Bear with Balkans.
Squaring the circle of the Balkans accession to the European Union.
There was a true storm in a twitter tea cup this week, when it became clear that France was insisting on vetoing any formal step of EU enlargement towards Balkans, stating that Europe needs to focus on reforming the accession process before entering “an endless soap opera” of membership talks. French President called the enlargement debate as “bizarre”,even questioning the wisdom of allowing visa-free travel for Balkan countries before opening the negotiations.
EU Commission clearly stated that Albania had made a concerted effort to eradicatethe issue of corruption among its judiciary, while North Macedonia resolved a dispute with Greece when it changed the country’s namefrom Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to Republic of North Macedonia, thus have clearly earned the right to start accession talks. Outgoing EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn called the lack of approval “not a moment of glory for Europe — it’s the third time in 16 months that we are discussing this important issue!” and clarified that the majority of member states had supported the European Council’s recommendation to start negotiations.
Few months ago, Germany seemed also in doubt of the wisdom of allowing accession talks for Albania and North Macedonia but the geo-political considerations swayed German Bundestag to (conditionally) allow for negotiations. German EU affairs minister Micheal Roth stated that Berlin’s position was “crystal clear — the EU takes responsibility for stability, democracy, and reconciliation in the Western Balkans and that means keeping our promises”, adding “Much can be lost by creating a strategic vacuum there.”
This was echoed by other member states. “There are other countries — Russia and China — who are just waiting for the EU to withdraw from this region,” Polish EU affairs minister Konrad Szymanski stated.
Many others were concerned that EU failing to deliver the promised to Albania and Kosovo will have detrimental effect to the forthcoming talks between Kosovo and Serbia on the final peace settlement, a high priority for the new High Representative/Vice President-designate Josep Borrell. He had already announced that his first visit as High Representative/Vice-President would be to Kosovo,to help jump start the talks.
“Good luck with that” — was the feeling of many commentators: “The dialogue [between Kosovo and Serbia] was launched offering enlargement as a reward for progress on resolving the dispute. If there is no tangible reward the EU can offer at the moment to the region, the incentive for compromise in the region diminishes,” warned Florian Bieber, Professor of Southeast European History and Politics and Director of the Centre for the Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz.
Yet in the midst of the Balkans brouhaha in Brussels, few observers reflected on the reasons for French position. President Macron was rather consistent on his objection to further enlargement steps, if one remembers his statements made during Sofia Summit and Belgrade visit few months ago. [I wrote about this for the Atlantic Council earlier this fall]. The French public opinion (as well as German, Danish, Finnish, Dutch) is vehemently against EUenlargement. After a long and tough year battling Yellow Vests, last thing Macron needs is more headlines about the new wave of Albanians, Macedonians and other Balkanites arriving in French banlieues. Furthermore, Macron is probably also contemplating on the political landscape post-Brexit, and in that line of thinking, the enlargement policy is a “collateral damage”.
Even more fundamentally, there’s an argument to be made that “key EU states, most notably France, never really wanted the EU to enlarge to the east”.
One of the top former French diplomats, Ambassador Gerard Araud, who has served in the UN, the US and Israel, was indignant of, what he called the “carpet bombing”the French were experiencing on the question of EU enlargement, stating that enlargement debate is“avoiding legitimate questions about the future of the EU, ignoring the growing mistrust of our citizens vs Brussels and forgetting the major challenges the EU is facing.” He added “Business as usual can’t be the answer.”
What’s the elegant exit from this quagmire? One clever proposal already came out. Gerald Knaus, the founder of European Stability Initiative, agrees that “France poses the right question”when it comes to the enlargement. Knaus argues that EU should extend invitation for the negotiations to Albania and North Macedonia, but should also reform the current accession process into a “merit-based process that brings Balkans closer to EU — an integration in substance”. The proposal put forth in a lengthy thread of tweets, is for the Balkan Six (Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) not to be offered the actual full membership, but include them in an open process to join South East Economic area — covering the same issues as EEA, where countries like Norway are members.
This proposal makes sense. Enlargement is realistically a non-starter for France and not only France, regardless whether Albania and North Macedonia open the negotiations or not. A new agreement called SEEA would the single market and enable the free movement of labour, goods, services and capital from and to those Western Balkans countries that provide evidence of progress in reforms. Such progress should also unlock cohesion funds for the best achievers. EU members could placate their public opinions with a promise that there will be no new enlargement until the existing members are in a consensus that absorption capacities allow for such an endeavour.
As Vessela Tcherneva from the European Council on Foreign Relations commented, this proposal is based on the current thinking of several experts and there is a “coalition building around this idea, largely acceptable by the EU member states”.
The reaction from the region was more muted. Agon Maliqi, one of Kosovo’s foremost analysts, commented from the margins of the Belgrade Security Forum that such a solution will weaken the EU pull and will project no symbolic power that the real accession has. He states that the “answers to region’s architecture will have to come from WB democratic grassroots — no more experiments from abroad.”
Maliqi may be right that the real drive from reform must be sourced locally, yet reforms make sense only if people see palpable change within their societies but also in the interaction of their societies with the wider European family. Neither internal changes nor external projections of those changes are plausible without a far closer relation between the EU and the Western Balkans Six.
A far bigger issue that remains when discussing new pre-accession mechanisms in ever-expanding toolkit of mechanisms is the fundamental problem of tense bilateral relations which are preventing any meaningful progress in the region. Having countries “progress” towards a firmer relation with EU either through current process or a future one is an exercise in futility if the remaining bilateral issues are not tackled first. Environmentally and economic standards or chapters may be fulfilled, but without first closing open bilateral chapters, SEEA risks becoming another Berlin Process — a mechanism enabling meetings where everyone tries best to ignore the raging elephants in the room.
A correct chronology of steps can be envisaged to enable innovative thinking in EU enlargement process:
Firstly, member states should create a level-playing field in the current process by delivering long-promised visa liberalization for Kosovo and starting of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. Secondly, an intensive round of diplomacy is needed to deal with most urgent bilateral issues. Josep Borrell — with the strong support of the member states and the US government — should help reaching of the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.
Simultaneously and promptly, France can give a contribution by becoming a leader it desires to be in working around the new set of credible carrots for and with the region, focused on SEEA type of agreement. As a part of this agreement, the process of the border demarcation between all Balkans Six candidates has to be completed as the very basic pre-condition to build regional trust — and the region’s trustworthiness.
One thing that neither EU, nor the people of the Western Balkans have is time. Lack of agreement between Kosovo and Serbia will inevitably see Serbia increase diplomatic offensive against Kosovo with little or feeble reaction from the West. It doesn’t take much imagination or knowledge in game theory to know that in response, any future Kosovo government, will be pressured to reinforce its sovereignty in the north. The result can take the region back and make the public in EU member states even more sceptical of the enlargement.
There’s one more reason for Balkans to be fast. As Tim Judah reported recently, folks from Balkans are fatigued with the lack of progress and they may all collectively, just say “bye bye Balkans”, before any of the countries in the region are able to finish what was started in Thessaloniki already 16 years ago.
Petrit Selimi is the former foreign minister of the Republic of Kosovo and a Marshall memorial fellow at German Marshal Fund of United States.