There is slow progress on EU enlargement – it is time to tie-up the loose ends in the Balkans, says policy analyst
In spite of the ongoing economic and political crisis in Europe, it has been a good year for European Union enlargement policy. To various degrees, all EU-hopeful Balkan countries have shown political will and hard work in order to advance the reform agenda – and this was highlighted this week by the European Commission in its annual progress reports on the aspirants of the region. To consolidate the pace and sustainability of these gains, as well as mitigating the risk of relapses, the momentum of enlargement must continue until the successful European integration of the Balkans.
But many challenges remain. At present, many cards are stacked against the future of enlargement. Most Balkan countries were hit hard by the economic woes in Europe – the region's main trading and investment partner. With soaring youth unemployment and declining growth rates infecting the region - the goal of EU membership, with its often-costly prerequisites, can lose lustre among people and breed populist – rather than pro-European or reformist – politicians in the Balkans. We have seen this recently in Serbia.
Moreover, as the commission's enlargement package indicates this week, questions of 'good governance' – the rule of law, an independent judiciary, administrative capacity, the fight against corruption and organised crime – still loom large across the region. Also, freedom of expression and the independence of the media remain a serious concern, particularly in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Just as the inclusiveness of the policy-making process to accommodate parliaments, civil society and other relevant stakeholders is work in progress throughout the Balkans.
These sorts of problem make it politically difficult to keep the union's door open to new Balkan entrants but, paradoxically, both new and old member states are also increasingly confronted with similar issues. In this sense, rather than undermining the convergence narrative between the EU and the Balkans, these developments challenge the model that the EU is exporting to the region. As the EU's internal credibility crisis seems to be spilling over into enlargement, a kind of rescue plan for the union's image in the Balkans might be necessary.
Additionally, old bones of contention including FYR Macedonia's name dispute with Greece, the recognition of Kosovo's independent status or deep-seated political divisions - especially in Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina - are sure to give member states cold feet on EU enlargement, as has happened all too often in the past. The commission's new tactic of focusing short-term attention on technicalities – away from the political elephants in the room – is yet to prove effective in solving the region's sticky domestic and bilateral points.
Last but not least - as the union is caught up with its own economic, political and institutional uncertainties, enlargement and the Balkans are likely to struggle to remain at the heart of member states' concerns in the years ahead. But there even more reason to go forward. Further expansion or no enlargement is a false choice. There is simply too much at stake to put Balkan enlargement on hold or to drop it from the political agenda. The integration of the region with the EU remains the best – if not the only – way to deal with outstanding problems. Nothing short of the genuine prospect of full membership – including for the difficult cases – will guarantee the economic and social modernisation as well as the democratic consolidation of the Balkan countries.
Leaving the Balkans in limbo or devising peripheral-type associations in a multi-speed Europe will erode hard-won achievements - particularly in terms of peace, stability and democracy - and will open up space for other ambitious actors, like Russia, Turkey or China, to compete with the EU's influence and vision in the region.
The EU is not a novice in European integration. The hurdles might be considerable, both at home and in the Balkans, but the union has experience; a full toolbox of diplomatic and political pressures, the 'power of the purse' and some traction still. Enlargement has grown over the years into a rigorous process, which is transforming the Balkans and pushing the EU to develop capacity for self-correction and renewal. This should assuage concerns on the part of those member states that fear a hasty expansion of Europe.
Most importantly, the successful completion of Balkan integration is for the EU a mark of the "self-interest properly understood" principle coined by Alexis de Tocqueville. This means that looking to anchor the Balkans in the EU is not just good for the soul – it is good for Europe's own security, its democratic and economic peace of mind as well as for its global foreign policy ambitions. Let us hope that reticent European politicians will now take a much-needed dose of pragmatism and start to actively promote Balkan enlargement.
Corina Stratulat is a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre think-tank and author of EU enlargement to the Balkans: the show must go on