Is the European Union in crisis, what will be the effects of Brexit and will all of this have an influence on EU enlargement in the Western Balkans? These are some of the topics we have discussed with Andrew Moravcsik, professor of politics and director of the European Union Program at Princeton University, and a renowned expert on EU integration. The conversation took place at the Munich Security Conference 2020 on 14 February in the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, a historic venue of the Munich Security Conference, one of the most renowned international conferences in the world in which Moravcsik was a participant.

European Western Balkans: Having in mind all the problems the EU is facing at the moment, do you consider it to be in a serious crisis? Is the future of the EU under question?

Andrew Moravcsik: The crisis is a complicated word. The future (of the EU) is absolutely not under question. There is no evidence for that and no scenario by which you would get there. I think the way to see that more specifically is to go issue by issue, and I tend to be more optimistic about the issues people are pessimistic about and a little bit more pessimistic about the issues people are optimistic about.

For example, migration, which many see as a big crisis, I see as the greatest success of EU policy in the last five years. If you said five years ago that 1.5 million people were coming uncontrollably all over the Mediterranean and that you would reduce that number to 100.000 in five years and you would do it without formal, centralised EU policy but through informal cooperation and coordination, people would say that you are crazy. But of course, that is exactly what happened.

Second example – Ukraine. It is not the United States, which woke up two years after the crisis and sent some small amount of military aid to Ukraine that is keeping a free Ukraine a viable proposition. It is almost entirely the EU.

You can go down many issues like this. And I also believe that populist parties are vastly overrated in their influence, on which I am doing research right now. Half the countries in Europe do not have a significant populist party. Of the rest, most of those parties can’t get into government or can’t get seats, and when they do get into government like in the Austrian case, they center on is the migration, like everybody in the EU now. The only country where significant policy outside migration has been pursued internationally is Britain.

And that was possible due to the most unlikely set of circumstances – it is an extremely Eurosceptic country, a country with an electoral system that allows you to win with 42% of the vote, a country in which, unlike any other EU country there was no second referendum which would reverse it, a country that used the only moment of the last 10 years when the majority of the country was for Leave, and a country where the sitting Prime Minister had the opportunity to run against the least popular British politician in the past 75 years. That is not going to happen anywhere else, none of it.

And so, broadly speaking, I think most of the time when people talk about crisis, it is not. The only exception is the Euro. My friends in Brussels tell me that the situation is fine because the Euro is stable. It is stable, but it is a terrible policy because it imposes low growth on countries, including Italy. I’ve spent a lot of time there, it is a country for which the Euro is an unmitigatedly bad thing. Other than that, I do not see a crisis that would leave to even to a collapse of a single policy, and certainly not to collapse of the entire EU. With the exception of the UK, there is not a single country in Europe in which the politicians, no matter how populist, even talk about pulling out of the EU.

EWB: Looking at Brexit, what do you think are its biggest consequences, either positive or negative – for the rise of Euroscepticism, for the “snowball effect” on other countries?

AM: No chance. For the reasons that I’ve just set forth. Brexit happened because of an extremely rare set of circumstances in Britain – sense of British exceptionalism in many respects, high level of Euroscepticism, terrible electoral system that magnifies the power the political leader and a very poor set of circumstances that didn’t have to happen. And even in Britain, with all those disadvantages, it was extremely difficult for this to happen.

It cannot happen anywhere else because since Brexit, the big leaders of the populist parties in Europe – Marin Le Pen, Salvini – have been scurrying away from any discussion on exit policies, which they used to support as recently as six or seven years ago. So, they are fleeing from this because it is obviously crazy, for they understand that they could never get more than 20% of the vote in their countries if they take this position.

So, when it comes to saving Europe from populism and Euroscepticism, it is a unmitigatedly good thing. I just think that the technical consequences of it are going to be difficult, but that depends on what agreement Boris Johnson and the EU are able to reach. I am relatively optimistic about that because I think Johnson has no other alternative, but we’ll see.

EWB: Having this in mind, do you think that the crises and difficulties will have an effect on EU enlargement perspective?

AM: They already have. I think that the combination of the degradation of democracy in the countries like Poland or Hungary and the concern about migration which gets mixed up in people’s minds about letting in the Balkan countries means that it is going to be harder for them than it otherwise would have been.

But I think that it is striking that the European leaders want to go through with it anyway, even if they want to do it in a more controlled and incremental way. And that is only good politics – we live in a real world, you cannot do everything that somebody has as an ideal.

EWB: Countries that now have strongest reservations to the enlargement to the Western Balkans are somehow referring to the previous rounds of enlargement as a mistake. But at the same time, we are told that the enlargement was one of the most successful EU policies in the past decades. How do you see the previous rounds of enlargement – are they the reason why some countries today are sceptical of it?

AM: Of course. Because, what the Europeans have learned is that you can have ex ante control of people’s political system, but you cannot have it ex post. And people like Kaczynski and Orban are smart operators. And Europeans do not want to do it again.

But I do not agree with your characterisation of what people in Europe say. It is true that populist right opposes enlargement in some countries, for example in France, but not Hungary and Poland, and that partially explains French hesitancy. But the main line, 80% of political elites in Europe, is that „we are going to do this, but it needs to be politically viable in our own societies and politically constructive in other societies, and for that reason we are going to be a little bit more careful and targeted and maintain more control in our hands than we did the first time round”. When people just kind of “wave their hands” and say “let’s accept another five countries”, that’s not going to happen. But I think still the movement is in the right direction.

Emmanuel Macron at Munich Security Conference; Photo: Munich Security Conference

EWB: Currently, France is maybe the country with the strongest reservations. Macron mentioned that even the previous enlargement was a mistake referring to the 2004.

AM: What he is referring to is the way it was done was a mistake. Everybody agrees that it could have been done better and that people were a little bit naïve. We are going to create a one time change in laws, market integration, democratic institutions and then everything is going to be fine – that couldn’t turn out to be right.

And about that Macron is obviously correct. It is a fact, and the European Union does not want to repeat that. But that is very different than saying that the enlargement was a mistake. If Macron thought it was a mistake, he would not put through a plan for action.

EWB: There are many who believe that because of the alleged crisis the EU leverage in the region of the Western Balkans has diminished and that now the EU is no longer capable of providing the “stick and carrot” to the countries of the region. Do you think that this EU leverage has weakened in the past 10-15 years?

AM: I am not familiar with this months’ political situation in Montenegro so I can imagine that the general perception that Europe is in crisis makes it a little more difficult in domestic politics in some countries to sell this proposition. But I have always thought and I think the evidence strongly suggest that the case for European integration in the minds of applicant countries is largely economic. There is no question that these countries are highly dependent on the European Union.

When you ask the Ukrainians what is the most important foreign policy issue facing your country today – Russia in the East, membership in the EU, no – they said opportunity to migrate and work in Europe. These are the things that matter. And if you want to be Orban, for all his antidemocratic ‘this and that’, he never, never talks about pulling out of the EU and never threatens the German industry car investment in Szeged because he is not an idiot.

I think in the end these things are extremely powerful and if things happen the way decision makers hope they are happening, Europe is going to have increased financial means over the next years, some of them will have to deal with Brexit, but there is still plenty of money to deal with small countries.

EWB: Do you think that the EU actually has an interest in further enlargement of the Western Balkans. Is it in the interest of the Member States?

AM: Not as much as they had, but they have an interest. An interest in greater stability and general stability and economic interchange. As well as control of the migration. Europe is a big bundle of policies and there is an interest. But I do think the interest is not as great as the interest German perceived in integrating Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland and will make it a bit tougher for these countries.

EWB: Do you think enlargement is anywhere near the top of priorities for this European Commission in the next five years? Because they claim it is, but there are many who are sceptical about this.

AM: I could not care less about what the Commission thinks its priorities are because they are an irrelevant organisation. But the question you should have asked is – is the in the top of the Member States’ priority.

Because actually one interesting thing about the Commission’s guidance about the enlargement that came out last week is that it says a much larger role for the Member States because they do not want to be pushed around even to the limited extent they were in the first and second round of the Eastern enlargement. It is not the highest priority, the highest priority for the moment is dealing with the budget, the meeting with China and migration. But it is in the next tier so it is pretty far up.

Ursula von der Leyen; Photo: Munich Security Conference

EWB: So you are familiar with the new proposal for the methodology of enlargement which was proposed last week. How do you comment on that? Do you think it goes in the right direction with the emphasis it puts on the fundamental issues, the stronger monitoring mechanism and clustering chapters, or is maybe just a distraction?

AM: I do not think like that. I think is it politically necessary to get to increase the probability of an enlargement or if not enlargement, a closer relationship with Europe. And the answer to that question is – yes, it is politically necessary and that is as far as I think about it. I do not think like a technocrat, because often you spend a lot of time worrying about what would be an ideal policy, but it is irrelevant. In this case, that is the deal these countries are going to get.

Given that the issue is not as high on the list as Poland was 20 years ago, given that these countries have a lot of problems, I think it is the right policy. It may end up with them joining the EU, but who knows, maybe it will end up with them as states closer to the EU than other countries but still not 100% members.

But I think it is flexible and allows countries to move forward. And I do not think it would be a good experiment to repeat to get naïve and happy about letting countries in without thinking through whether they are suited. Not everybody has to be a member of the EU tomorrow.

EWB: Having in mind the misunderstandings in the last couple of years, do you think that the US and the EU still speak in the same voice and still have the same interests in the Western Balkans? They are both involved, but it appears that their methods may be a bit different in the last couple of years.

AM: Americans often have very strange views about what political priorities, workable policies, ought to be in the regions in the world where they are not very involved, where other people are more involved. Who cares what the Americans think because the Americans are not going to spend any assets doing anything there. Really Europe is infinitely more powerful in Ukraine, the Western Balkans and in large parts of the Middle East than the United States.

The question we ought to ask ourselves is really not do the Americans think they have some alternative policy, because Americans are very fond of telling the Europeans they should spend lots of money and take a lot of risks in order to achieve something someplace where the United States is not really involved, as in Ukraine. Americans are happy to say “you are to sanction Russia, do more”, but the Europeans are paying the cost and the cost is large. But the truth of the matter is, unless the Americans view a really immediate security threat like they do in the case of Iran they are not going to do anything. I do not think it really matters to tell you the truth.

EWB: Right now, we have the US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell serving as President Trump’s Special Envoy for the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations. And we know that this is something pretty high when it comes to the interest of Germany and that there is this “misunderstanding” between Germany and Grenell. Do you think that this discrepancy affects joint efforts in the region?

AM: I am not an expert on the current state of the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations or what the American Ambassador to Germany is saying about that. But I give you a general piece of advice about American policy – do not pay attention to what Trump says and to what the declaratory policy of the United States is, unless the issue is very high on the agenda. Pay attention to what the United States does.

For example, everybody at this Munich Security Conference for the past three years has been talking about 2%, that the Europeans should spend 2%, otherwise the United States will lose interest in NATO. United States is never leaving NATO. That was obvious two weeks into the Trump administration. When Vice-President Pence came here and said on behalf of the President and the Senate we are not leaving NATO. And one of the main reasons the US is not going to leave NATO is because 90% of what NATO does, what the American troops and NATO do, is support American operations elsewhere in the world, so obviously they are not going to go anywhere.

The question you need to ask yourself in this case is, is the US really going to put resources behind an alternative policy in the Western Balkans or in Serbia and Kosovo, if not then the American Ambassador to Germany is just talking and the only question is are the Europeans going to have a plan and execute it. Because they are really the only people on the block.

EWB: When France blocked opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia last year, one of the arguments was that the EU is not ready to actually accept new members – ‘you are not ready, but we are not ready either’.

AM: Let me get this straight. That is nonsense. Then the argument is – if we spend more money on stabilizing Italy we would be more ready to accept Albania, why? It is a non-argument. The French are wonderful at non-arguments, they are the best. I have studied France ever since Mitterrand was President. Mitterrand was a genius at this and most French politicians are. Saying arguments which are logically correct but nonsense. They do it for the domestic political reasons, because they want to be politically prominent. They do it to support specific French interests, the same bundle of things that drive any country. They always sound good, and I pretty much always ignore them. Talk is talk, and action is action.

EWB: There are many who believe that the reason why France actually blocked the negotiations and why now it somehow connects EU reform and enlargement is because it actually wants to win something else, and that it wants to press Germany over enlargement as Germany is a lot more interested in enlargement than France is. It is kind of a trade-off.

AM: Could be, but it is still true that you are not going to get much out of that trade-off. It is not just about Germany. You are going to tell the Poles – sorry you cannot buy those F-16s from the Americans, you will have to buy them from the French. He may desire that and he may hope to push Germany a little bit in that direction but it does not strike me as a very likely thing to achieve very much.