Geopolitical Europe should prove its mettle in the Balkans.

Srđjan Cvijić and Dimitar Bechev share the opinion that the European Union should get its priorities straight.

In 2006, Javier Solana, the then head of the European Union’s (EU) diplomacy, proclaimed that Europe’s mission was to become “a global power, a force for good in the world”. Just two years before the economic meltdown, the EU, gazing at the world through rose-tinted glasses, pledged to transform its neighbourhood into a “circle of friends”. Today, those rose-tinted glasses have largely been cast aside: with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging, a looming migration crisis driven by the “ring of fire” beyond the EU’s borders, and the global rise of authoritarianism, most Europeans look at the international arena with angst.

Notwithstanding this grim reality, the EU’s goal remains the same as what it was 15 years ago. Like its predecessors, today’s EU Commission under President von der Leyen aspires to be “geopolitical” by projecting the EU’s interests and values onto the world. The key difference today, however, is that more than anything, the Trump presidency has made Europeans realise that unconditional reliance on the United States is a thing of the past. Hence, the EU seeks to claim its spot as a bona fide global player.

Turning to history offers lessons on how the EU can achieve this goal. Two centuries ago, in a message to Congress on 2 December 1823, US President James Monroe let the whole world know that “the American continents…are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” The Monroe Doctrine declared the Americas off limits to Britain, France, or any other outside power. Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has tried, with varying success, to assert its influence over what it calls “the near abroad”, and to keep away the West. China is pursuing similar goals in parts of Asia. Indeed, a cursory look at history suggests that no great power has managed to propel itself onto the global stage without first establishing its writ over its periphery.

For years, the EU has pursued a working policy geared towards that goal: enlargement. From six members in the 1950s, the Union has grown to 27, a testament to its power of attraction. But unlike other great powers, the EU’s strategy combines geopolitics with transformative aspirations. Anchoring democratic change in Southern and then Eastern Europe chimed in with the strategic objective of unifying the continent. Political elites and societies at large looked at “Europeanisation”, meaning joining the EU, as a sure-fire way to transition from authoritarianism, whether right wing or communist, to a liberal democracy.

Non-enlargement doesn’t work

Today, however, enlargement is in a profound crisis. The EU pays lip service to its commitment to the Western Balkans. Whereas in the past, the membership negotiations lasted from two to eight years, accession talks with so-called “frontrunners” Montenegro and Serbia are proceeding at a discouragingly slow pace. Podgorica has been negotiating for more than eight years, and Belgrade for six. Other membership hopefuls such as North Macedonia and Albania are struggling to even begin the process, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are lagging hopelessly behind. Citizens of Kosovo are the only ones in the Balkans who still need a visa to travel to the EU.

Yet it’s not just the speed of the EU expansion, which is an issue, but also its content. Faced with the illiberal turn in Hungary and Poland, star performers in the 2004 enlargement, politicians in EU countries are questioning the wisdom of welcoming Balkan semi-democracies. For leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, the EU’s internal consolidation trumps expansion as a priority.

This hands-off attitude empowers other member states to hijack enlargement. Bulgaria did not face sufficient pressure, even from pro-enlargement Germany, to drop its December 2020 veto on North Macedonia’s accession negotiations. This is because the EU feels it has bigger fish to fry: the new budget and the spat with Warsaw and Budapest over strings attached to it, responding to geopolitical challenges coming from Turkey, Russia or China, or reaching an agreement on the common migration policy. Those were just a few examples; the list of priorities that precede enlargement to the Western Balkans continues far beyond that.

The trouble is that a de facto policy of non-enlargement has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more disengaged the EU, the less likely it is that political elites in the Western Balkans will heed the EU’s precepts. At the same time, dwindling commitment to democratic reform in the candidate countries only justifies Brussels’ unwelcoming attitude. The result is a contradictory situation. On the one hand, the region is already deeply integrated into the European marketplace and benefits from privileged access to the EU – in terms of trade, but also, to a degree, the movement of people. On the other hand, the Western Balkans are plagued by a return to authoritarianism and rampant nationalism. The rule of law is at best precarious. In 2018, international watchdog Freedom House downgraded Serbia to “partly free”. President Aleksandar Vučić has gradually dismantled all the checks and balances that were painstakingly established in the first twelve years of post-Milošević democracy before his party came to power. Because of this, the EU vision, already under attack within the Union itself, lies in tatters in the Balkans. The EU’s perceived readiness to let Vučić and other autocrats off the hook is turning the most progressive parts of Western Balkan societies against the EU because, in their eyes, such (in)action by the EU undermines the Union’s claims of upholding democratic and liberal values.

Dealing with authoritarian backsliding

The critical lesson from previous Central and Eastern Europe enlargements is that European integration works as an amplifier. In the 1990s and 2000s, it helped lock in reforms which were driven internally rather than from outside. In the 2010s, sadly, the EU legitimised and bankrolled governments undermining liberal democratic principles, as shown most vividly by Viktor Orbán’s rule in Hungary. Similarly and more recently, in the Western Balkans the EU is morphing into a pillar of the authoritarian status quo. As a result, pro-democratic forces in the Western Balkans find themselves in the difficult position of excusing Brussels’ co-operation with predatory elites, or desperately looking for elusive alternative transformational models where Europe is absent. Depopulation and outmigration is also taking a further toll on internal momentum for change.

Democratic backsliding coupled with state capture opens the door for the EU’s rivals, such as Russia, Turkey, and China, to assert their influence over the Balkans. In general, Balkan leaders favour the Russian, Turkish, and Chinese presence over the EU because it translates into fresh rent opportunities. Links to Moscow, Beijing, or Ankara also increase incumbents’ leverage vis-à-vis the EU, by playing up their countries’ geopolitical value in the struggle between Europe and its competitors. The dilution of the EU’s demands for changes in areas instrumental to the exercise of power, be it the media, the judiciary, police or public sector employment, is a concession Western Balkan elites are evidently willing to accept.

Facing democratic backsliding in Hungary or Poland, or in the Western Balkans, the political elites leading the EU have drawn two main conclusions: first, that the 2004 enlargement happened too early, and second, not to repeat this same “error” in the Western Balkans. Yet apart from introducing new hurdles for evaluating a prospective country’s preparedness to join the Union, the EU hasn’t found a solution to the democratic deficit problem in candidate countries. The length of the accession negotiations will not ensure institutional consolidation and strengthen the rule of law.

Importantly, the resurgence of authoritarianism inside the EU is not proof that enlargement did not work. It cannot be denied that EU enlargement transformed the economies and societies in Poland, Hungary, and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. But the hope that the EU could remedy all domestic ills and deficits on its own was hopelessly naïve to begin with. For the EU to deliver on its promise of democratic consolidation, the accession process has to work in tandem with domestic forces, not work against them.

Qualified majority voting and people power

One solution touted by the locals in the Western Balkans is to beef up regional integration as a means to boost economies while preparing Western Balkan countries for eventual EU membership in 10 to 15 years’ time. A so-called “mini-Schengen” has become a buzzword over the past few years, with Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania throwing their weight behind it. As noble an objective as regional cooperation is, it will not deliver robust economic growth, much less fix democratic malaise. In fact, the Western Balkans have already liberalised trade in goods to a great extent, after more than two decades of EU-promoted initiatives overseen by multilateral bodies such as the Central European Free Trade Agreement or the Sarajevo-based Regional Cooperation Council (RCC). Mini-Schengen could remove some non-tariff barriers, but it will not improve the rule of law or democratic accountability, which is a sine qua non for long-term growth. Similar regional initiatives are welcome but are not a substitute to complete EU accession of all Western Balkan countries.

The geopolitical imperative for the EU to establish primacy over its periphery requires expediting enlargement. The challenge, however, is how not to undermine reforms in candidate countries by opening the gates of EU membership. Until now, the EU has not been able to formulate a transformational model fit for the job. Cosmetic changes such as the Revised Enlargement Methodology, strong-armed by the French at the beginning of 2020, will not halt authoritarian backsliding in the Western Balkans, but will likely only prolong the accession talks. Any tweak to the content or structure of the accession negotiations is meaningless without a thorough reform of the decision-making process guiding it.

At present, unanimity in the accession process makes it impossible to reward democratic frontrunners, such as North Macedonia, but also punish the laggards such as Vučić’s Serbia. Unanimous voting to approve a country’s every step along the way to EU membership gives an easy excuse for individual member states to put a brake on accession because of bilateral disputes or their own domestic politics. Unanimity also makes it hard to sanction backsliders. The rule whereby all 27 member states have to endorse a decision makes the so-called “reversibility clause”, the hallmark of the new European Commission’s methodology on enlargement, a toothless stalling exercise. The European Parliament has already voted twice to formally suspend accession negotiations with Turkey – in 2017 and March 2019. The European Commission and the Council have not followed suit. The chances to punish Western Balkan authoritarians are even slimmer.

Attempting to transform the Western Balkans while finding it difficult to rein in the EU’s own autocrats such as Orbán resembles a futile exercise of painting the ceiling of your apartment to cover the water leak from your upstairs neighbour instead of repairing his sink. Balkan strongmen have learned from neighbouring Hungary a lesson or two on how to practise state capture without inviting European sanctions. Should the EU prove unable to help Hungary’s democratic renewal, it will stand no chance in the Western Balkans. The way forward is to introduce qualified majority voting in the enlargement negotiations, but also fully implement the mechanism linking the disbursement of funds from the EU budget with adherence to the rule of law.

If the EU’s celebrated transformative power is to produce positive outcomes, reforming the decision-making in the accession talks has to be matched by a grassroots impulse from the Western Balkans. That means civil society actors must demand clean politics in their countries and push for change, including through participation in electoral politics. There are a number of encouraging examples in the wider EU area, from Slovakia to Romania to North Macedonia. A workable enlargement policy should develop mechanisms to directly empower genuinely pro-European forces: rhetorically, by calling out state capture, but also materially through investing into civic institutions and media content whose mission is to hold power-holders accountable. Even with Trump in power, the US set a good example to that effect by restarting Radio Free Europe in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Getting priorities straight

Attempts to foster accountability and the rule of law in the Western Balkans should not hamper the EU’s other goal: establishing a free and democratic Union from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. The comparative examples of Orbán’s Hungary and Vučić’s Serbia suggest that countering authoritarian backslide is no easier outside the EU than it is within the Union. Non-enlargement cannot cure state capture in the Western Balkans either. Taking in deficient democracies may wreak less damage on the EU’s long-term interest than indefinitely postponing accession. Of course, there should be precautions and safeguards. To make sure that the six new potential members (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) do not disrupt the already complicated EU internal decision-making processes, their voting rights could be limited until they meet democratic and rule-of-law standards.

Whether officials in Brussels – or Paris and Berlin for that matter – like it or not, “geopolitical Europe” is first tested in the Western Balkans. To demonstrate that its actions and commitments make a difference internationally, the EU should first secure its objectives and assert its role in its own backyard—or perhaps more accurately, its courtyard, given the Western Balkan’s location vis-à-vis the rest of the Union. Only then will Europe be able to pull it off in the wider neighbourhood or indeed on the global stage.

First published on 20 January 2021 at The article was produced within the framework of the Europe’s Futures project. The article gives the views of the author(s), not the position of Europe’s Futures project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) or ERSTE Foundation.

This text is protected by copyright: © Srđjan Cvijić and Dimitar Bechev / Europe’s Futures. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Singer Konstrakta performs on behalf of Serbia during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 on 14 May 2022 at the Pala Alpitour venue in Turin. In an interview befor the Song Contest Konstrakta was asked about Serbia’s EU accession path. She replied that she can only answer emotionally and she consider it tiring that the process takes so long. When Serbian politicians started promising EU membership for Serbia, Konstrakta was 25 years old, now she is 43. Photo: Marco Bertorello / AFP /

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