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LMC 2022

Better Late than Never: The EU and the Western Balkans

The EU should use the momentum created by Russia’s war in Ukraine to speed up the enlargement process in the Western Balkans.

Ondřej Ditrych

Director, Institute of International Relations Prague

Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić inspects a Russian-made Kornet anti-tank guided missile, Pancevo, 3 January 2022. AP/Scanpix

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has created a European momentum. To not use this would be imprudent at best. It may be the last chance for the EU to become a strategic actor with a place on the global chessboard, which is increasingly defined not only by the globalisation of production and consumption and the rapid evolution of sometimes disruptive technologies, but also by revisionist powers deploying various forms of hybrid geopolitics.

The EU’s recently adopted Strategic Compass sets a clear course for building the capability to act autonomously while contributing to sustainable transatlantic cooperation. It is also a step in the gradual emergence of a common strategic culture for the continent’s security community of practice. The defence assistance for Ukraine, and successive rounds of Russia sanctions based on the ability to find common ground from diverse political and economic interests, testify to the member states’ political resolve. But this determined political action, heeding the calls to make the EU more ‘geopolitical’, now needs to extend, in earnest, to its neighbourhood.

The EU should enlarge

The EU should seek to complete the enlargement process in the Balkans – and also to bring into its fold the associated partners that were once part of the Soviet empire. This is not about an imperial, or civilising mission. Indeed, the pacification of the EU’s frontier has been put to the foreground of its security policy – to the point of enacting external limitations on sovereignty (Bosnia) and force presence. Nor is it alien rule, establishing formal or informal hierarchical orders. This enlargement is, fundamentally, about expanding, peacefully, the liberal commonwealth of European nations that share the fundamental norms and values of the Union; integrating their economies for mutual prosperity; establishing common institutions to manage this integration; and last but not least, due to the density of their interactions, forming a security community where conflict is expected to be resolved without resort to violence.

The EU should seek to complete the enlargement process in the Balkans.

The enlargement process has suffered from many obstacles that need no exposition here. Suffice to say that they relate to the internal political and economic (re-)structuring of prospective member states; wavering on the side of the EU; and increasingly also geopolitics in the form of providing incentive structures to follow alternative courses by third powers (Russia, China) – something much less tangible in previous waves of enlargement, including the accession of my own country and its neighbours.

How should the EU proceed to make this enlargement a reality? First, it should unfreeze the integration processes and maintain its solid reputation for making good on good faith expectations by launching accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia and putting in place visa liberalisation with Kosovo. Acceleration should, by no means, imperil the integrity of the accession process. The latter is paramount both to ensure the smooth integration of the candidate countries and to ensure the credibility and fairness on which the EU needs to build its global reputation as a normative power. At the same time, while individual member states’ interests and concerns need to be taken into consideration, they should not hold hostage the process that is in the greater interest of the Union. The resurgence of nationalism is now a fact of global life, but matters of history and identity should not stand in the path of a common democratic, secure and prosperous future.

Eyes on the prize

If irresolvable at the moment, these concerns should at least be deferred so that the EU can maintain a credible membership perspective for partner countries in the Western Balkans, keeping their ‘eyes on the prize’. The EU should also make clear that their elites’ pursuing alternative geopolitical projects with Russia or China would mean derailing the integration process while carrying costs of its own in terms of malign external influence, state capture, or asymmetric dependencies used to exert pressure.

Conditionality has been writ large into both the enlargement and neighbourhood policies. The idea is not to displace it, but to foreground the large, (geo-)political issues, insist less on preconditions, limit the ambiguity that reduces effectiveness, and mitigate the related process in which the local elites are (self-)constructed as entrepreneurs seeking the best bargain on the geopolitical market – often in the short term dictated by electoral cycles. To hedge against these alternative bargains, the EU should, moreover, upgrade investment, including in critical infrastructure – while insisting on adopting clear and transparent rules on foreign investment in general – support partner countries in post-COVID-19 recovery and their energy choices and engage in strategic communication sensitive to the deeper cultural patterns and affective regimes – e.g., in the Serbian people’s affinity for Russia.

The issue is pragmatic deferral to ensure that being part of the European commonwealth remains the best offer in town.

Second, where the membership perspective is indelibly to remain distant, the EU should revive the outdated concept of formal associate membership to keep the partners close. While this would necessitate change in the treaties, it would make the partner countries more stakeholders in EU politics – so that, to paraphrase Romano Prodi, associate membership would entail not “everything but institutions”, where the latter was meant to stand for (non-)participation in formal decision making, but “everything and some institutions”.

There is no denying that this change in approach to enlargement would need to strike a difficult balance. It must take into account the big geopolitical picture while not compromising on the value fundamentals. That said, the shift can, and should, operate from the realist paradigm recognising the imperfection of human nature and its creations, including political institutions – both in and out of the EU – and the processes such as rule of law mechanisms for upholding the basic community norms that are in place, and in use for the member states. At the moment, the issue is less compromise and more pragmatic deferral to ensure that being part of the European commonwealth remains the best offer in town.

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