Enlargement and engagement? Making the Western Balkans fit for EU membership

26. March 2018

by Tuure-Eerik Niemi

The Western Balkans have long played a special role in the European Union’s foreign policy. During the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, the EU member states failed to act decisively and provide security and stability in the region. Since then, the EU has struggled to come up with a strategic direction for its relations with Western Balkan countries. The prolonged conflicts, economic stagnation, governance issues and Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia have presented a set of significant foreign policy challenges. Nevertheless, since Slovenia’s (2004) and Croatia’s (2013) accessions to the Union, the EU has come under increasing pressure to elevate its presence in the other countries of the region.

This engagement was again endorsed in the EU’s Strategy for Western Balkans, adopted by the European Commission on 6 February 2018. Overall, the Western Balkans strategy seeks to clarify the EU’s aspirations for this region, offering a “credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans.” Even though the EU clearly foresees its incremental enlargement to this region, it also confirms that the Western Balkan countries need to continue pursuing further political, economic and social reforms. The strategy reasserts the use of conditionality as an enlargement instrument: prospective candidate countries are only granted closer proximity to the European integration project if they better their performance in key areas such as rule of law, good governance, democracy and economic and social regulation. The strategy not only provides strong support for these countries’ membership aspirations, but it also emphasises the active role that the EU must play in providing civil society and national bureaucracies with the necessary capacity-building tools.

The strategy is also strong on its use of differentiation, stating that some Western Balkan countries are further developed than others and thus require a different EU policy response. To be eligible for accession, candidate countries must fulfil the so-called Copenhagen criteria: stable democratic political institutions, a functioning market economy and the administrative and institutional resources to approximate domestic legislation to the EU standards. On this basis, the Commission is currently negotiating Serbia’s and Montenegro’s accession, preparing the negotiations with Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and supporting reforms in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. In all of these countries, the EU has committed to support six flagship initiatives that seek to strengthen the rule of law, enhance socio-economic development, and to support reconciliation and good neighbourly relations. In the 2014-2020 budget framework, the EU has pledged EUR 11.7 billion to invest in such initiatives in the Western Balkans through its Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance.

Strategic engagement with the Western Balkans is a way for the EU to show that it has the energy, devotion and vision to engage with this post-conflict region. Not only would the EU’s successful enlargement to this area symbolise the realisation of its self-identification as a peace project, but it would also anchor these countries to the EU’s economic orbit. The EU is, after all, competing with other major powers in this region. While Russia’s stakes in the Western Balkans are better known, China’s investment in the region has dramatically increased during the last years. For example, as a part of its global Belt and Road Initiative, China’s presence has been elevated through its support for infrastructure development in the Western Balkans.
Even Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s approach to Western Balkans reflects on such geopolitical considerations: in his 2017 State of the Union address, he argued that the EU must maintain a “credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans” to promote “more stability in our neighbourhood”.

During the last decade, the EU’s immediate neighbourhood has indeed transformed, and EU policymakers seem increasingly concerned about the developments in these countries. Thus, the strategy and the EU’s increased involvement in the region is not only due to its willingness to promote good governance, but also to contain its chief competitors and manage security challenges. Nevertheless, as EU enlargement requires the consent of all member states, it remains unclear on when and how these countries will ultimately accede to the Union. For this reason, the risk of internal incoherence and disagreement may compromise the strategy’s potential in promoting stability in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood.