Future of Europe

New EU dynamics and the need for ‘responsible enlargement’ to the Western Balkans

30 July 2019
Othon Anastasakis
Jessie Hronesova

‘A group of countries at the bottom that are falling behind and often falling apart.’

-Paul Collier, ‘The bottom billion’ 2007


As the European Union changes its top leadership after the 2019 European Parliament elections, and with a new European Commission in place, it is only pertinent to discuss the direction of future EU policies, one of which is the prospect of the EU’s enlargement to the Western Balkans. The case of the six Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) that aspire to become EU members poses many challenges both for the EU and the Western Balkan region. In the past, enlargement has been perceived as an elite driven process, based on political will of the EU members and the monitoring duties of the European Commission. Yet, there are potential obstacles, sometimes underestimated, that lay in the path to EU enlargement – an increasingly enlargement-phobic public in some EU member countries and a new set of issues that have been creeping up in the enlargement agenda.

The High-Risk Strategy of Enlargement

Five years ago, the regional aspirants in the Western Balkans remained disheartened by the then newly appointed European Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker’s statement about no enlargement over the next five years, confirming a clear enlargement fatigue and pushing an already marginalised process further into neglect. Putting aside the start of accession talks with Serbia in 2015, the Western Balkan region has seen very little progress in its relationship with the EU during the last five years and in some cases even regressing. The slow progress in the accession chapters between the EU with Serbia and Montenegro, the postponement of the start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, and the lack of any progress with Bosnia and Kosovo (and if one includes the failure of accession talks with Turkey) confirms the wider trend of an almost frozen enlargement.

Signals from the region about readiness to reform have been mixed. In June 2018, after almost 20 years, Athens and Skopje finally reached a deal on the name of Greece’s northern neighbour, and the Republic of North Macedonia was born. For its part, Albania proceeded with some much-needed judicial reforms which were high on the EU’s conditionality list. Yet, the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo has deteriorated, and the unity of Bosnia is still at risk. Moreover, as far as the quality of democracy is concerned, all of the Western Balkan states are worryingly backsliding. While the states in the region find it hard to reform, the EU’s reluctance to commit has been, to put it mildly, unhelpful.

With Ursula von der Leyen’s assumption of office as the new President of the European Commission should we expect a different approach to enlargement? Or more of the same? In fact, does it even make a difference who is in the driving seat in Brussels?

With this article we claim two interconnected arguments: first, that the real directive power in the EU increasingly lies with the publics; and second, that the issues concerning enlargement are not just matters of political or economic preparedness included in the enlargement packages, but also matters of internal security, migration and extremism that have been defining the Zeitgeist of today.For the governments of EU member states that appear reluctant to endorse enlargement, further expansion of EU borders has become a high-risk strategy in the face of rising populism, nationalism and public unrest. Gone are the days of the Commission-led enlargement process when the attraction of Europeanisation and EU’s transformation power were the true drivers of enlargement and reform. National publics’ predispositions and today’s key issues have to be considered. At present, enlargement progress appears to be less and less the matter of political and economic criteria-based negotiations between Brussels and the candidate states, and more of an outcome of the relationship between the EU governments and their enlargement-sceptic publics.

The Uneven State of Play in the Western Balkans

Since 2003, when the EU invited countries of the Western Balkans to apply to join the EU, only Croatia made it to the club. Each of the other prospective members is at a different stage in its dealings with the EU (see Table 1). So far, the process can be characterised not only as complex and procedural (i.e., rigorously adopting new legislation to progress) with the inclusion of additional criteria (such as Chapter 23 on judiciary and fundamental rights) that differ from previous enlargements, but it has also been non-credible and inconsistent. While the main overarching conditions remain the rule of law, regional cooperation, and socio-economic convergence, some other important conditions are weakened inexplicably, leading to a ‘stop and go conditionality’. This has been most visible in the realm of human rights. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, constitutional reform that would allow minority groups to run for state-level posts (the so-called Sejdić-Finci case) has been dropped as a condition for Bosnia to apply for EU membership. Bosnian police reform was also first presented as a precondition before being abandoned as unfeasible. Serbia’s lack of progress on minority rights, freedom of expression and media, and anti-discrimination was first downplayed in the enlargement reports and subsequently ignored too.

Moreover, deadlines for submissions of key documents have been extended and the prospect of unlocking the next stages, such as visa liberalisation, delayed. Constant sources of frustration are delays in postponing the next phases in accession (e.g., such as in 2011 when the Council postponed the decisions to give Serbia candidacy despite the green light from the Commission, or most recently, the June 2019 postponement of negotiations’ opening with Albania and North Macedonia despite the Commission’s recommendations).

Table 1. The Current EU-Balkans State of Play (as of June 2019)

Country Application submitted Candidate status granted Negotiations opened Membership granted
Croatia 2003 2004 2006 1 July 2013
Montenegro 2008 2010 2012
Serbia 2009 2012 2015
Albania 2009 2014
North Macedonia 2004 2005
Bosnia-Herzegovina 2016


In the meantime, the problem of adoption versus implementation continues to persist and any regional reform success is reduced to a series of paper adoptions without real enforcement. Many laws in Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia are acquis bullet-proof, as some local commentators put it – no one cares to enforce them as there are no sanctions and watchdog through the judiciary. As a result, shortcomings in media freedom, fight against corruption and human trafficking are consistently highlighted as top priorities in most reports by international watchdog organisations despite the adoption of appropriate legislatures.

The two current candidates closest to accession – Serbia and Montenegro – are dominated by controlling strongmen who have increased state capture and obfuscated both electoral frameworks and party financing. Despite Serbian leader Aleksandar Vučić’s seeming paper willingness to deliver on EU reforms, Serbia has in fact seen a deterioration in its democratic quality, according to Freedom House, among many other analyses. Serbia’s close relationship with Russia, the blocking of progress on Kosovo’s sovereignty and the current clamping down on free media are alarming. Montenegro and its ‘most durable’ leader in Europe, Milo Djukanović, had to face vigorous street protests in Podgorica against his unabated clientelism and corruption. Although Montenegro is certainly the closest to membership (and in 2017 also joined NATO), its captured state institutions, high levels of corruption and weak rule of law raise fears about its preparedness.

Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina are even further away from any prospects of starting accession talks. Kosovo has not even submitted an application, as its sovereignty remains disputed both in the Western Balkans and the European Union where five member states do not recognise it (more than a decade after the declaration of its independence). Moreover, its tense relationship with Serbia and its decision to impose import tariffs on Serbia and Bosnia, as a retaliation for Serbia’s refusal to endorse its membership in international organisations, has resulted in tensions.

Bosnia-Herzegovina has been following its now repetitive practice of failing to create central governments after elections (the latest held in October 2018). Its constitutional dysfunctionality and political divisions pose an insurmountable obstacle to its ability to act as a state that delivers basic services to its citizens and operates at the international level.

At the same time, the region has also seen some recent positive developments which give some hope and show signs of ‘responsible leadership’.

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama has attempted to strengthen the country’s rule of law and improve its appalling criminality rates. While critics say he will need to deliver on these reforms and enforce law, both ‘paper’ and real progress has been made. In return, he has faced strong domestic opposition and boycott in local elections that have weakened his legitimacy.

North Macedonia went even further with its dramatic change of leadership in 2017, making some progress on key reforms in the judiciary, the fight against corruption, organised crime, intelligence services reform and public administration, but also in its neighbourly relations. The path-breaking Prespa Agreement with Greece about its name that entered into force in 2019 has set an example of diplomacy and political foresight for both states in the region. It has also finally allowed the country to join NATO.

The Cacophony of European Attitudes

Highlighting some progress, the Commission in May 2019, in its surprisingly hard-hitting situational analysis of each of the countries, reinforced its previous advice to open negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania despite for the first time delivering a strong array of criticism towards the rest of the countries. But its advice has so far fallen on deaf ears.

This is short-sighted: postponement erodes credibility and weakens incentives for domestic reform. Postponement also has a knock-on effect on other much weaker and unprepared Western Balkans countries, like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Moreover, while there still is an internal consensus across the Western Balkans that the EU is the political end-goal, EU’s popularity is declining in some of the key regional countries, with only 42% Serbs in favour of membership (as opposed to 93% Albanians).

It is obvious that the EU can apply more active leverage on Serbia and Kosovo and impose stricter political conditionality on Bosnia. This has delivered some results in the past even in the most difficult areas such as Serbia’s cooperation with The Hague Tribunal and the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. EU’s resources, funds and soft power have worked previously. Also, the recent case of Greece shows that if the EU member states want to be tough with conditionality, they can show their ‘hard-hitting’ face to an outlier country.

So why not deal with the Western Balkans’ ‘unfinished business’? Why are western capitals reluctant to endorse more engagement in the spirit of enlargement to the region? The heart of the issue is in domestic politics of member states, which then influences the reluctant approach of the European Council.

France calls on deepening and consolidation of the EU while opposing any further expansion, as recently re-confirmed by Emmanuel Macron during his visit to Serbia. The French have become the loudest enlargement-sceptics in Europe even under pro-European Macron who sees widening as a clear threat to deepening. His position of no enlargement is primarily a domestic response to the National Front and the more negative public opinion vis-a-vis enlargement in France. France was also the first country to raise the issue of Polish workers in the EU and the impact of eastern enlargement on migration.

Even the Germans,who expect to have more economic benefits than any other country in the EU from a future accession of the Western Balkans, and under Merkel introduced the Berlin Process of economic integration, are cautious in endorsing the start of accession talks in view of parliamentary opposition. The fragile Christian Democratic-Social Democratic coalition is weary of the rising Alternative for Germany and the migration fears within parts of German society. Although a traditional supporter of enlargement based on strict and rigorous conditionality,Germany is retracting from its EU enlargement policy while disagreeing with Macron’s ‘not yet enlargement’ stance.

The Netherlands and Denmark have voiced serious concerns about importing corruption and organised crime from the Western Balkans into the EU. Organised crime in the Netherlands run by Albanian groups has even led the Dutch government to request a suspension of visa-free travel from Albania. The cautious approach to enlargement by the Dutch was previously best exemplified in a referendum in 2016 on the EU-Ukrainian association agreement with 61% of the vote against.

The United Kingdom has decided to leave the EU altogether, mainly on an anti-migration Brexit platform. The populist Brexit strand was the first blow to the enlargement agenda, not only because Balkan countries would be losing a traditional advocate of their accession to the EU (as has been often stated), but more so because Brexit underlined the fear of East European migration and became a source of inspiration for other illiberal parties in Europe.

In the south, Italy with a new populist government dominated by its Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Mateo Salvini, no longer has any interest in investing efforts in enlargement given the Eurosceptic voices within its own ranks, but at least politically pledges to expansion. Greece, as one of the warmest supporters of enlargement, is still recovering from the massive impact of the recent eurozone crisis and is on a path of regaining credibility.

Among Central and East European publics, solidarity with potential new member states also varies. The EU’s younger member states like the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary contradictorily support enlargement in official statements, while at the same time use illiberal, anti-migration and anti-Islamic rhetoric at home. Accepting countries such as Albania, Kosovo or Bosnia that have large Muslims minorities has always promised to be a hard sell to their local publics.

The new members, Bulgaria and Romania, despite placing enlargement as one of the priorities of their recent Presidencies, have little leverage and credibility over the issue as they are themselves used as negative examples in the rule of law and independence of the judiciary.

Overall, it is the countries with the strongest populist parties in the north and west of Europe which provide the fiercest opposition to expansion. According to the December 2018 YouGov poll, the six Balkan countries are viewed with suspicion in six western and northern member states. More specifically, one can see that there is an overall negativity in seven north western advanced economies of Europe on the question of whether more countries should be allowed to join the EU, but with some interesting variance: as far as the potential accession of Norway, Iceland or Switzerland are concerned, the views are clearly in favour of enlargement; on the Western Balkan states, opinions are split with a more negative view especially in France and Germany; while with cases such as Turkey or Russia(!) opinions are overwhelmingly negative across the board.

Populism as the Enemy of Enlargement

There is no doubt that in the most advanced members of the EU, populist parties are on the rise. In addition, the traditional centre-right and centre-left domination is eroding. As the recent European elections show, on the positive side, the Liberals or the Greens had stronger performances; yet, on the negative side, many extreme and far-right parties consolidated their presence with their very loud reactionary voices. This more complex and polarised political reality has a bearing on how the publics in Europe view not only enlargement but other priorities such as economy, climate change, internal and external security, migration and relations with Russia. Building on their relative influence on public opinion, populist leaders in office, as well as far right parties in many EU member states, emphasise the issues of migration and internal security and connect these with further enlargement in their Eurosceptic rhetoric and populism.

And so it is populism that uses peoples’ anxieties and fears that has become the main enemy of any further enlargement. Fearful of importing problems with the rule of law and ‘economic migrants’, the European publics are sceptical about EU expansion. Across Europe, political elites have to consider their domestic audiences’ views that are hardening towards enlargement in the aftermath of the eurozone crisis when extremism and populism dominate the discourse. As a result, even mainstream parties have to adopt some of the rhetoric of the populist parties in their programmatic and government discourses.

Enlargement is simply not what it used to be. It is no longer only the prerogative of the European Commission along economic and political criteria, nor the exclusive outcome of the political will of the European Council.

Looking Ahead: Responsible Leadership in Practice

Despite the growing number of high-level meetings and summits between the Western European and Western Balkan leaders, the reality of enlargement is much more bottom up. On the Western Balkan side, the publics are becoming disaffected with their ‘non-performing democracies’ and impatient vis-a-vis the EU. On the EU side, the publics are becoming not just unwilling to expand the borders of Europe, but protective of their national borders too.

The new EU leadership has to grapple with a new enlargement reality which is no longer defined by enlargement fatigue, but by a new combination of issues which dominate the agenda and are close to the citizens such as migration, concerns over radicalisation, organised crime and internal security. Merging the Western Balkans enlargement with neighbourhood policy has not helped the cause.

One of the first priorities of the next European Commission should be to disconnect the enlargement from the neighbourhood agenda and tackle the current problems in the context of two different frameworks. While security and migration are real policy problems, they need to be part of a strong conditionality which could convince the European publics that the EU is serious in tackling them without demonising the region. The EU will have to use sticks and carrots wisely, so that local strongmen are no longer allowed to adopt paper reforms without enforcing them. State capture and rising illiberalism in the region pose significant challenges that will take years to overcome. But European citizens are facing their own illiberal politicians. Marginalising the Western Balkans further would only make the region more vulnerable to such forces and, consequently, cause more problems for the EU in the future.

At the backdrop of this new reality, the European Union is in need of ‘responsible leadership’ that would restore faith in its functioning and increase its democratic legitimacy. Who is in charge still matters even if the context has changed. The EU has to prove itself to its publics that it can deliver on ‘responsible enlargement’ that would not diminish any of the current benefits of membership, citizen’s rights or weaken their security. Enlargement by far remains the most successful EU policy, especially to Central and Eastern Europe. While further enlargement needs to be both deserved and responsible, it would be short-sighted and dangerous to lose faith in its potential.