In times when the European Union and its citizens are grappling with global and internal challenges, there is no place for the enlargement process on the list of the top priorities of the new European Commission. Yet that doesn’t mean that the focus will shift away from expectations regarding the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, an improved electoral system and media freedom in Serbia
While there are doubts about whether the new appointments in the European Commission will slow or accelerate the accession process, it seems obvious that this topic won’t be on the list of the EU’s top priorities. Yet the new EU leadership will insist on promoting the rule of law in the Western Balkan and will rethink the support to ‘stabilocratic’ leaders in the region as the guardians of the stability, say CorD’s interlocutors.
New commission – New Demands
It is to be expected that the new European Commission will demand more vigorous reforms aimed at building institutions for the rule of law, media freedoms, the fight against corruption and achieving conditions for fair and free elections
Since the German Chancellor launched the initiative to encourage the faster integration of the Western Balkans into the EU in 2014, known as the “Berlin Process”, assurances have been arriving from various addresses that the accession of the region is of “strategic interest” to the Union.
For now, Serbia and Montenegro are the only ones negotiating with Brussels, with their prospects of entry linked to 2025, but progress is slow. Also contributing to this is the lack of unity and a clear political strategy of the EU for the region, which suggests that the Union has learned little from the wars of the former Yugoslavia, which uncovered deep historical divisions among the most influential members – which are being repeated.
While the EU begins to focus more on its neglected backyard, a “thorny path” awaits Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, and one of the biggest obstacles is represented by the Kosovo conflict, which has the potential to spill over and engulf the region.
The signing of a legally binding agreement between Belgrade and Pristina would undoubtedly have a positive effect and represent a “decisive step” on Serbia’s European path. But Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have failed to revive the dialogue that was postponed in November 2018 due to Pristina’s unilateral decision to impose import duties on goods coming from Serbia and B-H, and now the Americans are stepping up their engagement. The outcome is uncertain.
Progress in eu integration for the Western Balkans requires new elites who will no longer follow the policy of “stabilocracy” that has allowed the influence of Russia and China to penetrate and nationalist and autocratic tendencies to rise
When it comes to enlargement, a problem is presented by the very different approaches of Berlin and Paris. Macron is not too keen on the word “enlargement”, because – in his opinion, which is shared by some other members, like the Netherlands – that would weaken the fragile cohesion of the Union and encourage populists or right-wingers.
And while the region continues to hope that Merkel will change Macron’s approach, progress requires new elites who will no longer follow the policy of “stabilocracy” that has allowed the influence of Russia and China to penetrate and nationalist and autocratic tendencies to rise – with which the EU has lost credibility.
Taught by such an experience, it is to be expected that the new European Commission, apart from supporting the Brussels dialogue, will take on the platform contained in the latest EC report and demand more vigorous reforms aimed at building institutions for the rule of law, media freedoms, the fight against corruption and achieving conditions for fair and free elections.
The speed at which that will progress doesn’t depend exclusively on Belgrade, rather also – to a large extent – on the consolidation of relations within the Union, with Macron has made it clear that he is against enlargement that isn’t preceded by the implementing of internal EU reforms. The model of “reform in return for integration” has been decommissioned, because the mood in many EU member states doesn’t favour enlargement.
Florian Bieber PhD.
Centre for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz
What the New Commission Really Wants
There are several dampers to the EU accession process – one certainly would be the choice of a Hungarian commissioner for enlargement and a second would be the French veto over accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia
The new commission offers both good news and bad news for Serbia and the Western Balkans. First, a new High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy offers the opportunity to reset the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, and could thus re-energise a process that recently runs out of steam. On the other hand, the naming of a Hungarian candidate to the enlargement portfolio has been a problematic choice.
While Hungary supports enlargement, the autocratic rule of Orban has isolated the country in the EU and gives it limited weight. A Hungarian commissioner can not credibly speak for the countries of the region in Brussels, as key member states, in particular sceptics of enlargement will view a Hungarian commissioner with reservation.
The EU will be important in facilitating a dialogue between the government and opposition in Serbia, yet considering the difficult democratic conditions in the country, two former meps might be too weak to manage it on their own
Thus, naming a Hungarian commissioner raises doubts over the commitment of von der Leyen to seriously promote enlargement. In the region, a Hungarian commissioner cannot credibly promote the rule of law and democratic freedoms, which undermines the EU agenda in the region. Finally, the French veto over accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia has put a further damper on the prospects of enlargement. This drastically reduces the likelihood of bringing the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue to a successful conclusion. After all, the dialogue was based on the EU, offering a path to membership if the parties resolve their differences. What reward can the EU plausibly provide now?
The EU will be important in facilitating a dialogue between the government and opposition in Serbia, as it has also done in the past in Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia. Considering the difficult democratic conditions in the country, I am sceptical that two former MEPs can manage on their own.
Kukan and Fleckensteiner are senior and experienced mediators, no doubt, but also in North Macedonia, we noticed that the engagement of MEPs is not enough to turn the corner. It remains to be seen whether there will be the backup and more senior-level engagement by the commission, but signals are rather discouraging at the moment.
Slobodan G. Marković
Professor at the University of Belgrade Faculty of Political Science and the Institute for European Studies
Stabilocracy won’t Easily Give way to Democracy
Although the countries of Central Europe also had to wait 14 years to join the EU, today, the global situation is quite different, and scepticism regarding EU enlargement is more pronounced. As such, a parallel with the Western Balkans cannot easily be drawn
The new European Commission will continue to be dedicated to the enlargement of the EU, given that the parliamentary majority in the European Parliament clearly supports the EU prospects of the countries of the Western Balkans. However, some member states may not be equally enthusiastic.
This scepticism regarding new EU members is a result of several factors:
1. There is traditional enlargement fatigue that was strengthened by the recent economic crisis in Greece;
2. There is a growing view that the transformation of some EU member states that joined the Union in 2004 and 2007 did not go at all as expected – if there are EU member states with 15 years of membership facing serious problems in terms of the rule of law, then there are serious doubts about how the countries of the Western Balkans could achieve the same standards;
3. There are also perceptions that these countries – due to their specific cultural issues, such as Serbia’s links with Russia or huge Islamic populations in some of them – may have difficulty harmonising their aspirations with the EU, both in terms of the Union’s values and in terms of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy;
4. Finally, since 2015 the European migrant crisis has strengthened fears in some public discourse in the West that there would also be a wave of economic migrants from the countries of the Western Balkans once they join the EU.
The combination of all of this is the real reason why there are problems with enlargement and doubts about it in some member states. The general rise of populism in some Western countries only amplifies all these claims formulated in opposition to further EU enlargement. The focus on reform within the EU is just a good excuse for the leaders of some EU member states.
There will be no real democratisation of the western balkans without real prospects of EU enlargement, since the EU is the only foreign actor that’s genuinely interested in the democratisation of the region
One should, however, bear in mind that the countries of Central Europe also had to wait 14 years to join the EU and that all of them also faced ups and downs in their aspirations. The main problem is that the global situation is different in 2019 compared to the 1990s. There are different global compactors in the region, and no real democratisation of the Western Balkans could be expected without real prospects of EU enlargement since the EU is the only foreign actor that’s genuinely interested in the democratisation of the region.
Regarding Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, the EU will continue to insist that Belgrade and Pristina reach a comprehensive and legally-binding agreement on the normalisation of their mutual relations and that Serbia cannot join the EU before such an agreement has been achieved. No substantial changes in this general attitude should be expected. What is not clear is what the division of roles will be in the process normalisation between the EU and the U.S.
There is a kind of consensus in academic circles dealing with EU integration that, in the second decade of the 21st century, EU officials have given preference to stability over democratisation in the countries of the Western Balkans. In other words, the so-called system of “stabilocracies” has been supported in the Western Balkans.
In the following period, one could expect a slight refocusing of the EU on issues of democratisation and the rule of law in the Western Balkans. That will include the subject of media freedoms, reform of the judiciary and electoral conditions.
However, stability is likely to remain a keyword for some time – and as long as the full normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina is not achieved.
Chairman of the Governing Board, European Policy Centre
Enlargement Will Not Be on the List of Priorities
The new European Commission will focus on policies and mechanisms that lead to the assuaging of citizens’ fears regarding unpredictable economic, social, climate and security challenges, rather than the union’s enlargement process
The new composition of the European Commission reflects the fragmented political reality of today’s Union. Its composition is determined by the balance of power among political groups within the European Parliament following the May elections. A priority of the next European Commission will be policies and mechanisms aimed at assuaging citizens’ fears regarding unpredictable economic, social, climate and security challenges. Under such circumstances, the Union’s enlargement process will not be high on the list of priorities.
Member states will undoubtedly continue their own kind of “nationalisation” of the Union’s enlargement policy throughout the term of the new European Commission. Some member states have already expressed their views on the need to reform the accession negotiation process as a precondition for opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. Any possible change in the methodology of accession negotiations will also have a direct impact on Serbia’s negotiations. It remains to be seen how and to what extent this will impact on the dynamics of accession negotiations.
The EU is changing and that will influence its enlargement policy. Serbia needs to keep a close eye on these changes and adapt to the value-based demands of membership much more decisively, honestly than before, and unambiguously
Two issues will undoubtedly continue to be a focus of interest within the European Commission and among member states: respect for the fundamental principles and democratic values that form the basis of the EU, with a particular emphasis on the application of the rule of law; and advancing good neighbourly relations and resolving bilateral disputes.
At a juncture when the president of the Commission has announced the launch of an energetic fight for respect for the principle of the rule of law within the Union, it is realistic to expect that the EU will require unequivocal evidence of candidates’ compliance with the noted principles and democratic values. Serbia will have to prove that it’s capable of ensuring courts and prosecutors’ offices are able to function without political influence; that its parliament conducts controls over the work of the executive; that elections are held in accordance with democratic standards; that it respects the freedom of the media and the right of journalists to do their jobs without fear and pressure; that it is prepared to tackle high-profile corruption cases and prosecute those responsible, regardless of their function or affiliation with those in power.
Serbia has simultaneously recognised the importance of enhancing regional cooperation and its role in creating a free flow of goods, people, capital and services in the Western Balkans is worthy of praise. It is also significant that this initiative is open to all countries in the region. Establishing a customs union and cooperation based on the four freedoms that underpin EU member states’ cooperation can serve not only to further boost trade cooperation and economic development but also send a message testifying to the maturity of the countries of the region.
However, the implementation of this initiative will depend – among other things – on the normalising of relations with Kosovo. In that sense, the EU will insist on the continuation of negotiations with Pristina. There is no doubt that the EU will remain the chief mediator in the negotiations. In this regard, it is realistic to expect the nomination of a special envoy who will play an important role in finding a compromise solution in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.