The war in Ukraine has underscored the heft as well as the limits of the EU. Putin decided to invade a neighboring country in order to prevent it from integrating, slowly but steadily, into the union’s institutions and market. What is at stake is the much-debated power of attraction of the EU. Ukrainian refugees are seeking safety in the member states west of their country’s borders. In response to the invasion, Kyiv has lodged a formal membership application and is expecting to hear back from the European Council during the council’s June 23–24 meetings about whether the country will be granted candidate status. The EU is furthermore flexing its geopolitical muscles: providing weapons to Ukraine and sanctioning Russia to bring up the costs of Russia’s aggression.

Dimitar Bechev
Dimitar Bechev is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where he focuses on Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe.
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At the same time, the EU is underperforming on other fronts. It is having a hard time convincing countries aspiring to join the union to adhere to its sanctions. Serbia is a case in point. Though Belgrade supported the UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Putin’s invasion and even introduced several symbolic measures targeting Russia’s ally Belarus and the family of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, it has refused to discontinue flights by the national carrier, Air Serbia, to and from Moscow. As in 2014, the Serbian government is reluctant to implement trade and financial sanctions too. Cutting imports of Russian natural gas, a goal outlined by the European Commission, is not in the cards either, as Belgrade recently secured a new supply deal with Moscow. The situation is replicated in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Serb leader Milorad Dodik, currently a member of the state’s tripartite presidency, has effectively vetoed any punitive measures against Russia. While Brussels is showing its teeth to the Kremlin, EU enlargement is falling flat when it comes to motivating the Western Balkans to follow Brussels’s lead.

But there is more bad news too. Enlargement is supposed to anchor democracy and help entrench the rule of law in the EU. New member governments would implement reforms and be rewarded by the union. But the evidence that this is actually happening—or indeed that this has ever been the case, even at the peak of the EU’s influence in the 2000s—is scant. Hungary and Poland, two member states that joined in 2004, have been paragons of democratic backsliding: the progressive dismantlement of the rule of law, encroachment on media freedom, and harassment of civil society. In the Western Balkans, it is more appropriate to speak of democratic stagnation. Though the situation differs from country to country, international watchdogs that keep tabs on democracy record, in general, no major improvements or dramatic drops. The exception, of course, is Serbia, which was downgraded by Freedom House from “free” to “partly free” in 2019. EU accession negotiations, ongoing since 2014, do not appear to have affected the country’s domestic trajectory. The elections on April 3, 2022, saw President Aleksandar Vučić securing a new five-year presidential term, even though the opposition made gains in parliament and in the capital Belgrade. Still, Vučić’s dominance over the political system remains near-complete.

What has prevented successful EU enlargement?

Supply-Side Factors in the EU

Lack of Commitment

The most obvious explanation for the impasse is the EU’s own lack of commitment to the Western Balkans. The region is firmly on the union’s agenda but has never been a top item. Between the eurozone crisis in the early and mid-2010s, the crisis in Ukraine in 2014–2015, the refugee wave in 2015–2016, the coronavirus pandemic, and the more recent Russian aggression in Ukraine, there is always another priority that relegates Europe’s so-called inner courtyard further down on the union’s to-do list.

As a rule, the EU’s internal consolidation trumps its foreign policy ambitions, unless there is a direct link between the two. Arguably, with the Western Balkans, there is no such link: the region does not generate sufficient levels of instability to disrupt or threaten the EU. The status quo, imperfect though it is, appears to be tolerable for the twenty-seven-member-strong bloc. The Ukraine war may change that as fears of spillover into southeastern Europe spread, but it is too early to tell whether the EU will open its gates wide, even for Western Balkan front-runners such as Montenegro.

Neighborly Disputes

Furthermore, there are bilateral disputes involving member states and candidates, disputes that muddy the water even further. The quarrel between Bulgaria and North Macedonia about history and national identity is the most recent example, but there have been others in the past (for example, between Slovenia and Croatia and between Greece and North Macedonia). No doubt, such disputes will hijack enlargement policy in the future too. The EU has no formal mechanism to resolve them, and furthermore, calls for institutional reforms such as introducing qualified majority voting are unlikely to be heeded by policymakers. The best hope for Western Balkan states is to engage in informal mediation, with large member states such as Germany taking the lead. But even then, the chances for success are rather limited unless the parties to the dispute are genuinely interested in striking a compromise. In addition, member states can play a negative role in ways other than wielding vetoes. Think of Hungary’s inroads into the Western Balkan media and economy, as well as the close ties that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has cultivated with the region’s political elites.

Multi-tier Europe

On May 9, known in the EU as Europe Day, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech where he rehashed proposals from the early 1990s for a European political community—that is, a Europe of concentric circles where the six Western Balkan countries are relegated to an outer circle together with Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and possibly the UK. Though the Balkans could eventually join the EU, in the short to medium term they would stay out. On the positive side, they could be eligible for some of the benefits of integration into the single market and access to the EU budget. On the negative, they would not enjoy the privileges of membership, including access to decisionmaking power. To be sure, Macron’s vision is not universally shared in the EU. However, it is symptomatic of the day and age we live in.

In a Europe of concentric circles, the Western Balkan countries run the risk of being forever stuck in the waiting room. They could orbit the EU center of gravity but without crossing the line from nonmembership to membership. As a result, the incentive to conform with Europe’s conditions—whether in the area of democracy, economic governance, or foreign policy—would diminish. This is very much the state of play now, by default rather than design.

Enlargement’s longer-term prospects are likewise mixed. The war in Ukraine could end in a stalemate. The EU has a responsibility to support in all possible ways the legitimate Ukrainian government and the territory it holds on to. For all intents and purposes, Ukraine would then become even more deeply integrated into the Eurosphere. Such a scenario for Ukraine, involving the deepening of institutional and legal ties but not full membership, could apply to other states, including a post-Brexit Britain, a post-Erdoğan Turkey, and the Western Balkans.

Demand-Side Factors in the Western Balkans

Leadership

In the Balkan corridors of power, there is a lot of lip service around enlargement, but there are few true believers. Joining the EU is and always has been an elite-driven process in these countries. Political leaders craft policy and champion reforms in line with EU demands in the hope of being rewarded by Brussels and eventually their voters. However, since the EU in 2009–2010 removed visa requirements for citizens of Western Balkan countries (except for Kosovo) to travel to the EU, it has run out of immediate incentives to offer these countries. The extra financial assistance someone might receive for being a good pupil is not a sufficient reason for a government to embark on costly reforms, such as ensuring the judiciary is free of political interference or the media can investigate someone’s business partners. The ultimate reward, EU membership, is not within reach even if these reforms were to make headway. As a result, Balkan politicians, whatever the country or political stripe, are status quo players. They will do the bare minimum to clear a hurdle or two on the EU’s path but take extra care not to undermine their own domestic position while doing so.

Socialization matters as well. The region has been involved in European integration since the early 2000s. There have been numerous initiatives, formats, and institutional innovations, from the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe to the French presidency’s new accession negotiations methodology adopted in 2020, and from the Stabilisation and Association Agreements to the Berlin Process to the annual EU–Western Balkan summits. Western Balkan elites have learned how to talk the EU talk, but that does not mean they will deliver.

State Capture and De-democratization

EU policy is undermined by state capture. Sure enough, corruption and the subjugation of public institutions to personal or group interests are pretty common phenomena across the post-communist world, and EU members are no strangers to them. Corruption and state capture are not a priori incompatible with the EU, in all honesty. However, in the Western Balkans, there are factors that make them worse. Ethnopolitics is certainly one such determinant. In multiethnic societies, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina or North Macedonia, power-sharing arrangements help cushion conflicts but at the same time enable the misuse of scarce resources and the distortion of public policy. To survive in power or be able to compete domestically, leaders have to build, maintain, and support their and their party’s clientele through public sector employment, subsidies, and other material benefits. Entrenched corruption blunts the EU’s transformative impact, offers opportunities for other international actors (such as China, Russia, and Turkey) to co-opt local actors, and undermines trust in democracy. Such an environment is fertile ground for populist leaders and/or ethnocrats like Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama; Dragan Čović, the leader of the largest Croat party in Bosnia; and Ali Ahmeti, who heads the Democratic Union for Integration, a party supported by North Macedonia’s Albanians that has been part of governing coalitions in Skopje almost without interruption since 2002—as well as Dodik and Vučić.

Bosnia, in the throes of a chronic constitutional crisis, offers a cautionary tale. Here, Dodik has wrestled power from the central state to strengthen Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority entity within Bosnia. Čović, for his part, is pushing a sweeping electoral reform, ostensibly to safeguard Croat interests. In both cases, nationalism serves to cement politicians in power and gives them an even freer hand in managing resources. In the meantime, reformist leaders, such as North Macedonia’s former prime minister Zoran Zaev, have to adapt to political realities and accommodate rent-seekers in their governments. Governing coalitions committed to change, as the cabinets in Montenegro have been since the August 2020 elections, can be unstable and prone to infighting.

Disgruntled Publics

Surveys indicate that public support for EU membership varies significantly across the region, with Albania and Kosovo usually scoring high and Serbia low. A poll by Ipsos in Serbia published in April 2022 found that 44 percent of participants were against Serbia joining the EU, and only 35 percent were in favor—the first time that negative views prevailed. However, elsewhere in the Balkans, support for joining the EU is solid. The problem is that those pro-EU majorities do not generate sufficient electoral momentum to propel to power reformist leaders—or at least force incumbents to implement laws and policies narrowing the gap with the union.

More to the point, Europhile constituencies feel let down by EU leaders and institutions. Their grudge is that dignitaries like European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen engage uncritically with Vučić and appear to give him a free pass when it comes to domestic politics. Paradoxically, Euroscepticism is on the rise among groups that strongly favor the EU and wish that it took a more muscular role in enforcing its own stated values and principles.

At the same time, state capture and the deficit of accountability (because of the judiciary and the media being held hostage or heavily influenced by incumbents) is generating a counterreaction via civil society. The environmental protests in Serbia are only the most recent example in a long wave of civil society movements that picked up momentum through the 2010s thanks to the advent of social media. Other examples include the so-called Colorful Revolution in North Macedonia in 2016, protests related to personal identification numbers known as JMBG in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2013, and rallies against President Milo Đukanović in Montenegro in 2015. In nearly all of those instances, the EU has been a bystander. In some, protesters perceived the union—whether correctly or not—to be on the side of the governments they were opposing. It all boils down to the fundamental question of whether Europe is on the side of the status quo in the Western Balkans or is serious about its professed transformative mission.

Future Prospects

It is not unreasonable to expect that the war in Ukraine will lead to an EU push in the Western Balkans. Faced with the Russian challenge, the union will take steps to consolidate its position and prevent disruption. The European Union Force (EUFOR), the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, has been reinforced, as has the European Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX). Further, Serbia has been pushed to align with the EU’s sanctions on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Starting accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania will be another logical step, but the current government in Bulgaria, an EU member state, would have to lift its veto on starting these talks. (Perhaps Bulgaria could be motivated in the interest of stability in Southeast Europe or through EU incentives like economic compensation to Bulgaria, commitments to let Bulgaria into the eurozone, or even constitutional amendments in North Macedonia as demanded by Sofia.) However, the EU opening membership negotiations is a largely symbolic step. It won’t translate automatically to improvements on the ground on issues like the economy, the rule of law, or good governance. The EU is facing tough questions in the region, and there are no quick fixes. Its best bet is to forge a common cause with the bottom-up democratic movements in the Balkans. Yet this alliance won’t materialize easily, and even if it did, it might not prove durable in the face of the formidable obstacles that EU policy has to reckon with.

Much depends on the EU’s own evolution. A continued democratic retrenchment would cement the Western Balkans’ position on the outside of the union. Bosnia and Kosovo, still potential candidates, would suffer the most. Denied visa-free travel and excluded from membership in international bodies such as the Council of Europe, Kosovo is at risk of instability. But Serbia too will remain in limbo and will not be in a position to gain EU membership so long as there is no settlement of the Kosovo dispute. By contrast, a geopolitically minded EU welcoming into its ranks one or several Western Balkan countries in the coming decade could bring long-awaited change in the region. To be sure, democracy, prosperity, and the rule of law won’t flow automatically from membership, and much will depend on domestic conditions and dynamics. But being integrated into the EU is a necessary condition to advance what the union itself considers its core mission: spreading its values and principles to countries and societies on its fringes in the interest of political stability and economic growth.