The Debate on Western Balkans Enlargement: A Baltic Perspective

Tomass Pildegovičs is an incoming MPhil candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge. He holds a BA in International Relations with First Class Honours (2018) from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

Last week marked the first EU-Western Balkans Summit in 15 years, as leaders of the 28-member bloc met with their six Western Balkan counterparts in Sofia, Bulgaria [1]. The Western Balkan region has regained salience on the European political agenda due to a range of internal and external pressure dynamics, including Russia’s growing assertiveness as well as the region’s sustained relevance in the Union’s response to the migration crisis. Consequently, the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU has prioritised deepened engagement in the region, hailing last week’s summit as the revitalisation of the EU’s commitment toward advancing the integration of the Western Balkans [2].

The political outcome of the summit, however, largely failed to match the soaring rhetoric that accompanied it, as the summit declaration only affirmed the consciously vague “European perspective” of the Western Balkan nations. This marked a sharp divergence from the Thessaloniki summit declaration of 15 years ago that proclaimed that the “future of the Balkans is within the European Union”. Evidently, this explicit position no longer enjoys unanimous support among EU member state governments [3]. 

The future integration prospects of the Western Balkan region are the subject of a rigorous and increasingly divisive debate within the Union. Within this debate, a neglected perspective has been that of the Baltic states, where due to understandably differing geostrategic priorities, the Western Balkans have not featured prominently in politico-academic discourse. And yet, the Baltic perspective on the issue may be useful to examine, particularly considering their own relatively recent history of transformation through participation in pre-accession and enlargement programmes.

To contextualise the current state of the Union’s institutional engagement with the region, the six Western Balkan nations are in markedly different stages of their path toward the EU. Serbia and Montenegro have already opened accession negotiations in 2014 and 2012, respectively, Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) are candidate countries, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo remain potential candidate countries [4].

The accession prospects of the Western Balkan countries continue to be hampered due to their inadequate resilience against structural governance issues that constitute potential sources of negative spill-overs for the EU. Indeed, the European Commission’s latest annual Enlargement Package Strategy Papernotes that while there are encouraging signals from across the region, corruption remains widespread, the foothold of organised crime remains strong, law enforcement capabilities remain problematic, and the attainment of progress in protecting fundamental freedoms and civil society has been limited at best [5].In sum, the persistence of endemic challenges to governance and the rule of law across the Western Balkan region continues to perpetuate reticence among EU member states regarding prospective enlargement.

In the academic literature on EU external relations, it has been widely asserted that enlargement represents the Union’s most successful foreign policy. This notion has been demonstrably affirmed in the case of the Baltic states, which have succeeded in firmly embedding themselves in the Euro-Atlantic institutional matrix, joining the EU and NATO in 2004, the Euro-zone (Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014, Lithuania in 2015) and the OECD (Estonia in 2010, Latvia in 2016, Lithuania in 2018). It must be underscored that participation in pre-accession frameworks for each of these institutions demands significant commitment on behalf of partner countries to pursue reform and legislative harmonisation. In effect, the “big carrot” of membership drove the Baltic states to conduct largely unwavering reform, ultimately culminating in their formal return to the Euro-Atlantic community of like-minded nations. Henceforth, the Baltic states have gone to great lengths to counter the narrative seized upon by populists across western Europe that previous rounds of enlargement have ostensibly “weakened” the Union. On the contrary, the countries admitted during the 2004 “big bang” round of enlargement had previously undergone rigorous development via the Union’s conditionality mechanisms, ultimately making reasonably smooth transitions. Therefore, the Baltic states continue to stress that the door to membership must remain open to the Western Balkan states on the condition that they do more than pay lip service to reform.

Furthermore, while the 2004 round of enlargement was clearly underpinned by the normative imperative of correcting historical injustices, it is evident that traditional economic and security interests influence the disposition of member states toward prospective enlargement. In Sofia, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was “in the interest of peace and security for all of us that we have a secure Western Balkans region that is developing well economically" [6]. In this regard, it is evident that external actors in the regional security complex are forcing the EU to adopt a more robust posture in the Western Balkans. To be precise, an external locus of pressure has presented itself via increased Russian assertiveness in the Western Balkan region. The most brazen manifestation of the growing Russian presence has been the participation of Russian “state bodies” and “nationalist structures” in a failed coup attempt in Montenegro with the aim of destabilising the nation before its accession to NATO in 2016 [7]. Furthermore, Russia continues to exert influence upon its traditional ally Serbia, as evidenced by President Vucic’s conspicuous presence at the 9thof May festivities in Moscow earlier this month [8]. From the Baltic perspective, it is important that the EU remains capable of adopting a robust posture in the face of Russian assertiveness amid the presently deteriorating security environment. Consequently, despite the geographical remoteness of the Western Balkan region, the Baltic states remain wary of Moscow’s attempts to carve out spheres of influence in the region and beyond.

Next, turning to the consideration of internal factors shaping the future relationship between the EU and the Western Balkans, the Baltic states are vitally interested in preserving the Union’s ability to pursue its intergovernmental mode of foreign policy decisively and coherently. In this regard, it becomes imperative to examine the internal schisms that the prospect of Western Balkans enlargement has generated within the Union. France and the Netherlands have emerged as the most manifest sceptics of enlargement in the short-term, citing the need for ambitious and far-reaching reform of the Union at present time [9]. Furthermore, the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, which has historically been a strong advocate of enlargement, is likely to further stunt enthusiasm for accelerating the enlargement process. It must, however, be caveated that London continues to consider the Western Balkan region a priority through the prism of its post-Brexit “Global Britain” strategy.

Additionally, there are several bilateral disputes that continue to hamper dialogue and engagement at the European level. The participation status of Kosovo remains uniquely sensitive, as only 23 of 28 EU member states recognise the Republic of Kosovo as an independent state, with Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania and Greece diverging on this position. For Spain, the participation of Kosovo is exceptionally problematic due to the backdrop of protracted political crisis in Catalonia, as Madrid remains wary of any engagement that could be construed as support of separatism. Finally, the further integration of the Western Balkans into the Union remains constrained by the intractable dispute between Greece and FYROM over the latter’s claim to the name of Macedonia [10]. Greece has already leveraged this dispute to block Skopje’s accession progress several times, and this issue will continue to hamper political cooperation as long as it remains unresolved.

The Baltic states themselves do not have any notable tensions with any of the Western Balkan nations, nor do they in principle object to deepened EU engagement in the region. Nevertheless, the previously outlined disputes involving several member states, such as Croatia, Spain, and Greece, signal that the Western Balkan enlargement question has the potential to undermine EU unity at a time when coordination in EU foreign policy is at a premium. From the perspective of the Baltic states, the guiding principle of “effective multilateralism” that captures the EU’s conduct of external relations remains as important as ever. Thus, underscoring the pressing need for convergence in EU foreign policy, it becomes imperative that countries like Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina synchronise their positions with that of the EU on key issues, such as the Ukrainian Crisis. Consequently, while Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius recognise the need for the EU to play a more active role in the region, they are most unlikely to insist on policy tracks that may exacerbate friction within the Union.

Ultimately, it is apparent that the Western Balkan nations must retain a strong European perspective.  As evidenced by the migration crisis and growing Russian assertiveness, the Western Balkan nations are bound with the EU by shared challenges and concerns. Furthermore, the Western Balkan region represents a direct challenge to the credibility of the EU’s enlargement policy, for the consequences of regressing toward a protracted and inconsistent accession process have been explicitly demonstrated by the deterioration of EU-Turkey relations. Consequently, the Baltic states, having themselves experienced the transformational potential of enlargement, favour sustained EU engagement in the region. Nevertheless, it must be underscored that the Baltic states are unwilling to sacrifice EU unity at a time when the Union is under pressure to assert itself on the global stage. In the present context, it is evident that contemporary currents of scepticism within the EU demonstrate that the Western Balkan states, justly or not, cannot expect to be shepherded along through the integration process. The Baltic states can and should share experience and offer technical support, but the political will to pursue difficult and often unpopular reform must come from within.

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Publicēts 01. jūnijs, 2018

Autors Tomass Pildegovičs