Time for a Balkan reboot

31 October, 2019

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Time for a Balkan reboot

Brussels has delivered a chilly message to citizens and politicians in the Balkans | Robert Atanasovski/AFP via Getty Images

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GRAZ, Austria — French President Emmanuel Macron’s non to starting accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia has killed a key EU strategy for transforming the region.

Not only has membership of the European Union become more remote for the two Balkan nations, it has also dimmed the hopes of others in the region.But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Winston Churchill was famously (mis)quoted as saying, the EU shouldn’t let a “good crisis go to waste.”

There are plenty of good reasons to disagree with France’s resistance to moving forward with accession talks. The fact that member countries, such as France, can’t agree to back the judgment of the European Commission — which found earlier this year that both North Macedonia and Albania fulfilled the criteria to start talks — is indeed a crisis. It tells EU hopefuls that governments don’t trust the Commission’s work, and makes the process appear unpredictable and convoluted.

Still, Macron is right in his diagnosis that the process is broken. That doesn’t mean the EU, unable to move forward until everyone is on board, should give up on the Balkans. It means it should look at the impasse as an opportunity to rethink its relationship with the region.

“The EU needs to develop a new foreign policy in the region that does not focus solely on the membership process at the cost of good diplomacy.”

For the EU, this could be the moment to finally focus on developing better tools to deal with autocrats in the region who have few incentives to let go of their informal control of national institutions. The Commission identified this as a problem last year, but has been too timid in its attempt to deal with it, choosing instead to make the enlargement process more complex and cumbersome, and kick the can down the road.

France has claimed to want to revamp the way the EU approaches accession talks. This rings hollow, given Paris has not taken the initiative in proposing how to do so. This is the EU’s moment to take them up on it.

The current gridlock should also be a wake-up call. The EU needs to develop a new foreign policy in the region that does not focus solely on the membership process at the cost of good diplomacy.

The bloc’s approach in the Western Balkans has long relied on dangling the carrot of EU accession as the main — and sometimes only — incentive to resolve open disputes.

Emmanuel Macron speech at European Center for Judaism

French President Emmanuel Macron was a key player in scuppering North Macedonia and Albania’s EU membership hopes — for now | Pool photo by Ian Langsdon/AFP via Getty Images

Take Kosovo and Serbia, for example, where dialogue with Brussels has been driven by the promise that if both countries normalized relations, their path toward EU membership would open up. This stopped working years ago, derailed by talk of border changes and uncertainty over whether the five EU members that do not recognize Kosovo would ever change their minds.

The prospect of EU membership was a powerful incentive for some. But it also took away attention from the problem itself. Too often, EU foreign policy relied on the promise of eventual membership as a sort of cure-all, rather than an investment in intensive mediation.The EU and Western Balkans need to think of new ways to work together. The six countries of the region could find specific policy fields in which they could integrate into the EU, without formally joining the bloc. The EU in turn could support these efforts with expertise and resources, including on projects related to the environment or infrastructure.

That way, even if membership turns out to be a longer way off than many had hoped, the region could already move closer to the EU. Countries could conceivably — even if it is not realistic yet — at some point become part of the passport-free Schengen zone, or the European Economic Area. Eventually joining the EU would then also become easier and quicker, as they would have been gradually integrated into the EU’s structures.

The latest stalling in the process for Albania and North Macedonia could also hold a valuable lesson for reformers in the region, who have too long relied on outsiders to support them. Now the message from Brussels is clear: You are on your own.

It may be painful, and is certainly not the message they had hoped for, but it may push those seeking to improve the way their country is run to take action, rather than hold out for outside help that hasn’t and won’t come.

“The EU needs to rethink how best to achieve its goals in the region: supporting a real, and lasting, bottom-up political transformation.”

For a society to truly transform into a consolidated democracy based on the rule of law, change has to come from within. The EU can, at best, provide a template and an incentive to take the necessary steps. But it can’t do the work itself.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and others in the region have made moves toward the EU in theory while undermining democratic institutions and independent media in practice. That trajectory isn’t in anyone’s best interest.

EU enlargement has always been a tool to transform countries, with membership itself being a bit of an anti-climax when it happens. The EU needs to rethink how best to achieve its goals in the region: supporting a real, and lasting, bottom-up political transformation.

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  • Florian Bieber Director, Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz
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