The Western Balkans enlargement perspective: From grand fatigue to alive and kicking?

maandag 28 mei 2018, analyse van mw Andrea Ott Ott

De EU-Balkantop van 17 mei heeft de mogelijke toetreding van een aantal Balkanlanden tot de EU weer prominent op de agenda gezet. Dit is in lijn met de filosofie van Juncker dat de EU een geloofwaardig perspectief op uitbreiding moet bieden aan kandidaat-leden. Toch kan toetreding van de Balkanlanden tot de EU nog jaren op zich laten wachten. De EU slaagt er goed in om samen te werken met de Balkan (bijvoorbeeld in de aanpak van de vluchtelingencrisis), zonder hier een EU-lidmaatschap aan te verbinden. Bovendien zal de EU eerst de rechtsstaat in de huidige lidstaten willen versterken, alvorens nieuwkomers in de EU te verwelkomen.

On 17 May 2018, the yearly EU-Western Balkans Summit between EU heads of State and their counterparts from the Western Balkans region took place in Sofia, Bulgaria. This event lines up with the EU’s refocus on the region since the Commission President Juncker underlined in his State of the Union speech in September last year the importance of a credible enlargement perspective for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia (currently concrete accession negotiations have been started only with Montenegro and Serbia, Macedonia and Albania hold a candidate status).

Since 2006 the EU has been diagnosed with an enlargement fatigue. The European Union and its Member States absorbed 12 new Member States since 2004 and grew from 15 to 27 Member States. When Croatia as the last candidate joined in 2013, the EU Member States had become wary of further accession in times of recurring crises of the European Union project and in light of the challenges posed by the post-accession integration of new Member States, especially of Bulgaria and Romania, for the common integration project. The European Commission under Commission President Juncker already indicated in 2014 that no further enlargement would take place in the following five years. This ‘downgrading’ of enlargement became visible in the merging of the Directorate Generals of ENP and Enlargement into DG NEAR since 2015. The seeds of discontent among and between Member States with regard to the future path of enlargement policy are increasingly difficult to hide. For the first time, in December 2016 no consensus on yearly Council Conclusions on Enlargement and Stabilisation and Association Process, laying down the main aims and objectives of this policy, was achieved between EU Member States.

Sceptical realism

Has the Union given up on its the most successful EU external relations policy? Not really, firstly the Union’s interests are formed by many actors, Union institutions and EU Member States. Secondly, a minimal consensus among all actors, EU institutions, and Member States prevails to not abandon the effective tool of accession perspective. It influences and aligns third countries’ policies to EU law and stimulates reforms in national administrative and legal orders of neighbouring countries in anticipation of accession.

But many years of experiences with accession and integration of former communist regimes, enthusiasm about the nexus between EU reforms and enlarging the Union has worn off and replaced by sceptical realism about what can be achieved. The conditionality conditions have been sharpened and work in two directions: Candidate country and EU. The candidate country has to fulfil all political, economic and legal criteria known as the Copenhagen criteria to become a full-fledged member of the Union and the EU has to be ready to accept this candidate country. Especially the latter condition has changed into an erratic condition. At the beginning perceived as the condition for the EU to be institutionally prepared to accept new Member States, it became an absorption capacity condition by adding financial sustainability (since 2004) and, at the time of the renewed consensus on enlargement in 2006, the need for a broad and sustained public support in EU and acceding Member States.

EU and the Balkans: bad conscience and realpolitik

How do we have to read and interpret the new attention devoted to the Western Balkans? First of all, it is not that new, the EU aims to reinforce its commitment in the region since 2014 with yearly Western Balkans summits. But it is recently driven by a mix of bad conscience and realpolitik. The EU’s migration crisis was at its height resolved by the closing of the Western Balkans route in which these states fulfilled an active role of keeping migrants out with an iron fist. Also, any vacuum of political leadership on the Balkans might be filled by Russian or Turkish ambitions. In addition, it is a standing practice in the Union to recalibrate its enlargement policies over the years.

In 2006, the renewed consensus on enlargement tried to refocus the Union on enlargement under strict conditions and focus from the beginning on the difficult negotiation chapters on administrative and judicial reform, combatting corruption and the rule of law. This is still relevant but good neighbourly relations and solving bilateral disputes are now emphasized for this region. The credible perspective takes up EU and Western Balkans interests and concerns, translates them into six flagship initiatives, including strengthening of the rule of law, security and migration, putting a special focus on youth and vocational training, a digital agenda for the Western Balkans, reinforce engagement on security and migration, to increase connectivity and support reconciliation and good neighbourly relations.

In the case of connectivity, the EU already integrates the Western Balkans states in the Energy Community Treaty, the Common Aviation Area Agreement and lately the Transport Community Treaty (2017). These international agreements export parts of the acquis in sectoral policies to the Western Balkans and are enforced through the binding jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. These organisations come in handy to aim for palpable results without an accession in the near future.

“Credible, firm and fair”

While the Commission speaks about a Member States perspective by 2025, many stumbling blocks are in the way, in the EU, among EU Member States and also candidate countries. The new notion of credibility is at the end more directed at the Union. It once more changes the Union absorption capacity into the Union remaining “credible, firm and fair” (Commission Communication ‘A credible enlargement perspective’). With the painful experiences of new Member States breaching the rule of law and democracy principles inside the EU and no tailor-made remedy to punish and enforce EU values, the Commission suggests in its Western Balkans strategy that the accession treaties could provide for a such a mechanism to strengthen the rule of law for these newcomers. This will be presented in October 2018 but could take the form of long-term safeguard measures to punish for breaches of rule of law and other central EU values once they have become Member States.

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