Can Europe Make It?

The EU: wider and deeper with the Balkans

The post-1945 system is today overtaken by events and a new world order is about to emerge. This new—quite explosive—background doesn’t signal the end of the EU, but shouts out that its core features must be redesigned and receive broad popular support. The question is how.

Christophe Solioz
8 October 2014
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle receives Balkan politicians in Berlin

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle receives Balkan politicians in Berlin. Theo Schneider/Demotix. All rights reserved.After more then 50 years of European integration, the EU has to tackle a crisis in delivery and a crisis of identity. People worry more about the EU’s unfulfilled economic and social promise, less about the EU’s inability to play a bigger role on the world scene, and only marginally about “excessive expansion”.

Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge that the enlarged EU is perceived as increasingly ineffective. Trust in its enlargement policy significantly declined in EU member states—including in traditionally pro-enlargement countries—and in candidate countries as well. More than frustration, this disenchantment expresses the rather rational opinion that a 28-member union is hardly workable in the actual loosely-connected network of transnational regimes.

Nonetheless symptoms of the EU’s crisis should not be taken for its causes. It is not the enlargement per se which burdens any future deepening of the EU, but the way it was planned—the then 15-member union having been unable to achieve the necessary institutional reforms for further waves of enlargement. In other words, while the last round of enlargement was conducted without the institutional reform that would have strengthened both EU institutions and its cohesion, the EU cannot ignore them any longer.

Against this background, the EU’s deepening—supranational centralisation—and its further enlargement—expansion of membership—may hardly be considered business as usual. While highlighting the increasing politicisation of the integration process of course matters, the misleading alternative - horizontality (widening) vs. verticality (deepening) - must be dismissed as such. As both these aspects are intertwined, it would be wrong to consider them separately. What is at stake is their interaction.

In recent years many scholars and politicians have overemphasised the trade-off between widening and deepening, arguing that the first would obstruct the second. But the long and winding road of the EU demonstrates the contrary: deepening and widening go hand in hand. Enlargement has constantly affected the EU’s own functioning, producing a systematic deepening of supranational policy-making capacities. As Eva Eidbreder pinpoints:

Enlargement extended the policy agenda beyond the traditional pool of EU policies to political realms in which the old member states had not seen the need to pool competences but felt pressured to introduce safeguards for the incoming members. Consequently, enlargement served as a powerful catalyst of policy-generated integration. 

This is consistent with research conducted by Kelemen, Menon and Slapin. Based on a theoretical model and empirical evidence, these authors suggest that widening facilitates deepening:  

It does so, first, by generating legislative gridlock that in turn increases the room for manoeuvre of supranational administrative and judicial actors who exploit their discretion to pursue their preferences for deeper integration. Secondly, because it encourages legislative bottlenecks, enlargement creates functional pressures for institutional reform that eventually facilitate deepening.

The same authors observed that successive enlargements have enhanced the centering of the EU system, notably strengthening EU’s judicial system and empowering meaningfully—albeit with poor legitimacy—the Commission’s coordination and brokerage role.

Beyond the above-mentioned trade-off, the past six rounds of enlargement also illustrate “differentiated integration”—the eurozone and Schengen area exemplify this. Further, weaker candidates have benefited from their preferential treatment in recent rounds of enlargement—for example having more time to adopt the acquis. As highlighted by Schimmelfennig: “the EU uses differentiated integration as an instrument to smooth the path of enlargement and to reduce its costs for both old and new member states”.

What is at stake is thus not widening vs. deepening, but the alternative option, homogeneity vs. heterogeneity—the latter favouring deeper cooperation inside the EU. To sum-up: recent research deconstructs the false alternative, widening vs. deepening and highlights the key role of heterogeneity, therefore flexibility. The remaining challenges are, first, to increase the legitimacy of the EU in the framework of a new treaty and, second, to review the enlargement process.

Enlargement: who, when and how 

Who? No other enlargement on the table is comparable with that of the Balkans. Albania became a candidate in 2014; Macedonia in 2005—but both countries are miles away from opening accession talks; Bosnia and Herzegovina concluded its negotiations on the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) in 2008—but this agreement is still not in force; Serbia started the accession negotiations formally in January 2014; Kosovo started negotiating the SAA in late 2012. Turkey, negotiating since 2005, has not yet embarked on more than half of its negotiation. To sum up, all these countries are in the slow lane.

Despite modest results and serious shortcomings, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo where the EU is part of the problem, substantial progress in modernisation and democratisation has been achieved since the 1990s. Compared to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Balkans stands as an example of successful post-conflict reconstruction, notwithstanding the fact that the EU was unable to solve Macedonia’s name dispute, Kosovo’s status and the Bosnian conundrum. Nevertheless: the perspective of accession as a major stabilising anchor for all countries, remains the most efficient incentive for the on-going post-communism transition and reform process. In the framework of the above-mentioned, already-existing trend towards a flexible and more heterogeneous EU, some five additional new incomers—Turkey here not included—will not affect the on-going process of (de)centralisation. Neither will they overburden the “absorption capacities” of the EU.

If we acknowledge in recent years the proactive presence of Turkey, China and Russia, they however do not offer a credible alternative for the Western Balkans. But if the EU integration perspective doesn’t gain in credibility, major setbacks of this kind cannot be discounted. A halt in these transition and democratisation processes could well introduce a vicious circle and lead to the consolidation of clientelist and semi-authoritarian regimes—most probably increasing China’s and Russia’s influence in the region. In this case the EU membership would become a “dead deal”.

When? After the 2004 “big bang” enlargement, distinguished experts and politicians extended the “pause for reflexion” on the Treaty to the enlargement process. Soon the pause became “enlargement fatigue”. Ten years later and things are going from bad to worse: while presenting officially the political guidelines for the next commission on July 15, the new president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, clearly suggested a “break”:

The EU needs to take a break from enlargement so that we can consolidate what has been achieved among the 28. This is why, under my Presidency of the Commission, ongoing negotiations will continue, and notably the Western Balkans will need to keep a European perspective, but no further enlargement will take place over the next five years.

But what does this mean? The most advanced candidate countries, Montenegro and Serbia are not likely to join before 2020, the remaining candidates 2030. This means some 20, respectively 30 years since the launch of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement in 1999. It is not clear if Juncker’s statement refers to this timetable or if he is adding five further years—willing to slow down enlargement even further. If so, we would face a never-ending negotiation scenario that might seriously affect the reform process in the Balkans.

The fact that the Directorate General for Enlargement has been renamed European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations tends to confirm this scenario. For sure the 2014–2019 Juncker Commission is not looking outwards, but in. While for some candidate countries the new EU priorities will come as a blow, they may be quite welcome to those in the region and in various European capitals who only paid lip service to the accession process, and who have—albeit different—interests to advance, whether this is their private economic interest and/or political power.

Curiously, on the very same day that Juncker presented his political guidelines, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel—while meeting in Dubrovnik the Presidents of Albania, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia—sent a quite different message stating that, provided the criteria and treaties are respected, the (not yet EU member state) countries from the Balkans have a “clear prospect” of joining the EU. Merkel emphasised that: “The countries of the region that have gathered here are on the way to becoming EU members and we can say that all of them have already completed a big part of the journey”. Once again, the EU doesn’t speak with one voice and the signals are confusing for people in Europe and for those willing to join the EU.

The Dubrovnik gathering was followed by a conference organised in Berlin on August 28, 2014. Under the motto “Through trade, investment and regional cooperation to new dynamics”, heads of government, foreign ministers and economic ministers of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Slovenia and Serbia attended the conference. The follow-up conferences are supposed to be organised each year until 2018 and to assess progress in the field of regional economic cooperation, resolving outstanding bilateral and internal issues. Not a word on how. Berlin was just another additional—mostly disappointing—conference. Nevertheless, Germany, the most important trade partner for the Balkan region, seems to be the stakeholder most willing to push the integration forward. But how?

How not to do this

The EU’s current enlargement strategy is based on the “regatta principle” that clearly prioritises the technical side of the accession process and underplays its political dimension: each country implements the acquis individually and its integration into the EU progresses in accordance with its reform milestones. In other words, each country joins the union at a different point in time. Many leaders in the region welcomed this approach; beyond the mostly empty rhetoric on regional cooperation, all are looking separately to Brussels, not taking care of their neighbours. This of course weakens the bargaining power of the region’s states.

While some technical arguments favour this approach, it stands nevertheless in contradiction with the EU’s own regional policy, and the fact that regional cooperation is an extra conditionality that has been imposed on the Balkan candidate countries. Nor does it fit with the historic heritage bequeathed by a shared past, followed by wars, and now, mutual suspicion. It also neglects the fact that the previous successful rounds of enlargement were all “group driven” and successful.

Notably the regional solidarity illustrated by the Višegrad four stands as a model of effective regional cooperation and integration processes that could inspire the Balkans. Especially inasmuch as each Balkan country is facing serious bilateral problems that still hamper bilateral and multilateral cooperation and may seriously obstruct the accession process once in its final stages. Various EU member states including Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Romania and Slovenia are involved—countries that might receive support from the anti-enlargement lobby in the EU.

While the accession process is supposed to be equal for all candidates, the Balkan countries have to fulfil a set of additional conditions—notably the “Copenhagen Plus” criteria—and experiment in a far more rigorous union in the way it monitors “enhanced conditionality”. More than was the case with past rounds, the ‘regatta approach’ favours single members who block or delay decisions on enlargement. All this considerably slows the process down at the same time giving the impression that the Balkans do not race by the same rules.

Last but not least. Let’s assume in the teeth of all common sense, that the regatta race was in fact the right way to go. Where are the results after 15 years? Game over. 

So how to proceed?

We have argued for serious reforms inside the EU that would include a constructive deepening–widening process. Only such a process could in our view reload and legitimise enlargement. It would also provide the EU with an opportunity to recommit to the region with some credibility. A new treaty could possibility envision integrating the candidate countries in some EU structures—observer status in the EU Council and Parliament, participant status in some such EU programme as Erasmus. The first impact in the Balkans would be restoring the incentive to reform and avoiding any unnecessary postponement of accession. To be more assertive doesn’t mean to implement a bulldozer approach. Timing matters: a clear and realistic timetable would be a considerable step forward.

The second consequence of this approach would be developing a regional qualitative focus on the—not merely technical but essentially—political dimension of the integration process. Past candidate countries, not only Romania and Bulgaria, entered more rapidly than their reform progress report would have allowed simply because of the successful exertion of political influence. All past candidate countries benefited from certain “exemptive differentiation” and/or “transitional arrangements”—these should also apply in specific ways to these new incomers and ease their path to Brussels.

Further, countries should meet the criteria fixed by the conditionality package prior to membership, not to talks. A conditionality set should be prioritised, focusing on national convergence strategies (targeting various issues, notably: public administration, fiscal consolidation, improvement in productivity, reform of education). A proactive handling of the exemptive differentiation and transitional arrangements—including extensive assistance measures—should be adopted for issues requesting more administrative competencies and capacity building. As for still open questions (border, status, constitution—what Veton Surroi calls the “unfinished states”): the EU must consider the alternative of solving them in the framework of the EU. Accordingly, an “integration follow-up” mechanism targeting these issues should be set up.

Third, we clearly advocate a single round—a ‘caravan’ instead of the ‘regatta approach’. All countries would then negotiate simultaneously for membership. In this way the shortcomings of the regatta would be avoided. This would also rule out the split between candidates in one group (of 2 countries) moving steadily forward, while the prospects for the slower candidates became bleak—leading most probably towards the abandonment of accession. Such a caravan approach would also reinvigorate the accession process and create a truly new regional dynamic, increasing the bargaining power of the candidate countries.

Cross-border regional projects should receive more attention and be supported by the European Investment Bank (EIB). Enhanced and effective regional collaboration could create a virtuous circle of transformation and integration. Regional cooperation not limited to the Balkan states, could involve Central Europe and, in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy (NEP), the Baltic area.

This is an excerpt from a paper delivered today to a conference in Rome organised by the Italian EU Presidency.

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