The Ukrainian crisis will have significant consequences for the future of the European periphery, which is now increasingly becoming an arena for competing powers. The game started with EU and Russia, but it quickly involved the United States too. In its foreign policy, Russia seems to be unimpressed with the EU, but not with the US. Whether with or without the involvement of EU, the future structure of the international system in the outskirts of Europe is likely to become bipolar, with significant elements of multipolarism. The European core – including the territory of current EU – is likely to remain unipolar, with the European Union being „the only game in town“ in political terms, and with NATO playing the same role in security issues. But, this too may be challenged in the Baltic states, should Russia continue to act as a competing hegemon in the post-Soviet space. So far, it has been focused on what one can call the Russosphere, but the historical narrative used by President Putin recently indicates that Russia is still hurt by the Western expansion into Eastern Europe in the 1990s. This makes the three Baltic states potentially vulnerable too.
A new bipolar or multipolar structure of the EU Neighbourhood Policy will encourage all candidate-countries to rethink their own positions. Ever since 1989, the European Union played the role of a magnet, which strongly influenced domestic and foreign policy orientations of the former Eastern European countries. There was no real alternative, except de facto exclusion. The road to the European Union looked like a bobsleigh race. All the teams needed was a strong initial push and not to use checks while the bobsled is speeding, directed by track itself, and helped with the power of inertia. The difference was only in time, not in the road you take (there is only one, with no exits) or the end-destination. There were simply no alternatives to EU membership; anything but confident driving of the bobsled would cause a turning over with potentially dangerous consequences.
But now things have changed. For the first time since 1989, the European Union cannot decide on its own where its eastern borders will be. Faced with this challenge, the EU might wish simply to accept new circumstances, and to give in of the policy of enlargement – at least when it comes to the east. After all, there is not much enthusiasm for further enlargement within the current member-states. By accepting its current eastern borders as final, the EU could turn towards the once popular (and in the meantime somewhat forgotten) concept of a „deeper, not wider“ Europe. Those in the EU who are skeptical towards further enlargement – and there are many – might even silently welcome the new power of Russia. What is impossible is usually not on the agenda either. Thus, the end of enlargement.
But, what to do with the remaining Western Balkans? There, the EU has made significant steps towards the inclusion of candidate-countries. It has never given up on its Thessaloniki promise. Nevertheless, the criteria it poses to all of those who are waiting to join the EU, are unrealistic. The EU should not expect Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and even Serbia nor Kosovo to reach the standards of Finland or Sweden in order to become its members. These countries are rather specific for a number of reasons, including the still present consequences of the war, specific issues related to identity, as well as their multiethnic composition. Almost by all criteria, they look more like Cyprus than Finland, and the criteria for membership should take this into count. A more „tailor-made“ approach would facilitate the quick inclusion of these countries. This is now needed more than ever. Should they stay outside of the Union for too long, they might try to play the Second Cold War policies of „neutrality“ between the new European east (Russia), and the new West (EU). One should not forget the role of other non-European players in the Balkans: the United States and Turkey. If it does not integrate the whole of the Remaining Western Balkans (Restern Balkans), the EU risks increased political, economic and security involment of three non-EU actors in this turbulent region. Does Europe really want an „island“ in Europe which will be frustrated by the sense of being rejected by EU, and in which Russia, US and Turkey will play the key role?
Yet, the EU seems to be arguing in favour of toughening, not softening, the criteria for the EU membership of those countries. This policy is risky and needs to be changed. Instead of imposing criteria that these countries simply cannot meet, without risks for their own stability, the EU should lower the threshold and open the doors to them, even when, and if, they do not meet all criteria. Candidate-countries of the Western Balkans will be only worse-off if they stay outside the EU. They will improve their economic and democratic records only if fully integrated, not if left in a long-term limbo between the new West and the new East. None of them pose any significant risk to the stability of the European Union, even if they all join the EU tomorrow. A long accession process does not mean that, at the end of the road, countries that join the Union are in much better shape; just compare those who joined in 2004, with Romania and Bulgaria (2007) or Croatia (2013). As recent studies on the process of domestic transformation show, much of what in the final accession reports the EU treated as „serious reforming“ turned out to be not more than „successfully simulating“. This is likely to be repeated with the remaining candidates from the Western Balkans. Thus, is there much point in insisting on long accession, that might turn some of these states into „a new Turkey“; a country that has been waiting for membership for so long?
In responding to challenges posed by the Ukrainian crisis, the EU should speed up the EU-enlargement to the Western Balkans. It should offer a clear perspective of membership to all countries within the usual lenght of two terms in office of their politicians – thus, within eight to ten years. The nature of democratic politics encourages politicians to think about what is realistic in their own terms in office. Only exceptionally can they be attracted to something that has no chance of succeeding under their watch.
There are more risks for Europe in keeping the Western Balkans population of 20 million outside the EU, than in integrating them into the EU. After all, Ukraine is twice as large by population, and – as it turned out – a country with more risks involved. Yet, the EU was hinting at eventual candidate status for Ukraine.
Finishing the job in the Balkans should be the EU's first priority – especially in these new circumstances.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any official institution.