What the stop of the EU enlargement means for the Balkans

NAfter the fall of the Iron Curtain, the European Union made a promise to its neighbors in the east that was as simple as it was successful: Become like us, then you will belong to us. After 1989, Europe was no longer divided into communists and democrats, but into imitators and imitators, writes the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastew about this promise, which was called “EU East Enlargement”. In May 2004 it led to the accession of eight once communist states as well as Cyprus and Malta. Three years later, Romania and Bulgaria followed, although they did not meet the central criterion of a functioning rule of law. In the summer of 2013, Croatia was the last new addition to date to make it through the Brussels door. It has been closed since then.

Michael Martens

Michael Martens

Correspondent for Southeast European countries based in Vienna.

For the six Balkan states that still want to join the EU – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – the message is clear: the old promise that committed reforms will eventually be followed by EU membership no longer applies . Nobody felt this more clearly than North Macedonia, which at the request of Greece even changed its state name in order to be able to start talks about accession to the EU. But the Greek was followed by a French and then a Bulgarian veto, this time referring to the allegedly “stolen” history and language of the Slavic Macedonians. The enlargement processes are full of political pitfalls that have little to do with the reform performance of the candidates.

Macron’s concerns are not new

No one in the region is surprised that things can no longer go on. People had listened carefully when French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated his position in Belgrade in July 2019 that the EU could not accept new members until it reformed itself. Macron’s concerns are not new, as a study by the “Science and Politics Foundation” (SWP) in Berlin in 2005 shows: Under the title “EU and Western Balkans. From Dayton to Brussels: is it all too long? ”A“ growing enlargement fatigue ”was noted, which made it difficult for politicians to justify the advantages of expanding the EU to the Western Balkans. “Overloading of the EU institutions” and the threat to the political and economic coherence of the member states are the catchwords of the debate. The study also asks “whether these states’ full EU membership is actually the only possible option for their long-term stabilization”.

The question is more topical than ever. If membership is not realistic, how should the EU deal with the region? How can it maintain influence and face political rivals like Russia, China and Turkey? There are plenty of ideas about this, and many are not new. In May 2003, a year before the great eastern expansion, the then presidents of Croatia and Macedonia, Stjepan Mesić and Boris Trajkovski, as well as the heads of government of Serbia and Albania at the time, Zoran Živković and Fatos Nano, had a joint contribution in the “New York Times “suggested that the Western Balkan states should participate in the Cohesion Fund, which is actually reserved for EU members, so to treat them at least financially as if they were members, only without voting rights.

The flags of North Macedonia and Europe during a conversation between Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in Skopje 2019

The flags of North Macedonia and Europe during a conversation between Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in Skopje 2019

Image: dpa

The politicians referred to the advance of another Berlin think tank, the “European Stability Initiative”. In 2002, she proposed adding the element of economic cohesion to the European strategy of stabilizing the Balkans. If the Balkan states remain excluded, this will undermine the EU’s attempts to stabilize the region in the long term, so the argument goes.

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