The Western Balkans do not exactly enjoy a good perception in the rest of Europe. The region has seen to be stigmatized and prejudiced, associations are mostly drawn to ethnic conflicts, corruption and political crises. In the European Union which continues to struggle its own internal crises, the idea of Balkanization hence the fragmentation of the EU in small, hostile pieces swings like Damocles’ Sword above the heads of Europeanists who see their union scattered by conflict and dispute.

2018 Balkan cover star: Macedonia

In such a negatively attributed atmosphere, good news are always welcome, especially if they are media-affectively enacted. The 2018 Balkan cover star for Western Europe media was undoubtedly Macedonia. The new government which replaced the former government after a series of civic protest had their foreign reputation high up on the priority list.

Macedonian politicians such as prime minister Zoran Zaev and minister of foreign affairs Nikola Dimitrov successfully displayed the art of compromise which prove them to be mature, dialogue-oriented politicians in times when old fashion, strength-measuring diplomacy seems to be a returning trend – not only in South Eastern Europe. For the European Union this is an important signal. But will the successful resolution of the Greece-Macedonia dispute ultimatively improve the perception of the Western Balkans and increase the support for enlargement among European citizens?

The EU understands itself as a new actor in international relations and as such relies on unconventional forms to secure their foreign influence. EU representatives prefer economic tools or value-based methods to spread their ideas. The solution-oriented, open attitude towards neighbours and international alliances such as the EU and NATO from Macedonia speaks to the core of EU foreign policy ideals.

Macedonia has clearly proven that the Western Balkans can write different, positive headlines. But is it enough to help the negative reputation of the region to recover? Macedonia is a fairly small country at the edges of the Western Balkans and was – until recently – not much covered by EU media. Drawing a mental map, many Western Europeans will still map the Balkans, the European tinderbox, more in formerly war-torn regions which made horrific news in the 90s. It will need more from the region to overcome their troublesome attributes and to be considered an equal part of Europe. But Macedonia has certainly set a positive example which can stand at the beginning of a successful re-integration – both institutionally and mentally – into the rest of Europe.

Hypocrisy on all ends: the biggest threat to EU enlargement? 

And this re-integration is dearly needed, because coherent EU enlargement is under scrutiny from both the EU and the member state side. The EU can present as many credible enlargement strategies as it wishes – if paperwork is not supported by meaningful action especially from certain influential Member States, the EU enlargement process will remain at the current stage. This means that countries are stalled in the waiting room while both EU and the Western Balkan governments trump themselves in hypocrisy and floor is given to other foreign powers who might seize the moment to intervene. In this status-quo the one side will – seemingly – continue to pretend that the Western Balkans are welcome in the European Union, and the other side will continue to fake reforms. Who is completely left out of this picture are the citizens of said countries who – in the end – carry the heaviest burden.

The European Union has not lost its general appeal in a region which is split between people who long for European integration and people who wish to cut oneself off all foreign partners. But the enlargement process appears murky and often opportunistic. EU-sceptics are critical towards enlargement in all regards, because it is not clear what it means to become a member, benefits are not visibly communicated and the over-dominant Western actor appears to many as a butcher who is seizing the opportunity to batter traditional values and the country’s culture with no mercy.

EU-enthusiasts on the other hand constantly see themselves to be locked in a limbo and it slowly begins to dawn on many that the EU might not be the saviour after all. Deep democratic reforms seem to be an unrealistic dream in the countries of the Western Balkans and also in Macedonia which has overdone itself on its foreign agenda, yet failed to deliver domestically. It is nearly impossible to change a manifested political culture overnight, yet people are losing their patience – understandably. In such a setting, the soft power tools of the European Union do not seem to have the efficacy to pressure and condition corrupt and clientelist governments into actual reform.

EU enlargement must be a two-way street. The soft power approach of the EU is not necessarily bad, but it relies on an inclusive process. This inclusiveness was not given during the first big enlargement round towards the East in 2004 and 2007 and both EU and governments need to do much more to incorporate different stake-holders into the debate on and the process of enlargement.

Bilateral agreements and a general open-minded foreign policy are certainly an important signal to the European Union and its member states. But in order to gain positive reputation and support for further enlargement among the people both in EU member states and Macedonia it is inevitably to seek for stronger domestic reform and inclusive dialogue.

Zoran Nechev, Marie Jelenka Kirchner and Ivan Nikolovski (EU team at the Institute for Democracy ‘Societas Civilis’)