To avoid seeing the Western Balkans “wooed” or even seduced by China, Russia, or radical Islam, it’s critical for the EU to move forward with accession talks with the Western Balkan states as soon as possible. That’s according to Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who made the remarks at a conference organized by Friends of Europe earlier this month in Brussels.
The accession process for the Western Balkans had been largely shunted aside for roughly a decade, until EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker mentioned the issue as a priority in his State of the Union address this autumn. Now, EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn is saying that 2018 will be a “crucial” one in the accession process for the region. So far, Montenegro and Serbia are currently in accession discussions with the EU, having most recently opened up two new chapters amid expectations that they can join the bloc by 2025. Albania and Macedonia are candidates, while Bosnia and Kosovo have yet to begin serious membership talks.
But at a time when the EU is still nursing a serious hangover over its decision to let in a number of other member states – Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia – too early, the logic put forward by Rama simply doesn’t fly.
Over the past few months alone, there have been a series of worrying developments in the EU’s eastern and south-eastern fringes that has caused concern among Brussels and national lawmakers about the health of the bloc’s border states – and the implications for the union as a whole.
In the most recent report on the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), which was set up to assess progress in Romania and Bulgaria following their accession in 2007, auditors noted signs of serious backsliding in terms of key judicial and anti-corruption reforms. Most recently, in Romania, lawmakers approved new legislation that critics say will cripple the independence of the justice system and efforts to curb cronyism in one of the EU’s most corrupt member states. The move has prompted seven EU members to urge Romania’s ruling Social Democratic party to avoid the action, and has raised concerns that the European Commission might invoke article 7 of the EU treaty against Bucharest, as it did against Poland this month. Given such developments, the EU Court of Auditors’ 2016 report that both Romania and Bulgaria joined the bloc too early now looks highly prescient.
One of the few Balkan states in the EU, Croatia, has also seen its fair share of growing pains since it joined the bloc in 2013, as it continues to struggle with an unstable government and cronyism. In Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, Croatia and Hungary won the dubious prize of being described as the “new face of corruption in Europe,” having dropped significantly in the rankings from the previous year. The survey noted crackdowns on civil society and independent institutions as the main reason for the drop. The trend has caused concerns in Brussels that such issues will stir up corruption in other EU member states, set a bad example, and stoke tensions in the bloc’s fringes.
Clearly, joining the EU is no panacea when it comes to solving such issues. Nor does it guard against warming up to foreign powers. Last month, for instance, Beijing co-hosted the sixth China-Central and Eastern Europe summit in Budapest, a platform for China to build its influence and promote its investments in the region. So far, China has invested roughly $8 billion in the region and last year, trade between the Middle Kingdom and the CEE states rose 11% from 2011.
Last year bilateral trade between China and Central and Eastern European countries was up 11 percent from 2011.
Unfortunately, in the Balkans, efforts to play the EU against outside rivals is a time-honoured tradition, and one that has worked well for other states. Montenegro, in particular, has long exploited rivalries between Brussels and Moscow in an effort to have its way, and deflect what would otherwise be sharp scrutiny of its own record when it comes to mismanaged governance, rampant corruption, and organized crime.
Following general elections in October 2016, Montenegro’s longstanding prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, resigned from his position after suggesting that Russia had interfered in the election results. Yet Moscow has denied the allegations and the opposition has charged that they are fabrications intended to justify the ruling Democratic Socialist’s party continued grip in power.
Indeed, even though Djukanovic has stepped down, he is widely described as maintaining a steady presence in the political scene and the levers of government and business in the country, even suggesting that he will run in presidential elections in 2018. Meanwhile, Montenegro’s opposition has only recently suggested that it will return to parliament after having participated in a nearly yearlong boycott. Among other accusations, they charge that the elections of 2016 were fraudulent and that Djukanovic has been polarizing the country in an effort to maintain a grip on power.
Indeed, for Djukanovic, portraying his party as the only bulwark between the EU and Russia has been a profitable strategy, one that has allowed him to successfully distract from more unseemly issues – not least rampant crime – for decades.
At the very least, the difficulties that Brussels is having with some of the most recent joiners to the bloc, from Romania to Croatia, means that they are more likely than not to ignore Albania’s decisive rhetoric and take a harder look at key accession criteria before other Balkan states can come into the fold. For the health of the EU as a whole, ignoring threats from the like of Rama will be more critical than ever.