BREXIT: What are the implications for EU enlargement?

It is a well-known reality and we are all aware that within the European Union there are those who are strongly in favor of the enlargement process and those who are less enthusiastic about further EU widenings. As a matter of fact, the situation is not that easy. The positions of EU Member States are not always as clear and foreseeable as we could expect. In that sense, perhaps the best example is given by the British decision in December 2013 to deny Albania of the status of “candidate country”, which was later granted in June 2014. It came as a surprise because the UK has historically been seen as the real champion of the enlargement policy, the firm advocate of 2004/2007 enlargement rounds, a strong ally of Croatia for its accession process and, lastly, it is also a strategic (and lonely) partner of Turkey, defending its accession process to the EU despite the clear lack of support from other Member States.

With respect to the Western Balkans, the UK has not demonstrated a different attitude, quite the opposite: it has headed many initiatives on the ground and has always backed the EU enlargement for the whole region. Therefore, it is a fact that some states are keener than others to further widen the EU and, as it easy to understand from the evidences mentioned above, the UK uses/d to belong to the first group.

Yesterday’s British vote in favor of the exit from the EU certainly has implications with regard to the EU Neighbourhood and Enlargement Policy. The UK has shaped DG NEAR Agenda in many ways, with a particular emphasis on Western Balkans. It was thanks to High Representative Ashton that the EU brokered the accord between Kosovo and Serbia on the establishment of the Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo. Like it or not, Paddy Ashdown’s mandate as High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (2002-2006) has certainly not passed unnoticed. As previously reported, British diplomacy has always presented the UK as an “enlargement entrepreneur”, promoting a strict but fair approach which could explain the position taken on Albanian candidature in December 2013. Additionally, more recently, the UK has launched the so-called “Anglo-German Initiative” together with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in order to reinvigorate Bosnian accession path.

All in all, it appears crystal clear that the UK has been a champion for the Euro-Atlantic integration of Western Balkans; therefore, what needs to be asked is precisely what is going to happen to the EU Enlargement now that one of its paladins is leaving, which is not an easy question to address.

For sure, with the UK leaving, there will be less interest on the Balkans side to follow up the UK. Balkan diplomacies will likely concentrate their efforts elsewhere, which will imply more strengthened ties with other European diplomacies and, therefore, a further enhancement of the Berlin Process headed by German, Austrian, French and Italian diplomacies (plus Slovenia and Croatia). Of course the UK was – and still is – an influent ally for Western Balkans, however they can still rely on other strong European partners, which will likely further increase their influence and presence in the region. Likewise, on the British side, a certain loss of leverage would likely be predictable but not absolute.

On the EU institutional side, predictions are more difficult. As already stated by LSE expert James Ker-Lindsay, “In the event of a Brexit, it is very hard to tell what will happen […] much will depend on how the EU decides to respond. It could try to show that the European project is alive and well and still attractive to candidates. This could see a concerted effort to speed up enlargement”. So far, the British initiatives on enlargement have had a follow-up from the EU institutions: this has been for instance the case of EU conditionality strategy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hence, it will be interesting to see if the EU will change its current attitudes towards what is traditionally considered to be the EU’s most successful foreign policy.

Marco RUSSO, EWB Brussels Correspondent