The EU enlargement policy towards the Western Balkans is increasingly losing its relevance. Some of the local leaderships have entirely abandoned the reform process (notably, in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), while an overwhelming majority of the EU members have turned their attention towards other questions. The European societies are growing more and more unenthusiastic about any new rounds of enlargement, and some skeptics have even alluded to the idea of scrapping the DG Enlargement altogether in the next European Commission.
Jean-Claude Juncker epitomized, in mid-July, the current mood on enlargement inside the EU in the presentation of his political guidelines to the European Parliament: “The EU needs to take a break from enlargement so that we can consolidate what has been achieved among the 28. This is why, under my Presidency of the Commission, ongoing negotiations will continue, […], but no further enlargement will take place over the next five years.”
The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group produced, last May, a timely report that nicely captures the EU enlargement puzzle. More importantly, the report argues that, at present, there are four possible scenarios concerning the region’s European future: A. Business as Usual, B. Alienation from the EU, C. Abandoning Enlargement, and D. The Balkans Big Bang.
Although the report avoids clear pronunciation of a policy direction or prescription, one may discern a certain preference for the fourth scenario. Arguably, the second and third scenarios describe possible degenerations of the Business as Usual policy that has admittedly reached a dead-end. The crux of the Big Bang scenario is that the EU should struggle to resolve all outstanding problems and accelerate the accession process with the aim of simultaneously integrating all of the Western Balkan EU aspirants. The report correctly highlights the imperative of avoiding the addition of any new conditions to the accession criteria, and convincingly prompts the EU to focus on the transfer of the acquis communautaire.
Notwithstanding the report’s insightful arguments and analytical merits, the Balkans Big Bang scenario, as a policy prescription, does not seem to offer a way out of the current impasse for a series of reasons: First of all, as the report itself acknowledges, it presupposes a change of attitudes of the European leaderships and societies that is not expected anytime soon.
Second, it does not improve the cost/benefits calculations of the local leaderships that drag their feet to reforms. For instance, what would be the impact of the Big Bang scenario on the Bosnian Serb opposition to necessary reforms? To the extent that Bosnia would no longer risk being left behind in the EU enlargement process (as all Western Balkan candidates would simultaneously join in), the cost of obstruction may be further reduced. After all, the EU has repeatedly rewarded the lack of progress in Bosnia, teaching the local leaderships how not to comply with EU prescriptions.
Last, but not least, the idea of treating all EU applicants as a single group risks disaffecting the frontrunners. For instance, what incentives would be provided to Serbia and Montenegro to quickly implement difficult reforms if their EU accession is linked to the progress registered in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina?
Any alternative to the Business as Usual scenario should strive to deal with at least two complex problems: 1) Reluctance of the leaderships of the EU applicant countries to assume political cost, and 2) Large scale opposition (if not hostility) to enlargement in several EU members.
With respect to the first problem, we need to pay closer attention to the time lag of enlargement: the EU applicants are expected to assume several adaptation costs during the accession process, whereas, their reward (i.e. full membership) would come much later in one piece. However, the Balkan leaderships are not eager to make any compromises over highly politicized problems (e.g. ethnic conflicts) while their EU accession looks remote. Under the current circumstances, it seems to me that the only way forward is to reverse the order of priorities in the accession negotiations, frontload the easier, more technical aspects of the process (consisting of the transfer of most of the acquis) and leave the most challenging issues to be dealt with at the end of the process, when membership will be within sight.
With respect to the second problem, enlargement cannot be enforced upon EU members, and any attempt to hastily push forward the process would definitely create backlash. Given that the Balkan applicants would not be ready to accede anytime soon, the EU institutions may consider somehow depoliticizing enlargement for a few years, and treat it more as a technical, bureaucratic process. This is not a proposition for a slowdown or pause in enlargement. It is, instead, a call for more intensive, day-to-day, practical work on the field for the transfer of the acquis [much like the Big Bang scenario suggests too], and less devoted energy to institutional/political steps, such as the opening of chapters. As Gerald Knaus demonstrated in an ESI proposal last January, there is no clear correlation in accession negotiations between the opening of chapters and the attainment of progress in the implementation of EU-prescribed reforms. It goes without saying that the aim here is not to undermine, render irrelevant, or dismantle the institutional procedures of enlargement. It is, rather, to move forward with a problem-solving and outcome-oriented approach to reform at a time when the danger of a general standstill in enlargement is looming. The gradual re-politicization of EU enlargement would naturally return with the arrival of good news from the region concerning the attainment of concrete progress in reforms. As for the European institutions, they would not cease at any time to fully monitor the process and assess any progress.
There are definitely drawbacks and challenges in this scenario, and one may, of course, come up with entirely different propositions (scenarios F, G and so forth). At the minimum, this post keeps the debate going.