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[EWB Interview] Balfour: Western Balkan countries should get their act together to catch the EU enlargement train

Last year there has been much discussion about EU enlargement. The impression is that Russian aggression in Ukraine has achieved what many thought was impossible – a revival of the enlargement policy. The year 2030 is now mentioned as a potential time for new enlargements, but it seems that the EU member states are cautious with their promises. To make 2030 a possibility, a reform of the enlargement policy and visible progress of the candidate countries on the path to the EU are needed.

To discuss what is required for enlargement by 2030, whether the rule of law will remain a key criterion for progress in negotiations, and how the enlargement policy could function, we spoke with the Director of Carnegie Europe, Rosa Balfour, during the Belgrade Security Conference (BSC 2023).

European Western Balkans: How has the war in Ukraine changed EU’s perception of enlargement and the Western Balkans?

Rosa Balfour: EU policy towards Eastern Europe has changed because of the Russian threat to Europe as a whole. The EU has made the big promise to open its doors to Ukraine, Moldova, and perhaps even Georgia obviously following all the conditions of the accession process.

This means that after at least a decade in which the enlargement process towards the Western Balkans has been dwindling, we now see a sudden acceleration. The acceleration is showing two developments.

A serious debate taking place in the European Union with respect to what the EU needs to do in order to be ready for enlargement – what internal reform is required to be able to expand the Union while making sure it can still be effective with more than 30 member states.

The second question regards the actual conditions required for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to start accession talks – and what this means for the Western Balkans.

In November, the progress reports of the candidate countries will be published, and we are likely to see a revised strategy looking at how to deal with an enlargement that now involves many more countries and, most importantly, a country at war, that is far bigger than all the other candidates, and with a far larger population. It’s a major challenge. But the commitment has been made.

The mood in the European Union has changed quite dramatically. I do think that we’re entering a new phase in which the enlargement process will be taken more seriously by the EU because it is not just answering a call coming from outside the European Union, but is also addressing a demand for the EU to respond geopolitically to the changing security situation in Europe.

EWB: There is a big concern in the region, especially in Serbia, that maybe the rule of law will become less important in the EU accession process than before. Is there any risk for that and how would the EU prevent it? 

RB: There is a not so obvious divide in the EU. Those in favor of a geopolitical enlargement regardless of the rule of law conditions do not aspire to have a European Union that is monitoring domestic and internal affairs, rule of law issues, and democracy. Hungary leads this group. But there still is a strong group of countries that believes that democracy and the rule of law need to underpin the European Union. This group of countries believes that the European Union is still about an ever-closing Union. Therefore, the integration logic needs to continue. The integration logic means that you need to have the rule of law, shared norms, and that these rules need to be monitored by institutions that can supervise nation states, such as the European Commission and other supranational institutions such as the European Court of Justice.

At the moment, there is an open debate in the EU about how to integrate further while preparing to enlarge. All the rhetoric and the documents coming from the institutions will emphasize both the geopolitical logic and the democratic logic of integration. But it is still to be seen what deepening and widening will look like in practice. Politically, I think we’ll see a strong debate. It depends on who’s going to be in government in the national capitals and therefore who will be sitting in the European Council – the most important decision-making body representing the member states.

Now, it has to be said that enlargement can only be taken with the unanimous consensus of all the member states. You just need one to be against enlargement to block the process. We’ve seen this happen especially with North Macedonia, which has had its path repeatedly blocked since it became a candidate back in 2005.

In the past, the rule of law was used as an excuse to block the accession of individual countries in the Western Balkans. Today it looks like moving forward with enlargement is being taken far more seriously. The main shift took place in France. Last May French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech talking about the need to enlarge for geopolitical reasons. This is new, as France has always argued that a wider EU would weaken its capacity for action. From this perspective, the EU will need to double down both on the geopolitical imperative of enlargement and on the need to ensure a Union that functions on the basis of its rules. I think this message needs to sink into public opinion in the Western Balkans.

EWB: There is an ongoing debate on the reform of EU enlargement policy. We have some proposals for staged or phased accession. What do you think about these proposals? 

RB: It’s interesting that the proposals around the idea of ‘staged accession have entered the language of EU officials. Some of the ideas of ‘staged accession’ will seep into policy. We will see a stronger endorsement of forms of gradual access into policies and gradual participation in programs. This raises the possibility of differentiated integration.

Two things will be really important for the process to be credible in the countries at the receiving end of this.

The first is that every country that wants to join needs to know it can become a full member of the European Union if it wants to. Secondly, any gradualism needs to have an end date to be credible. Transition periods have been used in the past, such as with respect to participation in the Schengen area, where countries did not enjoy freedom of movement of people for a time-limited period, or the Euro, which some more recent member states have not yet joined.  

Most importantly, the end date needs to be clear in so far as representation of member state voting rights in the institutions. You need to have a European Union in which all members are adequately represented in policies and with respect to voting rights. This is not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because if countries are not properly represented in the European Union institutions, there is a big risk of a backlash. If member states do not feel adequately represented, they may revolt against ‘Brussels’ – as we have seen many nationalist populists do. That is in no one’s interest, including the Brussels-based institutions.

EWB: We have 2030 as a potential date for the next enlargement. Do you believe that is possible for one or two countries from the region? For example, some believe that Montenegro could become the next EU member.

RB: I don’t expect the EU to make promises about dates, because so much depends on the state of preparedness of the countries, and that is not in Brussels’s control. The Western Balkans put a lot of blame on Brussels, or on certain member statesand rightly so.

But it has to be said that the pace of reform in the Western Balkans has slowed down enormously. The political elites of the Balkans haven’t always taken advantage of what was on offer. Now the train of enlargement is moving again. If the Balkan countries do not want to miss this train they need to get their act together. The train may not move forever.

In theory, of course, a couple of countries could be ready. Providing they continue reforming, providing they have the kind of political momentum that we’re seeing in countries such as Ukraine, which is at war but is also pursuing reform at a pretty steady pace.

The citizens and governments in the Western Balkans should be aware that enlargement is moving and that efforts will be required in the region as well as in Brussels.

EWB: You said a few years ago for our portal that Western disengagement in the region is a reason why the region is crumbling. Do you still believe that? We have seen tensions in Kosovo, and the situation in Bosnia…

RB: During the last 10 years, the EU really lost sight of what was happening in the Balkans. The EU was not present enough diplomatically and politically, and made decisions that were hugely detrimental to reform processes in the region and to the people supporting reform. The EU was very inward-looking, was not prioritizing the Balkans, and left some unfinished business.

Ten years ago, in 2013, the EU helped negotiate the Brussels agreement on Serbia and Kosovo. It needed to be followed through and implemented more thoroughly – and corrected if it needed correction.

Then it got distracted. It got distracted by its own problems. It got distracted by its own crises. This doesn’t take away from the responsibility of the political leadership in the Balkans. Political forces in the Balkans that are not committed to reform took over or consolidated their power.

The distraction is a serious one because if you look at it in historical perspective, this is a small region, it’s an enclave within the EU. Compared to the security problems that we’re seeing now, 10 years ago the Balkans was a happier and more promising place than what we see now in Ukraine or the Middle East. It’s a real missed opportunity not to have addressed this more thoroughly during the past 10 years.

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