The western Balkans and the EU
In the queue
The door to membership remains open, but the region must do more to get it
The statement was “controversial and populistic,” says Stefan Fule, the outgoing enlargement commissioner, because no Balkan country would have been ready to join in the next five years. “It was a wrong message to the western Balkans at a wrong time”. Rumours spread the enlargement job would be dropped in Mr Juncker’s new commission. A few angry words (and tweets) from Carl Bildt, the outgoing Swedish foreign minister, helped head that off. To drop the enlargement portfolio, he said, would be a “very bad signal” and an “abdication of responsibility”.
The appointment earlier this month of Johannes Hahn, an Austrian, as the new commissioner, led to a search for meaning in his job title: neighbourhood policy and enlargement negotiations. The neighbourhood comprises six ex-Soviet countries plus the southern Mediterranean. Charles Tannock, a British member of the European Parliament, suggests that Mr Juncker’s downplaying of enlargement “is to assuage public opinion”. It has become a harder sell, he says, because of fears of organised crime and migration, quite apart from the unrelated controversy about a future membership of Turkey.
The western Balkans have lost the previous strong support of Britain, which mainly worries about immigration these days. But Germany has become more active. However, the deeper problems lie not within the EU but in the region itself. The progress of Bosnia, with its dysfunctional government, has been stalled for eight years. That of Macedonia remains blocked by a dispute with Greece about its name. Kosovo is so far behind that it remains the only country west of Ukraine whose citizens cannot travel to the EU’s Schengen zone without a visa.
This leaves Montenegro, which is negotiating, Albania, which became an official candidate in June, and Serbia, which has a green light to begin talks and hopes to do so by the end of the year. Tanja Miscevic, Serbia’s chief negotiator, has mixed feelings. Putting the emphasis on negotiations is a good thing, she says, but political commitment also matters.
There is a risk, says a new report by The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group of analysts, of a “Turkish scenario” of talks that never end. That could open up other dangers, including meddling by Russia or Turkey. The report suggests that giving up the goal of EU membership, even if not formally, would have consequences “for democracy, inter-ethnic relations and for long-term economic investments”.
Luckily the western Balkans will shortly acquire one new ally in Brussels: Federica Mogherini, the Italian who is to be the EU’s high representative for foreign policy. Her country, like Mr Hahn’s, knows the Balkans well and understands that enlargement is a security issue. A stable Balkans is an asset for all, but an unstable and poor one could export crime and migrants or even lurch back into conflict. For Mr Juncker, says Miroslav Lajcak, the Slovak foreign minister, enlargement is clearly not a priority; but this need not cause the Balkans undue alarm. As Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign-affairs committee gruffly sums up, they just need to do their homework.