Despite its many woes, the European Union remains a lodestar for poorer states outside its borders. Indeed, the gravitational pull of the EU’s enlargement process has been the most important factor in the reconstitution of economic, political, and civic life in the western Balkans since the end of the post-Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s.
Croatia’s accession to the EU on July 1 provides a welcome boost to a region that has been placed on the back burner as a result of “enlargement fatigue” and the EU’s crisis-induced introspection. Enlargement advocates also point to the deal signed by Kosovo and Serbia in April as another key development in unlocking the Balkans’ European future.
The decisive break with more than a decade of war and confrontation came in December 2012, when Kosovo and Serbia began to implement an agreement on border control. The April agreement goes further by establishing a power-sharing arrangement in northern Kosovo that is designed to bolster local self-government through an association of Serb-majority municipalities while providing new arrangements for policing and the judiciary.
The just-concluded meeting of the European Council acknowledged the progress made by both Serbia and Kosovo, with the Serbs being given a (somewhat conditional) start date for accession negotiations and Kosovo to begin a “pre-screening” process. The EU bet here is that, on the back of Croatia’s accession, the enlargement logjam in the western Balkans will finally be broken.
But enlargement fatigue among the member states continues to muddy this optimistic forecast. Although more than three-quarters of the EU’s member states are former enlargement countries, the Union’s expansion is no longer viewed as an unalloyed success story. On the contrary, it is often presented as a bridge too far.
In fact, enlargement fatigue has been the dominant feature of EU relations with the western Balkan states and explains why the accession process has been flat-lining along a path of frozen negotiations and mutual mistrust toward an increasingly uncertain destination. This remains the case even after Croatia’s accession.
Enlargement fatigue entered the European political lexicon in the wake of the dramatic failures of the French and Dutch referenda on the EU Constitutional Treaty in 2005. The seismic shock of the treaty’s rejection by two original EU members cried out for a scapegoat, and the “big bang” enlargement completed the previous year – in which eight post-communist countries (along with Cyprus and Malta) joined simultaneously – seemed a good place to put the blame. Suddenly, Polish plumbers were inundating the “old” member states.
The western Balkan applicants have thus had to contend with a process that is now managed on a more intergovernmental basis than was the big bang of 2004, and which has, at times, been held hostage to member states’ selfish bilateral demands. Enlargement was traditionally viewed as an area where national interests would be more readily set aside than in conventional EU settings: the normative dimension of the process seemed to demand a more community-oriented approach to decision-making. But that has changed fundamentally.
Enlargement is now more easily politicized in individual member states, and this is especially the case where there is a groundswell of Euro-skepticism upon which to draw. The European Council, rather than the European Commission, is increasingly setting the benchmarks for delineating progress in accession talks, thus largely determining the pace at which negotiations proceed.
This intergovernmental mode of enlargement decision-making was evident as Slovenia made significant maritime territorial demands of Croatia. It can also be seen in the continuing Greek objections to Macedonia’s name and the Bundestag’s insistence on approving the progress of individual applicant states – a demand that has complicated relations with Turkey enormously.
There is ample evidence from earlier enlargement rounds of the transformative power of the EU to democratize and “Europeanize” states in advance of their accessions. But the EU will succeed in transposing its laws, norms, and values to accession candidates only if applicant governments take its promises seriously. They must be willing to bear the costs of implementation because they believe that the benefits to their countries as EU members (or to themselves as political actors) will be realized.
So the EU’s promise of membership simply has to be credible if accession-driven reforms are to succeed and EU norms internalized in applicant states. The EU’s real problem in the western Balkans is that the promise (of membership) made to aspiring states in 2003 is no longer sufficient to counter the currents of enlargement fatigue, which has led to reform fatigue, slowing the progress of the region’s applicants to a virtual standstill.
Indeed, unlike in previous accession rounds, the EU has provided no concrete timetable for achieving the promise of membership made in Thessaloniki ten years ago. Rather, the process remains open and indeterminate. EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Štefan Füle insists that enlargement is progressing, but the western Balkans remains a fragile region, defined by mutually antagonistic nationalisms, incomplete state formation, deep and pervasive patterns of corruption, and endemic economic mismanagement.
As the EU celebrates the accession of Croatia – which will undoubtedly provide a short-term boost to the reform process throughout the western Balkans – it faces a profound choice in its engagement with the region. It can reinvigorate the spirit of earlier enlargement rounds, or it can succumb to enlargement fatigue. Either way, the region’s future hangs in the balance.
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The opinions expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily those of the World Economic Forum. Published in collaboration with Project Syndicate.
Author: John O’Brennan is Director of European Studies and a lecturer in European Politics at the National University of Ireland Maynooth.
Image: The European Union and Croatian flag are seen in Zagreb REUTERS/Antonio Bronic