*Op-ed by Nikolaos Tzifakis, Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of the Peloponnese, a Research Associate of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and member of BiEPAG, speaker at the panel “What it the Western Balkans never becomes part of the EU” on the Belgrade Security Forum 2017.
When we talk about the EU accession of the Western Balkans, we tend to mention the stagnation in the process and ascribe some responsibility to the shift in EU priorities as well as to the widespread ‘enlargement fatigue’ in European societies.
What we usually tend to ignore is the rising ‘accession fatigue’ observed in several Western Balkan countries (see, for instance, the findings of Balkan Barometer 2016). ‘Accession fatigue’, or Western Balkan ‘Euroscepticism’ is sometimes associated with discourses about the quest for alternatives to the European integration path. The obvious question here that will be debated in the Belgrade Security Forum is what will happen if the Western Balkans do not accede to the EU?
Do any external actors active in the region (namely, Russia, China, Turkey, and the UAE) offer any coherent alternative vision or perspective? Notwithstanding the importance of those actors’ involvement in the Western Balkans, the simple short answer is: No.
First, the interest of those external powers is exhausted in specific countries and across specific issues. Apart from energy linkages with the entire region, Russia mainly offers military-political cooperation to specific countries/actors to which it can appeal to their cultural/religious affinity. Arguably, Montenegro’s NATO accession and the change in power in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia demonstrated the limits of these attempts for influence.
In Turkey’s case, its active policy for the cultivation of cultural, religious and education ties has had limited reach beyond the region’s Muslim populations. As for China and the UAE, their interest is largely economic and concerns investment in specific sectors. For instance, China finances the improvement of regional transport infrastructure, whereas the UAE invest in commercial real estate.
More importantly, the ties between these external actors and the Western Balkans do not necessarily represent bets against the region’s EU accession. In many respects, quite the contrary. The value of Chinese and UAE investments will increase if the region is fully integrated into the EU.
Indeed, the interest of both countries in the region is directly linked with the advancement of its European future. Turkey, still an EU candidate, maintains a self-evident interest in EU enlargement. As for Moscow, its anti-Western policies are predominantly aiming at the containment of NATO expansion. Having said that, it is not implied that the above powers do not antagonize the EU for influence in the Western Balkans. Nor is it implied that all external involvement is beneficial for the advancement of the region’s EU accession process.
To be sure, external political support to illiberal leaderships; economic deals concluded with non-competitive or non-transparent processes; and opposition to peace processes undermine the region’s political stability and EU accession prospects.
Still, if there are no concrete alternatives to the EU accession of the Western Balkans, what should we make out of the rising Euroscepticism in the region? As Taggart and Szczerbiak have argued, we should distinguish between hard and soft forms of Euroscepticism. Whereas the former denotes a complete rejection of the entire European integration project, the latter implies a qualified opposition to specific EU policies.
To the extent that much Euroscepticism in the Western Balkans is soft, the EU should seriously take note of it and adjust the process to fully bring Western Balkan societies aboard. Therefore, the only genuine alternative to the contemporary stagnated EU enlargement process is a faster, more efficient, fully consistent with its proclaimed principles, and more open to local civil societies EU accession process.