Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
The EU is not quite sleeping, but it is watching the Western Balkans as if it were not affected by events there. Worse, the union does not have the right tools to address the challenges emanating from the region. The shootings in Macedonia on May 9–10 are therefore highly symbolic: whatever happened in the town of Kumanovo and why it happened now, the events show a dangerous mix of criminal networks and ethnic tensions in a weak political environment—a common feature in the region.
The EU’s enlargement policy, however, is geared toward governments willing to implement reforms in the interests of their citizens. If Western ambassadors now voice their “serious doubt on the government of Macedonia’s commitment to the democratic principles and values of the Euro-Atlantic community,” they will also have to make clear how real progress is possible.
While the European Commission that entered office in November 2014 announced five years of enlargement consolidation, Macedonia has just been through five years of standstill—if not backsliding. The country’s naming dispute with Greece, which objects to Skopje’s use of the name Macedonia without a geographical qualifier, prevented it from formally advancing toward either EU or NATO membership.
It is now widely accepted that the EU’s neighborhood policy was not up to the task of dealing with Ukraine and Russia before 2014. The review of the policy currently under way tries to rectify this shortcoming. The EU should consider a similar Copernican revolution for its enlargement policy, which also needs more classical foreign policy tools to deal with a still-unstable region.
I fear that the way the EU is approaching the Western Balkans is much the same as the way it is approaching the Southern Mediterranean—North Africa and the Middle East. That is, stability is paramount and trumps progress and democracy. As a result, the union risks aligning itself with increasingly illiberal and authoritarian regimes and figures by default, and mistaking their power for stability.
So in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a new EU initiative for the country’s European path puts the union at risk of being seen by citizens as allied with unaccountable political elites. Once a process or initiative is declared and backed at a high level, it has to be deemed a success, whatever the reality.
Hope of resuscitating the stalled dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo acts as a brake on criticism of governments in both Belgrade and Prishtina, whose policies are out of step with EU values and commitments. In Macedonia, the government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is embroiled in a massive scandal—conveniently punctuated by a sanguinary operation against separatists.
If the EU wants the citizens of these countries on side, it will need not only to be more vocal in defense of its values but also to hold these governments to account—including financially—when they violate those values.
Yes. The EU says it has one vision for the region: to integrate all the countries into a union of democracies with market economies. The union has a tool for this—an accession process that offers a sense of direction for reformers and investors.
But for many years, trust in the EU’s enlargement policy has been declining everywhere: in EU member states, in candidate countries, among those who govern, and among those in opposition. It is as if the whole region is waiting for Godot—for a European future that will never arrive and does not depend on what is being done now.
Nowhere has the corrosive effect of this trend been more devastating than in Macedonia. A decade ago, the country was a front-runner in the reform process, but today, it suffers from every Balkan ill: paralysis, a devastated economy, polarization, fear of conflict, and a complete lack of perspective.
So what is to be done?
First, the EU needs to define clear redlines on core human rights issues that hold for all countries. Such issues include the abuse of secret services, the imprisonment or mistreatment of journalists, and blatant interventions in the judiciary. When these lines are crossed, the EU should say so loudly and clearly.
Second, the European Commission needs to make its assessments of candidate countries in its annual progress reports clear, fair, transparent, and readable.
Third, the EU should stop discouraging Bosnia and Herzegovina from submitting an application for membership during 2015.
Fourth, Albania deserves to receive a date for accession talks to begin later this year, also as a signal to its neighbors.
Finally, the EU should stop seeing Kosovo as an adjunct to its Serbia policy. The way the union has handled the visa liberalization process for Kosovo has been disgraceful—neither strict nor fair.
There are two situations in which a country finds the EU wide awake and fully focused: first, when people get killed; and second, when the state is close to becoming an EU member and the union worries whether it is capable of implementing EU legislation.
Most of the Western Balkan countries today are reasonably stable and still far from EU membership. It is therefore understandable that the crises in the Eastern and Southern neighborhoods have deflected attention away from the region. The EU remains engaged in the Western Balkans, though not at the necessary level to put the region firmly on track toward membership.
Paradoxically, the EU’s record is worst in the country where the union achieved its greatest success. In 2001, the EU played a crucial role in averting civil war in Macedonia and creating a new basis for interethnic relations—the Ohrid Agreement. In 2009, the European Commission recommended the beginning of accession talks, but these were and remain blocked by Greece because of an ongoing dispute over the use of the name Macedonia.
This blockage on Macedonia’s path toward EU membership contributed to a serious deterioration of democratic governance and to the possible return of interethnic tensions. The bloodshed in Kumanovo, where eight police officers and fourteen gunmen were killed on May 9–10, should be a wake-up call. Direct engagement by the EU’s top political leaders is needed to finally break the deadlock and avert a dangerous new Balkan crisis.
The answer is yes, the EU is sleeping. It is now twelve years since EU leaders offered the Western Balkans a membership perspective. Instead of working intensively on bringing the countries of the region into shape, the EU has turned the preaccession process—the steps taken before the start of official accession negotiations—into a drawn-out obstacle course overburdened by conditions.
The union has also neglected the region’s economic dimension, believing that preaching the necessity of a conducive business environment will be enough to improve the situation and attract investment. It has not been enough. People are dissatisfied with their living standards. The recent (irregular) mass exodus of Kosovars to the EU was a sign of their desperation.
Russia has begun to meddle, and there have been incidents like the shoot-out in the Macedonian town of Kumanovo on May 9–10. Both the area around Kumanovo and neighboring Kosovo, where most of the alleged attackers are from, belong to the poorest regions of the Balkans.
The EU needs to make the Western Balkans fit for accession as soon as possible—politically, but also economically. This includes opening up parts of the EU labor market to workers from the region. This would not only be a political signal, but the resulting remittances would also help bridge the gap until the region’s economies pick up. Germany and many other EU countries already face shortages in certain professions—why don’t European states offer jobs to people from the Western Balkans?
The EU is not sleeping, but it is moving and acting all too slowly in the region’s new geopolitical environment.
The commitment made at the EU summit in Thessaloniki in June 2003—that all Western Balkan countries should become full EU member states when they fulfill all the requirements—stands firm. Croatia’s accession in 2013 proves the commitment.
There never was going to be another enlargement under the watch of the current European Commission. The commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, ruled that out for domestic purposes when he entered office in November 2014. The EU’s soft power continues to be effective in the Western Balkans, which are a kind of geographic inner courtyard of the EU and NATO. All the countries of the region want to join.
Yet the EU must do more. The stagnation of Macedonia and of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a case in point. Macedonia has been a candidate country since 2005 and has not budged. This has produced nefarious, dangerous domestic dynamics whose negative results are now being witnessed.
The EU needs to be much more proactive and engage in moving the process of negotiation forward more robustly. The so-called Berlin Process launched by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in August 2014 provides a framework for future enlargement and is a step in the right direction. This process is ultimately about the EU’s overall credibility. There will be no new wars in the Balkans, but that is not enough.
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