impasse with one of the most difficult and unresolved conflicts, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Related to another conflict is the latest investigation by Balkan Insight, which shows links between the resumed fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces in Nagorno Karabakh and the use of Serbian-made arms fired by Armenian forces (Dragoljo et al. 2020). The long-range rockets were produced in the Serbian state-owned arms manufacturer Krusik and previously bought by a firm linked to US-blacklisted arms merchant Slobodan Tesic. These recent developments suggest how the Western Balkans region is an arena where different geopolitical visions and powers clash and compete, with some of its countries linked to and involved in other geopolitical instances where intractable conflicts have long existed.  

The EU integration is thus more imperative than ever in anchoring the region in a perspective of security and stability. Regional and global geopolitical challenges aside, Western Balkan countries are facing political and economic challenges related to the global COVID19 pandemic with increasing isolation exacerbated by travel restrictions. The respective lockdowns have increased unemployment, resentment and frustrations among young unemployed people. In Kosovo and other Western Balkan countries, domestic violence and violence against women has increased sharply since March 2020 following the implementation of lockdowns measures (BIRN 2020).

Italy, as a bilateral partner and one of the most supporting EU member states in the integration of the Western Balkans has a prominent role to play. More emphasis needs to be put on key social sectors such as education, health and sustainable tourism and key actors such as youth and women whose vulnerability has increased as a result of this pandemic and which are usually overlooked in the technicised enlargement process.

Enlargement today: political vs. technocratic dynamics?

Since its foundation, at the very heart of the EU project has been the tension between the deepening of EU functional competencies through the spill over effect and the expanding of its membership to include other countries through a number of Enlargement waves. As neo-functionalist scholars have argued for decades, crises have been fundamental for every stage of the EU integration process for the creation of new institutions and heightening the supranational authority.

The Enlargement process has been a puzzle for theories of EU integration as every Enlargement wave and integration of new countries has potentially carried the seeds for EU’s own disintegration. However, each and every Enlargement has given the EU project a push forward and Enlargement waves have always been underpinned by a political willingness with strong support by the European Commission. The Enlargement process is and has always been about more than just merely meeting the conditionality criteria.

The EU is facing today a number of internal challenges that threatens it from within: Brexit, Visegrad countries’ increasing euro scepticism and populism, the long-debated democratic deficit, the COVID19 pandemic that has drawn new lines of separation and division between existing Member States and has unravelled some of the asymmetries and hierarchies that have always existed between its northern and southern Member States.

Thus, the dilemma and the tension between the political and the technical-bureaucratic forces is a false one. Previous Enlargement waves have both required a strong political willingness by EU Member States and a strong commitment by the European Commission. The enlargement to the Western Balkans represents an opportunity not only for its six countries but also for the European Union’s project itself, a reflexive reconsideration of the identity and values, which it is based upon.


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