Rosa BalfourSenior fellow, Europe program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

The straight answer is yes, however much Central Europe claims to be a friend of enlargement. Western Balkans leaders not only have playbooks to imitate, they also know what they can get away with as EU members.

But there is another, cynical answer, from the point of view of those who are undermining the quality of democracy in Europe. From a nationalist-populist perspective, the weaker the EU’s democratic norms, the more the EU can enlarge, and the more company nationalist-populists would have sitting at the EU decisionmaking table.

So there are plenty of reasons to not only take seriously the credentials of aspiring countries and the demands of civil society to improve the quality of their democracies, but also to make sure that the EU develops stronger peer review processes to keep its own standards in check. Leaving the European Commission out in the cold in its rule of law procedure vis-a-vis Poland is not a credible way forward. The commitment of all democrats, starting with the member states, is required if the EU wants to remain a credible international actor—and play a benign role in improving our institutions at home.

Piotr BurasHead of the European Council on Foreign Relations Warsaw office

The key reason why the EU should open up to the Western Balkans is geostrategic—it is not different than the rationale of the 2004 Eastern enlargement. Despite the retreat of liberalism in Central Europe, the whole continent is today much better off than it would have been without Poland’s or Hungary’s EU accession. But recent developments in CEE undermine the belief that the EU offers a framework that prevents democratic backsliding. The legitimacy of EU transfers to the East, solidarity with the Eastern members, and, last but not least, the policy of further enlargement have all suffered a major setback.

To be sure, those problems in the CEE region are often just a pretext for Western elites to politicize the new East-West divide. However, some governments may perceive the accession of the Western Balkans as an opportunity to change the EU’s modus operandi. It is thus hard to see how the next phase of enlargement could happen without a new equilibrium on the meaning of values and rule of law within the EU. This is why dealing with both the Western Balkans and Poland will decide Europe’s future in terms of its geostrategic outlook and normative foundations. Both issues are strongly linked together.

Tobias FlessenkemperSenior fellow and Balkans Project Director at Centre international de formation européenne (CIFE)

Enlargement is transformation: of those joining and of the EU itself. The essence and raison d’être of the union is transformation. Each enlargement added new characteristics to the EU: equality between former unequals (including the UK and Ireland in 1973); the Mediterranean and emancipation in the 1980s; a triumphant ordoliberal common market in 1995; and the state- and nation-building of Central Europe in 2004-2007. They all transformed the EU: some for the better, others for the worse.  

The better question to ask might be: Is enlargement damaging the European Union? The “wave” metaphor is telling: issues that surfaced during the last enlargement wave have come back as residual in the next, and not all are dissolved over time. Today, the national politics of Central Europe are damaging and infectious. Hence they produce antibodies to protect the union’s transformative nature for the rest. Enlargement happens once transformation is seen as real. The historic atmospheric changes in Central Europe made waves. Societal changes in the Western Balkans today just make ripples. Central Europe’s predicament—and Brexit—remind us that fundamental issues are not going away. Enlargement waves are fanned by the countries joining. Turkey stopped. How long until the Western Balkans’ ripples turn into waves?

Joerg ForbrigDirector, Fund for Belarus Democracy and senior transatlantic fellow, Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

The more intriguing question is whether enlargement has damaged Central Europe. Many in Western Europe never fully appreciated enlargement and the painful transformation that Central Europe had to undergo to join the EU as the great achievement that it was. They deny the huge benefits that enlargement has brought to the entire continent, and they still view it as an act of Western charity toward the poor East. This has left many Central Europeans with a feeling of second-class Europeanness that is chipping away at their once-huge support for EU integration.

Adding to this is a clash of visions for Europe. Western or core European integration is seen as overly invasive in Central European nation-states, who regained full sovereignty only a quarter of a century ago and are loath to surrender it now to the European project. Enlargement also ended effective EU conditionality toward individual countries. Central European politics has learned that the rules that had to be respected as EU candidates can be bent or blocked as EU members. Finally, comprehensive and EU-funded efforts at building a democratic political culture basically stopped when Central Europe joined the bloc. This lack of investment into citizens and civil societies is backfiring now.

Agata Gostyńska-JakubowskaSenior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform

The EU’s big bang enlargement has always generated mixed feelings. Its opponents used to argue that the EU should have first consolidated cooperation among its existing fifteen members before it took young, post-communist democracies on board. Eastern enlargement, they often repeated, would hamper EU decisionmaking and was therefore a recipe for paralysis.

But after the financial crisis erupted, Poland—not Germany or France—was the only EU country that avoided recession. And when euroskeptic populism swept through Western Europe, Central Europe continued to champion further deepening of the single market and recorded high levels of support for EU membership. Central Europe’s race to the top was capped by the elevation of Donald Tusk, then Polish prime minister of Poland, to the position of European Council president.

Sadly, the current retreat from the EU’s fundamental values by some governments in Central Europe has undermined this success story and reinvigorated old arguments. If Central European governments do not return to the pro-EU course that brought their countries success, they will not only push their public to the margins of the European project but also make it even harder for other nations with European aspirations to join the club.

István GyarmatiPresident of the International Centre for Democratic Transition, Hungary

No, it is not Central Europe in the first instance. The region definitely makes enlargement more difficult. However, the ultimate problem is not Central Europe but that the European Union is not ready. The EU is, at this stage, a half-finished project that is not sustainable unless it goes in one of two directions. It must finish the integration process it started or go back to being a purely economic community. The second option would, however, likely result in disintegration.

The most urgent issue is to complete the establishment of the eurozone. The euro was conceived as a fair weather tool, and the Maastricht criteria do not secure stability. The integration of the eurozone must cover all other fiscal areas. The second key area to address is the EU’s common foreign and security policy, which will create the tools that Europe needs to protect and promote the union’s interests on a global scale.

Finishing these processes—including the necessary institutional changes—will restore the credibility of the EU and equip the union with the tools its needs to deal with extremism and offer a chance to those members, who at present, do not feel the need for deeper integration.

István HegedüsChairman of the Hungarian Society Europe

The European Commission’s new enlargement strategy for countries in the southeast corner of Europe is a long-awaited leap forward. This ambitious process should more or less complete the reunification of the continent after the big bang accession of former communist countries in 2004-2007.

Still, the question is very relevant. Populism and illiberalism are not exclusively present in the eastern part of the European Union. But these spreading ideologies have received political representation at the top of the national executives in the region, especially in the cases of Hungary and Poland. It is a peculiar story, how the European institutions and liberal-minded member states have not been able to stop Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian leader who has systematically undermined the democratic system and the rule of law at home after his party’s victory in 2010.

It is understandable that there is a fear in the air of an even deeper East-West divide in Europe after any further enlargement. Still, the solution should not be to exclude applicants who fulfil the necessary criteria. Instead, current EU mechanisms should be operationalized to monitor and, if necessary, sanction member governments—not member states—that regularly breach the shared values of the European community.

Balázs JarábikNonresident scholar in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The biggest limit to enlargement is the citizens of the European Union—at least those who feel that, due to economic inequality and stagnant wages, the period of shared prosperity and discretion to the elites is lost. As economic convergence between Eastern and Western Europe has been slowing down and the (still fragile) middle class has been hollowing out, political polarization in Central Europe has become the norm. Migration has helped to prop up support for populist politicians and highlights the values gap between Eastern and Western Europe.

Yet when it comes to enlargement, Poland has traditionally been the biggest supporter of Ukraine, and Hungary of the Western Balkans. However, the ways in which some Central European leaders are behaving are harming not only the enlargement process but their own agendas, too. Corruption remains the most serious issue across Central Europe. Yet according to the latest Eurobarometer survey, an astonishing 79 percent of EU citizens think that having too close ties between businesses and government is the main reason behind corruption—which means that the problem is not only about the East. Because the gap between the perception and the practice of corruption is far too wide, anticorruption campaigns are starting to serve political and partisan interests, when the role and competence of the state are the issues that matter most.

But pushing the message from the West to Central Europe, which broke free from the communist yoke less than 30 years ago, that “there is no alternative” is a recipe for more resistance. Instead, the focus should be on EU reforms that could return hope to citizens in areas like economic governance and the political credibility of the European institutions. Once the EU finds its way back on the path of internal cohesion, enlargement will become a less divisive issue.

Monica MacoveiMember of the European Parliament

The situation in Central and Eastern Europe has a damaging effect on enlargement, except for Romania due to its judiciary and people. Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate has conducted investigations that in 2016-2017 led to the final conviction of four ministers, 25 MPs, one MEP and 75 mayors, among others. What’s more, only Romanians took to the streets in large numbers. Over 600,000 people rallied in January 2017 to defend the rule of law, democracy, and express their commitment to the European values—and the protests continue.

Unfortunately, many politicians from all the CEE states have one thing in common: the lack of political will to fight corruption, because they benefit from it. Many nationalist and populist politicians from Eastern Europe say they encourage enlargement. Nevertheless, their actions undermine the process by setting a negative example that reduces the trust of citizens from prospective members in the EU and in its power to offer them a safer, fairer, and more prosperous living environment.

Furthermore, the Kremlin is making use of every single weakness of the EU. The situation in the region creates the perfect climate for Russian propaganda to destabilize the union.  

Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe

No. Enlargement is killing enlargement. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic are not EU poster boys in terms of their illiberal populism and media manipulation. But far more dangerous to future enlargement is the failure to eradicate corruption and state capture, notably in Romania and Bulgaria, and importing border disputes into the EU.

The economies of the Visegrád Group are doing well, even if their politics remind some of the 1930s. The murder of an investigative journalist, Ján Kuciak, who was digging into payments to leaders of the ruling party in Slovakia, is a reminder that normal democratic rules do not apply.

The EU allowed Cyprus to become a member without first resolving its Northern Cyprus problem. Greek Cypriot leaders, once in the EU, voted down Kofi Annan’s reunification proposals despite their acceptance by Turkish Cypriots.

The Croatia-Slovenia dispute over Slovenia’s access to the sea may seem Ruritanian but shows that these two EU member states cannot coexist as normal EU partners do in accepting frontiers.

Greece and Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina—all refuse to settle borders or even recognize each other. If that persists, Western Balkans enlargement won’t happen.

Oana PopescuDirector of GlobalFocus and former state secretary for EU Affairs in Romania

Juncker’s Western Balkans visit is more about encouragement than enlargement, after being the first to discredit the process inside and outside the EU. The apparently reversible character of accession reforms will surely add to the union’s reluctance to take in more countries that are likely to become future headaches. Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU despite unfinished business in justice reform; Croatia was treated less leniently, as Serbia is now.

Nevertheless, the EU’s newest member states were the success stories showcased as inspiration for candidates. They were also willing and able to transfer concrete knowledge of the accession process. The fact that they are now actively challenging the rules of the game—both at home and in Brussels—is pulling the rug from under pro-European reformists’ feet in the Western Balkans. It also gives backing to political forces who have every interest to preserve their current privileges and impunity, and who have been stalling the enlargement process all along.

But for all that, there is still Brexit-driven EU reform. As CEE countries are looking more like their non-EU neighbors than vice versa, multispeed Europe will probably accommodate flexible engagement levels, whereby the Western Balkans will move closer to the EU, while CEE keeps gravitating around the EU’s core orbit—which, by the way, has its own values to scrutinize before expecting others to internalize them.

Dušan ReljićHead of Brussels Office at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik-SWP)

I have heard high-ranking EU officials say that EU enlargement is a no-go topic because of the experience with the “new” members of the club. Enlargement was always about solidarity with future members of the union. However, so they say, the new members showed no solidarity when it was unity was needed to accept refugees coming to the EU. “We do not need any additional Trojan horses,” is the exact quote.

Conversely, I have never heard a pundit from Brussels admit that between 2005 and 2016 the six potential EU member economies in southeast Europe (the SEE6) have made the EU richer by 97 billion euro through their trade deficits, mostly with Germany and Italy (about 75 percent of the SEE6 trade is with the EU). They also pay substantial interest rates for capital borrowed in the EU. Moreover, about four-fifths of their banking system is in the hands of financial institutions from the EU. The truth is that the Western Balkans are socioeconomically and politically already part of the EU, but with many disadvantages and no voting rights.

At the end of the day, it is ideological: some people resent the fact that the EU has not stayed a Carolingian league. For them, Central Europe’s current irresponsibility is a welcome argument against further enlargement. Others, who feel responsibility for the future of Europe, should push for the accelerated entry of the SEE6.

Stephen SzaboResident senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies

Central Europe clearly disappoints any expectations that NATO and EU enlargement would provide a framework to develop and sustain open societies.  Even the term “open society” is now a target of the Orbán government in Hungary, given its association with George Soros. Poland appears to be following in Hungary’s footsteps, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia close behind. But with similar trends apparent in older EU member states, it seems myopic to single out the newer ones. 

Given that the Central European states have had only had fourteen years of experience in the EU and less than three decades of living in open societies—with almost no democratic experience before 1990—it is important to take the long view. One full generation of Central Europeans have grown up in an open Europe and with democracies, flawed though they might be; they will be followed by more.  For western Europeans, it is important to see that the same dangers and trends exist at home and not just in the “other” Europe and America. The Western liberal order is in crisis—not just Central Europe. It is vital that all Europeans see these issues as common threats.

Ivan VejvodaPermanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences

Yes and no.

Ever since Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, there has been a constant stream of complaints that they should not have been accepted due to their lack of fulfillment of key democratic and rule-of-law conditions. Now that Hungary and Poland, the former model countries of post-communist transition, have regressed their democratic standards and values, there are a growing number of voices among EU member states who are asking for either a temporary pause or an end to enlargement. The nationalist-populist wave that has risen in Europe overall has strengthened the anti-enlargement camp, making it more difficult to support the continuing EU enlargement process that has been heralded as the union’s most successful project.

But, enter geopolitics. The EU awakened to the fact that Russia, China, Turkey, and certain Arab states were—in a variety of ways—trying to get a foothold in the Western Balkans, displacing the EU’s role in the region, and showing the union’s weaknesses. Just imagine the EU (and NATO) security situation today without the four countries mentioned and facing an assertive Russia. So geopolitical reasoning weighs heavily in favor of enlargement, in spite of the bad image some have of it.

Bodo WeberSenior associate at the Democratization Policy Council

Yes and no. The cases of Romania and Bulgaria only reaffirm one of the few lessons (partly) learned by the EU from earlier rounds of enlargement: to substantially strengthen reform conditionality on democracy and the rule of law and to make no compromises when letting in new members. In contrast, developments in Hungary and Poland seriously weaken the EU’s enlargement policy toward candidate countries. Serbia is asked to implement reform measures for an independent judiciary, while the Orbán regime in neighboring Hungary has subverted its judiciary for eight years—without consequence.

The fact that member states that had “graduated” by demonstrating democratic transformation before they entered the EU later succumbed to illiberal counterrevolutions profoundly undermines the case for enlargement among EU citizens. This has long-since ceased being a problem confined to illiberal member states, or to the enlargement process alone, as the refugee crisis has demonstrated. So long as members that adhere to foundational commitments refuse to confront the existential threat to the EU posed by the lack of institutional mechanisms in place to either discipline illiberal members or throw them out of the union, they will continue to de facto surrender to Orbán’s undermining of Europe’s democratic values.