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It has been a very politically engaging end of summer this year, with a brand new institutional reshuffling in Brussels. Following the May parliamentary elections, the EU appointed its new leadership for the next 5 years. After the latest events of this summer – the spread of violence, insecurity and political turmoil in Ukraine, Gaza and Iraq/Syria – all eyes are now again on the EU and its capacity to face these geopolitical challenges. One of the biggest changes brought by the newly announced Juncker Commission is the way it has restructured the foreign policy component. Before the official announcement, when a leaked document containing a provisionary version of the Commission was circulating in the press, many were speaking about the possibility of the enlargement portfolio to be dropped completely. In reality it was not, but the message is still not very encouraging for the Western Balkans.

On 15 July 2014 Jean-Claude Juncker was elected to become the next President of the European Commission by a strong majority of 422 votes in the European Parliament. On that occasion, Juncker noted his straight-forward goal: “The EU needs to take a break from enlargement”. He argued further that “during my Presidency of the Commission, ongoing negotiations will continue, and notably the Western Balkans will need to keep a European perspective”.  Such a stance is both strong and ambiguous. This approach leaves open the question of whether new negotiations will be started and whether the EU will undertake an effort to resolve the issues precluding countries from moving towards accession talks. After that statement, some feared that he might even completely drop the Enlargement portfolio in the Commission, which sparked a debate about what the perspectives of the Western Balkans would be in this context. This prophecy was not fulfilled, or at least not entirely. On 10 September we found out that Enlargement will not be given a stand-alone portfolio in the new European Commission. Johannes Hahn from Austria (EPP) will be in charge of the restructured portfolio called ‘European neighbourhood policy and enlargement negotiations’. So we can cool off; enlargement has not disappeared. But the second part of the title sends a handful of political messages.  For many this may be seen as a downgrading, or even as a sign that Europe considers its expansion plans and the Western Balkan region itself (where, after all, most of the candidate and potential candidates are) to be of lesser importance.

I personally believe that we should avoid the extreme opinion stating that from now on the enlargement process is completely frozen. It’s true, there is no more single portfolio focused on enlargement per se, but enlargement negotiations have remained in focus. This clearly shows that the process must go on. But the question is how. The enlargement process will in all likelihood continue, the Commission will still monitor the progress annually and the main road maps for each country will remain in place. What will definitely change, however, is the impetus given to the process, which will directly affect the cost-benefit calculations of already weakened EU-oriented Balkan reformists.  I believe that there is no need for alarmist tones, which might suggest that the enlargement process not being at the top of the EU’s foreign policy agenda will lead to an outburst of tensions and possibly a new eruption of violence and war. These fears are unrealistic and miscalculate both the EU’s and the Western Balkans’ reactions.

The possible implications of neglecting the Western Balkans

In the midst of this debate, we should be reminded that the enlargement process is conducted not just by politics, but also by EU conditionality and the adoption of EU norms; it’s fundamentally a very complex web of multi-level governance structures representing both EU and candidate and potential candidate countries. Both sides are responsible for the results and for delaying integration. I don’t agree with people who blame the EU for its enlargement fatigue and disengagement from the Balkans, but neither do I agree with the ‘Balkan sceptics’ who put the entire blame on the corrupt political class and persistent ethno-nationalist bargaining that did not consider EU accession as a priority. I would plead for a more realistic picture that highlights both the EU Member-states ‘enlargement fatigue’ and the Balkans’ ‘accession fatigue’.  And such a Gordian knot needed a change. The Stability and Association Agreements took years to be implemented and in most of the cases they were delayed and politicized by both potential and candidate countries. But some Member states contributed to this process as well by vetoing the continuation of the process (the example of Macedonia and the name issue with Greece stands as the most striking example). We must also admit that an internally divided EU has proven to be powerless to make real changes to Balkan political dynamics of polarization, zero-sum games, and toxic nationalism.

As Austria’s Johannes Hahn got the redefined neighbourhood portfolio, this field has assumed geostrategic importance in the light of the Ukraine crisis and it has evidently superseded the enlargement package. This leaves out any prospect of high-speed accession that has animated reforms in most of the former Yugoslav republics in the last 10 years. There are some serious reasons for this: first, there is Juncker’s own anti-enlargement conviction, which points to economic reasons for ‘deepening’ the 28-EU, rather than expanding it; second, there has been the harsh rhetoric of political forces within EU member states that have associated enlargement with the negative trends of greater migration and insecurity of labour markets, which struck a populist chord as we have seen during the latest European elections; third, there was also the stagnation of the integration process and the lack of progress in several countries where the reforms seemed to deteriorate.

When taking these arguments into consideration, the Juncker formula for leaving enlargement behind is not a surprise. But one should not overlook the possible negative effects. These are the main points that one should keep in mind when considering neglecting the Balkans:

(1) The EU has a symbolic meaning for the Balkans. It should not give up on its Europeanization vocation in the Western Balkans as it may lose a large amount of effort and money it has already invested. Even in the midst of its own internal crisis and the worsening global crises from Ukraine to Iraq, Europe cannot afford to neglect the one region in which the EU has assumed full leadership as a foreign and security policy actor. We should not forget that the conflicts that devastated the Balkans during the 90’s provided the catalyst for the idea of an EU with security responsibilities (as comprised in the European Security Strategy in 2003 and which contributed to the new Common Security and Defense Policy). This should not just be a symbolic and demagogic ambition merely for marketing purposes, but rather an assumed long-term project for crisis management based on EU soft power. Even though EU’s transformative power in the region has been limited, the massive EU presence in the Balkans has a geopolitical stabilizing purpose and that should not be forgotten.  We should be aware of the fact that negative developments in the Balkans could reverse all the valuable gains in the region, increase instability in other countries on the EU’s immediate borders, and further weaken Europe’s credibility and cohesion.

(2) An important lesson that we can draw from the past is not to discuss Balkan problems only when they become absolutely impossible to ignore. The profound problems that keep fragmenting societies in the Western Balkans are not going to solve themselves overnight. Keeping them out the spotlight might be very dangerous, as unresolved issues may come to the surface in the upcoming period. And as Russia continues to use its levers in the region, the crisis in Ukraine could have spill-over effects that could damage European interests where it hurts most.

(3) The situation in both Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRoM) is deteriorating, with both countries facing challenges from dysfunctional power-sharing frameworks that elites use to block the path towards the EU. We already had some signals in February, when violent protests broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and this summer in FYRoM, too. In Serbia and Kosovo, the progress made in recent years is at risk of being reversed. Last year’s EU-brokered First Agreement of Principles Governing the Normalization of Relations between Serbia and Kosovo was at the time hailed as the biggest success of EU’s foreign policy, after the creation of the EEAS. At the moment its implementation is largely frozen, with both Prishtina and Belgrade blaming each other of a lack of responsibility and engagement. As the EU is distracted by its own transition, new elections are slated for Kosovo, which is in the midst of its biggest political crisis since independence, and Serbia strengthens its relation with Russia.

To conclude, I would like to argue that the EU needs to achieve policy success in a European region that is striving for EU membership. As such, it cannot afford a failure in the Balkans, especially after its delayed and unsuccessful intervention during the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Looking at the massive drawbacks in the last years, it seems that the Balkans will unfortunately require more rather than less European diplomacy and international statecraft. This engagement will need to be taken seriously in order to tackle challenges such as real democratization and reconciliation. In this context, whether Juncker’s solution of redesigning portfolios was the best solution remains to be seen. But the impact of this decision on the Balkan region is not to be underestimated.

About the Author: Miruna Troncota is a postdoc researcher at the National University for Political Science and Public Administration in Bucharest with a focus on Postconflict Europeanization in the Western Balkans. She has recently completed her PhD in International Relations at the National School for Political Science and Public Administration in Bucharest. She held research fellowships at Berlin Graduate School for Transnational Studies, at the University of Ljubljana and was an intern at the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She is involved in promoting European integration through cultural diplomacy in the Western Balkans. Miruna joined FutureLab Europe in 2013.

 

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