EU integration of the Western Balkans: Between enlargement fatigue and a new geopolitical reality

George Papandreou
Former Prime Minister of Greece

The Balkans, often a theater for proxy wars, or competition for spheres of influence by the Great Powers, has been scarred by conflict.

However the idea of a Balkans, free of so-called “protectors”, with diverse ethnicities living in peace together, where the rule of law prevails and all are respected in an equal and free society has also been a longstanding vision.

Greek intellectuals and freedom fighters, such as Rigas Feraios and Adamantios Koraes, influenced by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, advocated such a democratic vision for the Balkans two centuries ago. They advocated a democracy where according to Rigas “the sovereign people will be all the inhabitants without exception of religion or dialect, Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Vlachs, Armenians, Turks, and any other ethnicity”.

History had it that our region would never realize a similar vision of a unified state, and admittedly this is not a realistic vision for today.

But the vision of our different peoples living in democracies, side by side, under the rule of law, enjoying our respective cultures as a diverse richness to be cherished, continues to live on. And this vision, once a far off dream, despite the horrific wars in former Yugoslavia, became a realistic goal after the fall of the Berlin Wall. An era of hope overcame Europe as the prospect of a united Europe from east to west and north to south was in the making. A Europe based exactly on the principles of a free and democratic society.

Recently, the EU High Representative Josep Borrell stated, following the adoption of the Communication on the EU Enlargement Policy and the 2020 Enlargement Policy on October 6: “The citizens of the Western Balkans are part of Europe and they belong in the European Union”. This may sound self-evident, and it is. Yet this is not a new promise. In 2003, at the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki, hosted by the Greek Presidency of the European Council, the EU expressed its unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries and made clear that the future of the Balkans is within the European Union.

However, in fact, seventeen years after the Thessaloniki Agenda the perspective of Western Balkans countries joining the EU has been put into question. And there are a number of reasons as to why this doubt has been creeping into the discourse both in the Western Balkans and more widely in Europe.

In a number of newer members states we have been witnessing a divisive euro-skepticism and authoritarian backtracking on EU values.

In the aftermath of several years of an unprecedented economic crisis, hard austerity policies, internal fragmentation, we are witnessing the rise of nationalistic populism in many core EU member states. The two crisis, the financial and refugee ones, were handled in ways that were either ineffective or belatedly so, and often rancorous and deeply divisive. This contributed to an image of the EU unable or unwilling to grab the bull by the horns. It easily fed into an autocratic euro-skeptic narrative.

This has undermined the inspiration of being European in sectors of our population. Particularly in those hit harder by the financial crisis. Wider issues of inequality and insecurity affect their views towards our Union which was also seen as ineffective or unwilling to tackle these social issues.

These crises have also revealed institutional difficulties in decision making processes of the EU. For example, while the EU Commission had a potentially effective plan to deal with the refugee flows towards Europe, the European Council was unable to unite around these proposed measures. Measures that called for a logical burden sharing.

This relates to a constant discussion and effort to combine effective with democratic institutions in the EU as it enlarges. The so-called Constitution of the EU, a document developed by a European Convention under the chairmanship of Giscard d'Estaing (and in whose presidium I had the honor to participate in), was a constitution that was to prepare the EU institutionally for enlargement. Yet it was summarily rejected by the voters in France and Holland, two core countries of the EU.

In reality all the above concerns may be legitimate political issues but they are not relevant to the issue of the Western Balkans. And the Western Balkans cannot be, should not be punished for the failings of the EU, such as was the recent decision (luckily rescinded) by France to stop the accession negotiations with North Macedonia.

What is a responsibility of our region, the Balkans, and in particular the candidate countries of the Western Balkans, is to live up to the criteria for membership. Reforms, democratic rule of law, transparency and the fight against corruption, the respect of minority and human rights, good neighborly relations, are paramount.

And of course the outstanding issues of conflict need be resolved. However, the dynamics for these major reforms and compromises around conflicts are deeply affected by the prospect of membership.

For many years the EU has been a catalyst for positive change in the region by encouraging Balkan countries to resolve their outstanding disputes (ethnic conflicts and bilateral disputes), both as a prerequisite to enter the Union and in order to strengthen regional security. Strengthening democracy and the rule of law, fighting corruption and organized crime, protecting the freedom of speech and expression have always been on the list of necessary reforms for candidate countries.

And membership is not simply a transactional “carrot” for the process of reform, it is part of the solution to these outstanding conflicts. Minorities, human rights, are to be protected, the rule of law monitored, freedom of movement allowed, within the context of the EU. And therefore territorial disputes, which allude to ethnic groups, are much less important if one knows that a particular population will be free and protected irrespective of what side of a border it may reside.

Another issue of importance is the growing economic ties of third countries such as Russia and China with the region. This in principle is not a problem. What I do however warn against is that the Balkans become a theater of competition for political influence, one that sows disintegration and renewed conflict. It is very different if the Balkans develop their ties within the context of the EU than as disparate and weak entities. Certainly if the EU looks too distant for the Western Balkans many other “great or lesser great powers” are willing to fill the vacuum.

The EU membership of the Western Balkans is in the European Union's own economic, political and security interest. I am convinced that the new US administration will also be on the same page. On several occasions during the last years both the European Commission and the European Council have acknowledged that “a credible enlargement policy is a geo-strategic investment in peace, security and economic growth in the whole of Europe, more so in times of increasing global challenges and divisions.”

Yet enlargement reluctancy continues to haunt the halls of Brussels and many capitals of the EU.

While enlargement reluctancy is not a new concept, this time it may prove to be a fatal one. 

A quick view of today's situation is testimony to this.

In 2018, the Prespa agreement between Greece and North Macedonia reaffirmed the commitment to building good regional relations, inclusive cooperation and constructive relations. It highlighted that the road to European may often be difficult and may require brave decisions, however it is fruitful and brings positive results.

The opening of the membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania following the agreement would have been an encouraging signal to other countries trying to meet the criteria required by countries wishing to join the European family. However, the French veto that followed in October 2019 brought only frustration and disbelief in candidate countries and led to a political crisis in North Macedonia and early elections. Only a few days ago, Bulgaria’s decision to block accession talks with North Macedonia due to bilateral disputes led to further frustration and disappointment. 

As time is of the essence, a number of important issues need to advance regarding the Western Balkan European path. The EU accession process for North Macedonia requires overcoming the latest obstacles, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo remains fragile, and Bosnia & Herzegovina’s open issues with Croatia (among other open disputes) still need a step-by-step process. However, on a more positive note, Montenegro opened its final EU negotiation chapter this year.

Western Balkans’ public trust in the EU has weakened, EU’s political influence diminished and trust in the European integration process under question. Populism and corruption are again on the rise, economies are fragile and the ongoing COVID19 pandemic has brought a new reality in the Western Balkans.

So what is to be done?

I would suggest a double strategy:

a) We in South East Europe, all of us, have every reason to see a successful enlargement process. We, as Balkan leaders and peoples need to step up and take agency for the changes needed. In our countries and with our neighbors. It must become a common goal of our nations and peoples. Waiting for miracles from the outside will become a reason for deepening frustration. This also demands a leadership in the region which is ready to tackle apathy, and fatigue but also the established powers of oligarchs, crony capitalism, corruption and clientelism.

We need to provide a vision for sustainable development, green energy, social justice and deepening democratic practices. Be ready to move beyond the ghosts of the past or the taboos that hold us back. Stand up to those who preach fear and divisiveness in our region in order to capture or keep power.

b) The EU needs to turn a page. It needs to strongly declare its willingness to do “whatever it takes” to make further enlargement a reality.

And the EU has a new momentum. Unlike previous crises, the pandemic response has given hope of a more united EU. One that is more effective, one that puts citizens’ welfare ahead of statistics, one that highlights cooperation over disintegration and nationalistic rhetoric.

In many ways both Brexit and the pandemic have strengthened the desire for a strong and effective EU.

This dynamics needs to be exploited positively to relaunch the Western Balkans strategy. One that also re-thinks priorities. Moving decisively on conflict resolution. Moving to strengthen democratic institutions, good governance, carefully planned EU investment projects should be a priority. Much more than a Neo-liberal marketization of the economy - which often ends up beneficial for the few, those who capture our institutions as they are still fragile and tender.

The EU strategy for the Western Balkans needs now to produce tangible results.

Even more so as the agenda has issue that are pressing and vital for the whole of the EU: the migration and refugee crisis, cyber-attacks and disinformation, hybrid threats and an ongoing pandemic constitute a new reality for the Western Balkans, that is linked to the future of the EU.

So the EU should make it abundantly clear that there is no doubt that the EU perspective is a shared one with the Western Balkans, as part of the peace project we all partake in. 

At the same time, we in the Balkans, all of us, must work together in and with the Western Balkan countries to strengthen the process for political, judicial, social and economic reforms.

Finally we together need to create opportunities and find new methods to support democratic political forces and a new generation of politicians in the Western Balkans who believe in and crave true change.