By Vesko Garcevic*
Will the European elections reshape the future of the Balkans? With the traditional power bloc, made up of the centre right and centre left [the European People’s Party, EPP, and Social Democrats] losing its majority in the European Parliament, will the strengthened far right make EU institutions even tougher when on enlargement?
Although the European Greens have good reason to celebrate their strong showing, the chief winners of these elections are the populists and far-right parties, who came first in Italy, France, the UK and Poland – four of the six biggest EU member states.
The significance of their victory in the elections, which also drew the highest turnout in years, and its impact on the EU, has yet to come clear as their votes are dispersed across several political blocs. Poland’s conservatives belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists while Hungary’s Fidesz party still belongs to the centrist EPP bloc, for example.
The Alliance of Democrats for Europe – the Liberals – might have been satisfied with their results had President Emmanuel Macron not lost to Marine Le Pen in France.
Meanwhile, the election results will change little in terms of the EU bleak perspective of Western Balkan aspirant members.
Oddly, this is not only because of the rise of populism and Euroscepticism. It has more to do with the attitude of the traditional European conservatives, liberals and their partners on the left.
Enlargement of the EU [read the Western Balkans] has been critically low on the EU agenda for years, and seems likely to remain so after the elections. Unlike before, however, most political actors in Western Europe, whether from the left or the right, view further EU expansion unfavourably.
The relationship between the two resembles a slow fade, a romance that is nearing its end. Partners don’t fully trust one another and consider alternative options, though they still talk about their common future.
“The candidate countries pretend they want to reform, and we pretend we want them to join the EU,” is a sentence that now more than ever describes what is going on between the EU and the Balkan region.
As EU membership looks like a pleasant but unachievable dream, so sounds the reassurance of local leaders to remain fully committed to democratic reforms.
We should note three arguments commonly used by the major EU members to justify their cautious approach to further expansion.
The first is the EU’s negative experience with new members and their democratic regression. Although valid and justifiable, this argument underrates the good performance of other “newcomers”. It is true that a few new members struggle with growing authoritarian populism, others, like the Baltic states, Slovenia or Malta, have come a long way to fully integrate into EU structures.
More importantly, this argument conceals the challenges that several old member states have with their far-right, populist parties, and which the elections’ results in France, Italy and the UK have confirmed.
The second argument is the underperformance of candidate countries. That is true. The current candidates have a problem with democratic reforms. However, the pace of their reforms has been slowing down over time not only because of their democratic deficiency and “reform fatigue” but also because of a vague, unclear EU perspective.
As recent experience confirms, EU membership is not a life-long protection plan from democratic backsliding. Placing candidates in a waiting room to be observed for decades doesn’t help. This will not speed up their democratic transformation.
The EU seems unaware of the risks of holding the Balkans outside its club. Keeping membership as a moving target means playing into Vladimir Putin’s hands. It means supporting an atmosphere that is conducive for local nationalists and Eurosceptics to thrive.
Finally, the rise of populist, far-right, Eurosceptic parties, whether in power or not, in both East and West, is shaping the political discourse and changing the political landscape in the EU.
The far-right populists effectively exploit people’s concerns about illegal migration, the influx of foreign workers and the security problems in order to push for a restoration of national sovereignty and devolution of power in the EU to pre-Maastricht times.
In the face of this challenge, the majority of traditional parties have moved further to the right, sharpening their rhetoric. Under pressure, EU enlargement is easy to sacrifice.
The recent meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s Macron with Western Balkans’ leaders confirms this worrying impression. Although the German and French leaders stated that they “share responsibility towards the Western Balkans, and it is in their interest for the developments in the region to take a positive turn” the meeting neither revived the clinically dead dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia nor encouraged hopes of EU membership in the foreseeable future.
Merkel and Macron have put the stability of the region as a priority in this moment, which can be seen as a supporting gesture to those in power and a cold shower to all who still protest against governments in Belgrade, Podgorica or Tirana.
An eye-catching detail is that the strategy, while vaguely referring to the European future of the region, doesn’t mention the future EU membership of the Western Balkan countries.
The case of Albania and North Macedonia confirms how unpopular enlargement is in Brussels. Although support for opening accession talks with the two countries is promised, many EU members would rather postpone the decision as long as possible, at least until September, if not December.
A few EU member states, including France and the Netherlands, have used the elections as an excuse to ask for a delay.
Their eventual decision to vote in favour of accession talks should also not be given a meaning it does not have.
This should be seen as a hard-fought compromise rather than as a sign of enthusiasm for new members. Anyhow, the accession process gives them plenty of opportunities to make it long and indeterminate.
Has the EU lost its leverage over the region, as its failure with the Serbia/Kosovo dialogue shows?
To properly address all these questions requires deeper analysis. But one thing is obvious – the EU can remain a game-changer if it wants to play that role.
A more robust approach, or a more vivid political commitment to enlargement among the major EU members, such as France and Germany, would turn the tide in the region.
The European Commission’s narrative about an EU perspective, if not empowered by existing EU members, means little. It alone cannot expedite needed reforms or generate change in the region. This can be done only by a reaffirmation of their membership perspective, followed by a well-defined plan on how to proceed.
*Vesko Garcevic is a former Montenegrin Ambassador to NATO, the OSCE, and other international organizations. He is currently a professor at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University.
The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN