Has Europe dropped the Balkans?

Christophe Solioz
7 May 2009

What if ... the Iron Curtain still existed? We may remember that Yugoslavia was the shining star of Eastern Europe in the early 1980s and by that time already had a cooperation agreement with the European Community. As Judy Batt recalls,Yugoslavs felt that they were already ‘part of Europe' well before Central and East European states embarked on the ‘return to Europe'.  At that time it would not have been difficult to  imagine Yugoslavia as both one country and a fully-fledged European Union (EU) member state. And we could have discussed how to transform the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) into a ‘membership lite' for the Central and East European countries.... But twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and five years after the EU's Easter enlargement, the story looks different. No dreams, just some questions.

What has happened to the European spirit of the 1980s, when countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain, which had just emerged from dictatorship and civil unrest, were welcomed into the European community of democratic states -in 1981and 1986 respectively? What has happened to the enthusiasm of the end of the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Then it was seen as a moral obligation to unite Europe, so the Central and East European states became fully-fledged EU members in 2004-07. What has happened to the feeling that our generation was making history?

Political decisions taken then were far more risk-laden than those currently under discussion in the Balkans. The success stories of Greece, the Iberian Peninsula and Central Europe demonstrate the wisdom of the courageous decisions taken at that time.

Today, EU accession for the Western Balkans countries is clearly more complex: this is, of course, because of the specificity of the post-conflict transition process and the fact that accession policy has become increasingly technical.  Above all the conditionality has become stricter, as it was for the Central and East European countries. The Commission also created post-accession monitoring tools for the two newest members, as they still had progress to make in the fields of judicial reform, corruption and organised crime. Accordingly, Bulgaria and Romania are subject to the cooperation and verification mechanisms for assessing progress made on these issues.  There have been 4 progress reports in the period June 2007 - February 2009.

‘Enlargement fatigue', expansion-exhaustion', ‘absorption capacity' and the internal crisis over the EU constitution are additional factors explaining the EU's current indecisiveness.  Despite the rhetoric about the parallel deepening and expansion of the EU, the priorities are clearly established: "Even the fastest scenario for the next accession of a new members state, likely to be Croatia, is clearly slower than the slowest envisaged scenario for the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty" (Olli Rehn, Berlin speech of 28.04.09).  Thus, unless the EU Lisbon Treaty is approved by all EU member states, there is no legal room for the applicant countries - except Croatia.  At the time of writing, the Lisbon Treaty has to be approved in the repeat Irish referendum this year and faces open scepticism in some EU member states e.g. Czech Republic.

The doom and gloom mood is not new. Already in 2003, the International Crisis Group stated: "Full EU membership is a long way off for most of the Balkan states."   Two years later, the report of the International Commission of the Balkans observed: "A loss of hope and perspective is the political reality of the Western Balkans."  Today, both statements unfortunately still apply. Attempting to assess the ‘Europeanisation of the Balkans', we would have to conclude that today (even more than in 2003) EU membership seems if not uncertain, then at least blocked for the time being. But for how long?

As a matter of fact, the EU today has the experience, the instruments, the appropriate strategic concepts and the means to ‘help' the Western Balkan countries. But where is the political will? There is no explicit political commitment by the EU that promises eventual full membership. The Thessaloniki Summit in June 2003 stated: ‘The future of the Balkans is within the European Union.' But this says nothing precise about the real meaning of this commitment.

On the one hand, the EU reiterates its readiness to take responsibility for supporting stability and progress in the region, and to help the countries to pass through the gateway towards candidacy for membership. But, on the other hand, it repeatedly stresses that integration requires hard work and difficult decisions in order to meet the Union's demanding standards, emphasizing the ‘journey', rather than the outcome of accession.

To state the obvious, the Western Balkan countries are not yet part of the EU political space, and they are in a weak position vis-à-vis the Union. It should, of course, be remembered that to think of the Balkans as one bloc would be a mistake.

Firstly, the Yugoslav succession states are still marked by post-war tensions among the former Yugoslav republics (now independent states). 

Secondly, the EU integration process - based on individual merits - has paradoxically contributed to a broadening of the gap between EU member states (Slovenia,Greece), candidate countries (Croatia, Macedonia) and potential candidate countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia).  This is exemplified by the visa regime that builds walls between the EU member state and candidate countries on one side and potential candidate countries on the other.

Thirdly, the recent infighting between Slovenia and Croatia illustrates that bilateral problems can lead one country to block a neighbour. Slovenia is, in fact, abusing its veto right in the EU to blackmail Croatia, motivated by fear that her influence in South East Europe could disappear with Croatia's accession.  This conflict endangers not only Croatia's prospects of EU accession, but also reform in other Balkan states that are slowly losing all hope of the promised European perspective.  Similar bilateral problems exist between Greece and Macedonia and Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Thus, it would be wrong to think that the Balkans could duplicate the positive experience of the Visegrád Group, which was instrumental in speeding up the EU integration process of the Central and East European countries.

Accession negotiations are, as such, open-ended and do not necessarily result in EU membership, which explains why it is impossible for the EU to issue an explicit commitment on the subject.  For this reason we might ask if it is not time to give serious consideration to alternative membership scenarios. Against the background of the current global financial crisis, some EU member countries may well reconsider the ‘risk of failure' and estimate that - despite the magnitude of the assistance effort and the manifold array of offices and agencies ‘in the field' - it would not be too expensive to stop or radically adapt the enlargement process. And why not? Here are some worst case options:

  •  A restricted model of EU membership or ‘membership lite': the EU might (temporarily) reserve some options and impose some restrictions related, for example, to access to direct farm subsidies or to the Schengen zone of passport-free travel; or limit free movement of labour.
  • A ‘special partnership' within the framework of the EU's ENP, with ‘Action plans' bringing some countries as close as possible to the EU.  This would, of course, be seen in the region merely as a thin political gesture to pacify the excluded.
  • The ‘Swiss model', which is time-consuming and consists of politically very frustrating bilateral agreements that must be permanently updated and thus renegotiated. This model would probably bring about, if not a black hole, then an enclave of decline in the (excluded) Western Balkans. But it has the one merit of being crystal clear: you are out, but you must comply with and adopt most of the EU standards without having a say in how these standards are drawn up. The question here is: have the Western Balkan countries the financial means to afford the costs of such an option?

It is high time for a frank discussion of these options. This could at least convince both the EU and the Balkans that there is a clear choice to be made: to be part of the EU or to be part of a marginalised ghetto.  The International Commission on the Balkans made a clear statement to this effect (p. 28 The Balkans in Europe's Future, Sofia 2005). 

The EU and South East Europe seem to be increasingly drifting apart.  For this reason the EU has, on the one hand, to put its house in order and, on the other, to offer a reasonable political perspective to the Balkans. Thus, if the EU really would like to extend  enlargement to the Western Balkan countries, it has to solve the question of its capacity to absorb new members, to modify its policy thinking towards the region, and to offer a new, adapted strategy which is more convincing. NGO projectisation or think tank engineering will not do it: they may help, but no more.  Political mobilisation is required in order to reload the European perspective and the enlargement process.

Let us recall some of the - by the way, very good - reports written by some major think tanks at the time of the Thessaloniki Summit.

The European Stability Initiative suggested applying strategies - cohesion policy or structural policy - based on the European regional development policy.

The International Crisis Group also focused the more vigorous approach it suggested on a set of technical means ranging from increased financial assistance to effective twinning arrangements and regional integration.

The more comprehensive report of the International Commission on the Balkans recommended a ‘member-state-building' strategy focusing on the necessity to include institution, and thus capacity, building into the negotiating framework.

These were all outstanding proposals, but in isolation they did not contribute to the revitalisation of the political process. A new wave of enlargement needs to put politics back in the game. Three EU initiatives could send the right signal that the Union is back on track.

Firstly, using the technical report of the Commission to be issued by the end of May 2009, the EU could consider upgrading the status of the current potential candidate countries - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia -and accelerate the enactment of the Stabilisationand Association Agreements for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia. This would give a clear signal to the countries concerned that the integration process is moving forward and that regional cooperation must improve because the EU favours a block entry.

Secondly, the political dialogue between the EU and the applicant states must be given a new dimension: a Thessaloniki II conference should be organised under the Swedish EU presidency. This should be done in close partnership with the countries from the region. In this framework, open bilateral issues should be negotiated, a common action plan to face the current financial crisis must be agreed and a pragmatic EU integration road map announced.

Thirdly, a quick-start package in advance of membership must be implemented during 2009.The EU should give the (potential) candidate countries membership prerogatives in selected key areas, for instance the issue of visas.  While the Commission report - to be ready by the end of May 2009 - could pave the way for a process of visa liberalisation to come into force by the end of 2009 or early 2010, the Commission should implement an urgent plan to provide visas to students for summer 2009. Equally, the EU should consider similar concrete initiatives that would demonstrate that the Balkans are indeed part of Europe.

This text was presented  in the framework of the ‘EU Enlargement and South East European Integration' expert workshop organised by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Berlin, 27 April 2009 

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