Full membership in the European Union is still an attractive foreign policy objective for political elites and large segments of population in all countries of Western Balkans. Politicians in all of them issue statements to this effect. They measure their own political success by clear evidence that the country has made progress towards EU.
To be a member of EU still means – to be recognised as a “normal” country, no longer “in transition” and thus less successful than others. Transition in these countries has been painful and complex, and general public is by now tired of it. Without membership in the EU, many would feel that efforts so far have not been recognised and rewarded.
In addition, membership in the European Union would increase, not decrease, sovereignty and “real power” of each of new member-state. For long period of now almost 25 years since the old Yugoslavia collapsed, its successor-states have been treated more as objects, not subjects, of foreign policy. They often had to do what they did not want to do, and were prevented from doing what they wanted. Once members of the EU, they feel they would be much more independent in their foreign policy. Hence, even nationalists and sovereignists now support membership in the EU, hoping that the mail “national interests” would be best served if their country joins the Union.
However, it seems unlikely that the membership in the EU is to be achieved in near future by any of the countries of remaining Western Balkans (“Restern Balkans”). The EU itself is ever more sceptical towards the idea of further enlargement. Although the Western Balkans is actually not the area of enlargement – but of “consolidation” of EU – since the area is already encircled by EU member-states and thus new membership does not involve expansion eastwards, some countries announced referenda on any new state joining the EU. None of the candidate-countries has any strong “sponsor-state” within the EU – which is rather different compared to Germany’s sponsorship of Croatia, or Greek sponsorship of Cyprus. Furthermore, EU seems to be engaged with its own internal crises, such as: the crisis of financial sector, the Greek crisis, the issue of migration and the relationship with Russia over Ukraine. The vision of further development is now more blurred than ever. Although none of these crises originated in the Western Balkans, almost all have affected EU relations with this region too. Relative failure of Bulgaria, Romania and now also Croatia in consolidating of its own finances since they joined the EU, makes some member-states additionally cautious about new members. In 2003, before the economic crisis, EU issued a clear promise to all countries of Western Balkans that the doors are opened to all countries of Western Balkans. Would EU be willing to repeat such promise today?
The more EU hesitates even to indicate tentative date of membership for the remaining candidates, the more difficult it would become to respond to questions such as: “Why would we even try to undertake serious reforms, when in our lifetime there might be no clear reward?” Changes that the EU demands from candidate-countries are deep and sometimes painful. In words, it is easy to promote “reforms”. But, in deeds, it is even easier to continue with “business as usual”, to float on the waves of inertia. The EU too is sometimes also rather unrealistic, as it keeps increasing its demands and expectations, in an upgraded version of “Copenhagen Plus” criteria. Many of these new requests are almost impossible to satisfy by countries that are in worse economic, social and even political situation than those that joined under less demanding criteria. Even those who joined in 2007 and Croatia (in 2013) have often only simulated reforms in order to please the EU. But, were the reforms irreversible? The EU should be more realistic when issuing new requests and expectations. It should concentrate on relatively small number of absolutely crucial improvements, rather than building a Lego-land of new and new requests, which can only discourage pro-EU forces in candidate countries.
After the crisis in Ukraine, the EU is facing political competition for influence in countries outside the Union, in European East and Southeast. This should also be taken into account, especially in Western Balkans. Russia and Turkey are unlikely to offer more than EU to countries of this region. However, unless EU offers membership in due course, the impact of these other regional powers will be ever bigger. It is in the interest of EU to include new members from Western Balkans as soon as it can. Long lodging in EU waiting room is unproductive as it does not make candidate-countries much better. But it risks their turning towards other alternatives. In an emerging multipolarism in European internal and external peripheries, this would be a wrong direction to move on.
Author: Dejan Jović, Professor of International Relations at University of Zagreb. In 2010-2014 he was Chief Political Analyst in the Office of the President of Croatia.