01 August 2019

EU’s Extension into the Western Balkans – several postponements, the enthusiasm remains. Or does it?

Ştefan Oprea

The recent European Union decision to postpone, justifiably, talks with Albania and North Macedonia on their accession to the EU seems to flatten, somewhat, the enthusiasm of becoming part of the European project.

Image source: Mediafax

The extension is one of the most important European projects through which the EU seeks to achieve increased prosperity for all member states, more stability in Europe and, last but not least, a more important role for the EU worldwide.

The process had several extension stages (1973: Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom, 1981: Greece, 1986: Spain and Portugal, 1995: Austria, Finland and Sweden, 2004: the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, 2007: Bulgaria and Romania, 2013: Croatia) and, during its meeting in Thessaloniki, on June 19 and 20, 2003, the European Council expressed its intent to fully help the European perspective of Western Balkans’ states.

We therefore see that this daring project reached its peak in 2004, when eight countries from the Baltic region and Central and Eastern Europe, which have been for tens of years under Soviet influence, acceded to the EU together with Cyprus and Malta, thus ending the most of Europe’s post-1945 divisions. This stage also showed the fact that, despite special, different and mostly unknown cultural traditions in other sides of Europe, European states wanted to continue the EU’s policy to stabilize and unify Europe.

Later, in a European Council meeting in December 2006, EU leaders confirmed that the future of the Western Balkans is in the European Union.

But what is happening today?

Where are the authentically euphoric and enthusiastic moments of being part of the European projects moments which nowadays sometimes stir up nostalgia for those times?

With the exception of Croatia, EU member since 2013, the other states from the Western Balkans region are maintaining their status of “eternal candidates, and the recent “cooling off” of the EU towards the Balkans raise doubts that their integration into the block will ever become reality.

2019 Europe is radically different from 2004 Europe. Populist movements on the entire continent, the apparition of Eurosceptics and the lack of a coherent strategy to identify the interests, threats and support means for democratic institutions makes manifestations against Brussels interfering into aspects of national sovereignty, on one hand, and the undermining of independent judicial systems, courts and independent, press on the other, to bring into question the process of extension as a way to coagulate a strategic culture in Europe.

With the Council’s complex configuration and bureaucracy, but also with the power held by each member state to reject or agree on important decisions, the fate of Western Balkan states remains uncertain. The option to extend the EU in the region in a single stage, for all six countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo), at the moment when the least performing state meets accession criteria, would be a powerful stimulant to overcome regional disputes and normalize relations between these states. The other option, of discussing with each state separately, is still available, but the results of talks during the Berlin summit, on April 29, 2019, showed divisions and indecision instead of unity and strategy with regards to the Western Balkans.

The centuries-long conflict between Serbia and Kosovo and the EU’s incapacity to have a unitedstance on Kosovo’s independence is dividing the union.

The proposal for a territory exchange, on ethnical grounds, between Serbia and Kosovo, in the attempt to normalize relations between the two states and possibly recognize Kosovo’s independence, was simply taken off the table by Chancellor Merkel, in agreement with the representatives of states which played a major role in ending the war in former Yugoslavia. All this while Federica Mogherini and Donald Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, supported the exchange.

Although from the statements of the two leaders who organized the Berlin summit, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, it appears that the summit was not centered on extending the EU, reality has proven the organizers tried, even in a concerted effort, to resume negotiations on formalizing relations between Kosovo and Serbia, one of the primordial conditions to accede to the EU. Unfortunately, the Berlin summit ended without any agreement on the matter, which makes it unlikely that a mutual agreement, obligatory to normalize relations, will be reached this year.

We should remark the attitude of Kosovar President Hashim Thaci, who requested that the US be included in the EU-mediated dialogue, stating that the “EU is too weak and divided to progress in the Western Balkans”.

Even if Merkel and Macron praised North Macedonia for signing the historical agreement on its name, which led to the elimination of obstacles to Skopje’s progress towards EU and NATO accession, the summit’s final result remains the same. Hopes are now directed towards another event (summit) which will take place in July 2019, this time hosted in Paris by President Macron.

As Macron’s vision on the Western Balkans is in total contradiction with Merkel’s, and state institutions in the area are very weak, corruption is rampant and the economies are underdeveloped, the result of the Paris meeting is easy to guess.

Furthermore, the French vision, shared by the Dutch, that the EU’s extension would diminish its cohesion and could continue to fuel populist or right-wing movements strengthens the conclusion that their accession to the Union in the near future is unlikely.  

As I said at the beginning of this analysis, the postponement and eventual detachment of North Macedonia and Albania from EU accession talks could have a negative impact on the internal politics of both countries, but also on the Western Balkans overall.

The postponement is a defeat for the area of reforms and extensions, proving a lack of strategic vision within the union and at the same time undermining the EU’s credibility. Taking into account the fact that this is the second postponement, a third could cast doubts on the EU’s unity.

From this perspective, the biggest disillusion towards these approaches and the EU’s lack of strategy falls on North Macedonia which, following a long dispute and with virtually no chances, managed to solve the problem of its future name with Greece.

In these conditions, President Macron’s opposition at the Berlin Summit towards setting a date to being accession talks is an affront mainly for Skopje, but also for Athens.

Fortunately, Albania and North Macedonia can continue to rely on NATO to extend their and the region’s security and stability. The invitation North Macedonia received in July 2018 to join NATO, after the alliance previously recognized Montenegro, shows the fact that NATO manifests concern for the situation in the region and Russian interference.

Even if the current term is over, the future European Parliament, but also the new leaders of EU structures will have a hot case in front of them, and the future of Europe will depend on the manner in which they will handle this problem.

Starting from the evaluations and recommendations made in the European Commission’s Extension Package, published on May 29,2019, Romania managed during its EU Council presidency, following a complex process of negotiation, to adopt an ambitious language and a timetable for a clear and substantial decision on launching accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, as soon as possible and not later than October 2019.

Therefore, in the last reunion of the General Affairs Council under Romania’s presidency (June 18, 2019), the conclusions adopted reconfirm the importance of the extension policy both for partners, and the EU overall.

The efforts made by Romania’s presidency allowed, therefore, a consensus around a common stance in the EU Council, with regards to the recommendation made by the European Commission to launch accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, and the remarkable progresses they achieved in the past years. This reconfirms the fact that promoting the policy of extension, based on the EU’s internal cohesion, contributes to the coherence of the EU’s global action, mainly manifested in its neighboring areas.

Translated by Ionut Preda