The enlargement of the European Union to the Western Balkans is still an uncertainty, fifteen years after the countries of the region were promised a European perspective at the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit. In early 2018, a credible European perspective was reiterated for the six countries. However, the countries are still far from ready for membership while the EU is not coherent in its resolve to let them in, despite the many geo-strategic, political, economic and security arguments in favour of their more immediate membership, some of which were recognised by the European Commission in its latest enlargement strategy for the region. At the same time, the prolonged EU association and accession process risks disappointing and alienating the citizens of the Balkan countries from the integration idea. However, further enlargement to the Balkans seems to be an undesirable event for a majority of EU citizens, which may be a cause for lingering hesitation by political leaderships of several member states. How can then the region join the Union in the foreseeable future? This text argues that it is possible to solve this riddle by reinventing the EU’s approach to enlargement and integrating a post-accession conditionality mechanism which would ensure that these countries’ governments are kept in check after they become EU members. The author discusses potential points of criticism that this proposal might encounter and offers a way forward to design and implement it.
From no perspective to a credible perspective
After Croatia’s accession in 2013 and until early 2018, the EU’s enlargement policy towards the Western Balkans seemed “to be running on autopilot,” with a clear message conveyed towards these countries that in this period the Union would not take in new members. Whereas individual countries did make progress on their accession tracks and two aspirants – that is, Montenegro and Serbia – even opened accession negotiations, between 2003 and 2018 there were no summits of heads of states and governments of all EU member states (EU-28) and the six Western Balkan countries (WB-6). Considering that the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit not only offered “unequivocal support to the European perspective” of the region, but also spoke of the preparation for ultimate membership for these countries and announced periodical summits of heads of states and governments, the lack of follow-up summits in this period did point to a reduced high level political support to see this promise through.
Perhaps in search of new positive integration narratives following the disintegrative developments following the Brexit referendum, already in his State of the Union address in September 2017 the President of the Commission announced a renewed focus on the Western Balkan enlargement, a promise which he saw through in February 2018 with the publication of the Commission’s new enlargement strategy offering a “credible enlargement perspective” to the Balkan aspirants. Then, in May 2018 the first summit between EU-28 and WB-6 in 15 years took place and – despite much controversy regarding the level of ambition of the summit conclusions – it yielded a concrete “Sofia Priority Agenda” with a list of measures to beef up the region’s ties and participation in EU policies. All of these developments have resulted in a new “buzz” related to the Western Balkan EU enlargement, contributing to an impression that the region is back on the Union’s agenda.
But both the Commission’s strategy and the seemingly most enlargement-sceptical EU leader Emmanuel Macron in his Summit statement effectively linked internal reform of the Union to further enlargement by emphasising that the former needs to take place first. However, neither have made it explicit if they were referring to a treaty change or a consolidation within the current treaty framework. Clearly, reform and consolidation in the current treaty framework may just be a goal within reach, and very concrete proposals have been presented in that regard. On the other hand, the present “dogma of realism,” in which member states and citizens want the EU to deliver without readiness for major institutional reform, makes a treaty reform seem like a highly unrealistic option at the moment. Therefore, conditioning further enlargement on such a comprehensive EU reform might delay the WB enlargement for years to come.
Why is Balkan enlargement a necessity for both sides?
Some of the most persuasive reasons for the EU to admit the remaining Balkan aspirants are laid out in the aforementioned Commission’s strategy. It starts by pointing out the obvious – that the WB “are part of Europe, geographically surrounded by EU member states”, their “common heritage and history” and “a future defined by shared opportunities and challenges.” The Strategy goes on to explain that the Western Balkan’s entry into the EU is in the Union’s very own interest, from a political, economic and security perspective, as it would lead to a united Europe based on common values. It further enumerates the benefits for the region, ranging from promotion of democracy and the rule of law, to security, prosperity, stability and social well-being. Despite not providing strong arguments and data to support these claims, the Commission argues that a European future is the only option for the rest of the Balkans.
Some arguments seem to be in the background of the Commission’s thinking. For example, the “stability” and “security” cards allude to the idea that without the entire Balkan region, the EU remains an unfinished peace project. Despite efforts to improve regional relations, sparks of tension still emerge between these countries. Historically, the European integration process has served as a key driver for securing peace and collaboration between the war-torn European societies. The logic is that the Balkans need to be inside of the Union to finally cement peace in the region. Security-wise, the argument is that the fight against organised crime and terrorism will also be facilitated if the Balkan countries are all fully integrated into the EU’s justice and home affairs policies.
Finally, a more disputed argument in favour of accepting the region is related to the increase in the presence and influence of other geo-strategic actors, which are “filling in the void” left by the lack of strong European engagement in the Balkans. The recently published EPSC Brief provides concrete evidence of growing political and economic influence of Russia, Turkey, China and the United Arab Emirates in the different WB countries, which can in the longer term be detrimental to the region’s political commitment to the EU. One may even say that the EU should finally put its foot down and “claim its territory” in a manner of speaking, making it unequivocally clear that the WB region belongs to Europe and no one else. Allegedly, the unprecedented number of high level official visits from Brussels to the region in the last months is, inter alia, intended to achieve just that.
Turning to the question of why EU accession is a necessity for the region, one can first look at all the previously stated arguments as in a mirror. The same ones which are valid for the EU – stability, security and economy (the last being a much more persuasive argument for the WB side) – are equally pertinent for the Western Balkan countries. Another obvious reason is related to the EU accession process as the driving force of reforms in these countries. Over the years, EU conditionality has brought about numerous improvements in the democratic governance and rule of law structures, improvement of the economic governance processes as well as ambitious reform agendas in public administration reform. In parallel, in the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Agreements between each of the Balkan countries and the EU, the work on the harmonisation of the national legislation with the EU acquis communautaire has progressed, gradually introducing higher standards in the economic and other policy areas. The Commission’s regular annual country reports have served as important signposts for furthering the EU compliant reforms. The indications of slowdown of reforms in the rule of law area and the erosion of the democratic institutions in the recent years may be interpreted as a call for a more determined action on the enlargement front by the EU, with the idea of ensuring avoidance of the “Turkish scenario” in which “all sides pretend that accession is continuing, but for all intents and purpose it has stopped.” The prolonged accession process, in which the target keeps appearing farther and farther as time goes by, arguably contributes to the falling support for integration in the aspirant countries’ public, as well.
Enlargement as a bogeyman
Following the big bang enlargement of the EU in 2004 and the two subsequent expansions in 2007 and 2013, the media and literature have increasingly referred to the phenomenon of “enlargement fatigue”, implying the growing reluctance of the EU to accept new members. Enlargement has become quite unpopular with the EU member states’ publics, with only minority of EU citizens supporting the idea of accepting new members (currently an average of 42% in favour).
The opponents of further EU expansion have successfully shifted the focus to the EU’s capacity to absorb new members as a key criterion for enlargement – a condition laid out already in the Copenhagen Council conclusions in 1993. Moreover, the evident backsliding in the rule of law area in some of the “new” member states has raised suspicions over the durability of reforms conducted pre-accession and the capacity of the EU to induce further progress in sensitive areas, like democracy, human rights and rule of law, post-accession. Western Balkan countries may seem even more frightening to the Western European publics, considering the slow pace of reforms in several of the countries of the region, with evident backsliding on democratic standards, and a largely negative image of the region linked to the wars of the 90s and organised crime groups from the Balkans active in the EU.
At the same time, although the attitudes are more negative today, it is worth mentioning that public opinion was negative also towards EU’s enlargement to the Central and Eastern European countries in the 90s and early 2000s, “[e]ven in Member States, where the government was among the strongest supporters of enlargement, such as Germany or Austria.”  What may be different today is that mainstream political elites in the EU are more sensitive to the anti-integrationist discourses of populist political forces, making them more reluctant to push forward the enlargement process despite public opposition.
Squaring the circle – proposing a new enlargement approach
EU enlargement policy has not been one and the same since its beginning; it has changed and adapted as the EU has learned more about the difficulties and challenges of state-building, democracy and rule of law, including the Eastern ways of not necessarily practicing what they preach in the legislation passed by their parliaments.
As it seems that the enlargement policy has hit the wall of what is possible, taking into consideration the imperative of taking the Western Balkans under its wing and the existing fears of enlargement, there seems to be a clear necessity to redefine the policy in a way which is going to effectively square this circle. One needs not look too far in search of ideas. One persuasive solution could be found in the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) for Bulgaria and Romania. The basic idea of this mechanism is the introduction of post-accession conditionality using means which are unavailable under the framework of the EU founding treaties, but which can very well become available via the Accession Treaty of any acceding country.
A concrete proposal for the Western Balkan countries might include a longer and more comprehensive CVM, which would extend on the one hand to a larger array of policy areas and rights under the EU membership framework and on the other hand entail a wider palette of possible sanctions in case of breach of the agreed conditions. Firstly, the CVM for the Western Balkan countries should probably be introduced as a package deal, encompassing all the six countries of the region, without necessarily enforcing the “regatta” principle to their accession processes. Secondly, the mechanism might need to extend over a longer period of time than the 10 years agreed for Bulgaria and Romania, reflecting the stronger realisation of the specific challenges of the Western Balkan countries’ democracies. Thirdly, to make it more effective in achieving its objective, the redesigned CVM should be imposed as a precondition for several EU policy areas, constituting a kind of “membership minus” at the moment of accession. In addition to the Schengen and the Eurozone membership, one may particularly think of free movement of labour policy (as one of the chief “bogey” aspects of enlargement for the EU citizens). At the same time, a fifteen-year-long de facto ban on additional emigration from the region could prove as beneficial for these countries’ economies.
In parallel, the new CVM should entail a simple procedure for sanctioning regressive developments in the fundamental membership areas – particularly rule of law, economic governance and public administration reform, which are even now recognised as the key pillars of reforms on the countries’ EU paths. The warning and sanctioning system could entail several levels, starting from softer measures, such as enhanced oversight and issuing warning reports, to medium measures, such as freezing of parts of funding within the European structural and investment (ESI) funds, to the most severe ones, such as suspension of voting rights in the Council of the EU or even European Council.
At the same time, the mechanism should – similarly to the one designed for Bulgaria and Romania – be complemented by a set of support measures for reform implementation, funded through the ESI. The support measures would help offset the potentially negative message of the mechanism, but also provide rapid assistance in particularly vulnerable areas. It should include a support package for the civil society in the six countries, to help maintain civic pressure and ensure that the expertise available in the sector is also utilised to achieve the desired policy outcomes in the monitored areas.
A utopian idea or an achievable one?
Some criticism and scepticism is to be expected as a response to this proposal, coming from different sides and providing differing sets of arguments against. Let us consider some potential negative responses and offer explanations and counter-arguments.
Some opponents of this proposal may say that it would effectively result in “second-class” membership for the Western Balkan countries, with these countries ending up locked in a “membership minus” stage without ever reaching the higher stages of membership. However, not only should this policy not be sold as second-class membership, but it effectively would not be that. It would rather entail a series of stepping stones for achieving full rights and benefits which are presently being offered by the Union membership. Such a procedure for achieving membership reflects perfectly the fact that EU integration has achieved great depths in certain areas and becoming a full-fledged member in a day is simply not feasible for countries which are still practicing their democratic institutions. Successful meeting of predefined targets would result in gradual climbing up the ladder of EU membership rights and benefits. This approach is perfectly in line with the existing mechanisms which facilitate differentiated integration within the Union, with the understanding that those who want to do more (but are also capable of doing more) can do so.
This proposal also reflects well the fact that a strong democracy can also not be built in a day – or even in one generation. Rule of law is about curtailing the space of manoeuvre for those in power, keeping them in check with clear rules that are applied in the same manner to everyone in a society, regardless of their political power, economic and financial influence or simply good connections. It is about building resilient institutions, capable of resisting political pressures. To expect that all this can be achieved in 20 or even 30 years was simply wrong to start with and it seems that the EU leaders have come to understand this. Hence the convictions of some that even the 2004-2013 enlargements were a mistake. But the problem was not the enlargement itself – the problem was an inadequate mechanism of enlargement, which did not take into account these facts of reality.
One may also say that imposing this kind of a novelty mechanism on the new EU membership aspirants is unfair and means double standards. Whereas it may seem unfair to impose such special requirements on the WB countries, first of all, these “double standards” are already a part of these countries’ EU accession everyday routine. The basic Copenhagen accession criteria have been defined and refined to such tiny details, that the number of the negotiation chapters has grown, and multiple new mechanisms and specific requests have already been introduced, which the countries in previous enlargement never even heard about. The latest example the “managerial accountability” requirement which has become part of the Chapter 32 financial control agenda. Secondly, a prospect for entering the EU through a smaller door and a longer corridor seems much less unfair than keeping the region completely out of the club because circumstances in the EU are now different than in late 90s and early 2000s.
Finally, those who may oppose this idea might say that the proposal is completely unrealistic, that it will never pass the Orbans and Kachinskys of the EU – that it will simply not fly. Whereas one can acknowledge that at the present moment introducing such a new approach to enlargement may be much more difficult, for the simple fact that erosion of the fundamental EU values is already in motion in some member states, one can look for ways to overcome this obstacle.
How can it fly?
To start with, this proposal should come from the Western Balkan region, not from the EU. It should not be an unfair and imposed harsh condition of the uncompromising EU leaders, but a sober and mature move of the leaders of the six countries, having realised that this is the only way to move forward towards a real membership perspective, rather than just a vague “European perspective”. The civil society of the region may have an important role to play in the further development, discussion and eventual endorsement of such a proposal. The existing initiatives which focus on regional cooperation can also come in handy here, particularly the Berlin Process, which has become the main venue for showcasing that true regional cooperation beyond the constraints of daily politics is indeed possible.
Next, the leaders of the region should engage the EU member states individually, with two main strategies. To those most concerned that this kind of a mechanism could somehow end up knocking at their door someday soon (or simply eager to keep the Union in the current state of eroded fundamental values) the key message should be that this new mechanism is intended only for the aspiring members, with the specific rules enshrined in each country’s EU accession treaty. These treaties being lex specialis in comparison to the basic EU treaties, their rules take precedence, without affecting in any manner the rights and obligations contained in the EU treaties for all existing member states.
The message for those member states most concerned with further enlargement, the key message of the WB political leaders should be that this proposal comes as a result of true political maturity and intention to prove the region deserving of EU membership. Some parts of the proposal – particularly the “membership minus” elements should be particularly emphasised as the key arguments in favour of its acceptance.
Already the next EU-WB summit in Croatia in 2020 could be a perfect opportunity to start this process. An extensive regional debate between civil societies and governments should start without delay.
 “EU member states and enlargement towards the Balkans,” edited by Rosa Balfour and Corina Stratulat, European Policy Centre, Brussels, July 2015, p. xiii.
 Declaration, EU – Western Balkans Summit, Thessaloniki, 21 June 2003, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_PRES-03-163_en.htm, last accessed on 28 May 2018.
 Milena Lazarevic and Sena Maric, “Brexit or Not? What Consequences for the Enlargement Policy?” European Policy Centre – CEP, Belgrade, July 2016, https://bit.ly/2sNTXUC, last accessed on 21 May 2018.
 Most notably: “White paper on the future of Europe: Five scenarios,” European Commission, 1 March 2017, https://bit.ly/2l24o2u, last accessed 21 May 2018; and “Re-energising Europe: A package deal for the EU27 – Third NPE Report,” European Policy Centre, 22 November 2017, https://bit.ly/2zXoROE, last accessed on 21 May 2018.
 “Re-energising Europe: A package deal for the EU27”, p. 46.
 “A credible enlargement perspective,” op cit.
 Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, “The Unfulfilled Promise: Completing the Balkan Enlargement,” European Fund for the Balkans, Policy Paper May 2014, https://bit.ly/2JyeUgM, last accessed on 28 May 2018, p. 12.
 Reference missing here!
 See: Balkans for Europe Policy Advisory Group, “The Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans. Authoritarianism and EU Stabilitocracy,” March 2017, https://bit.ly/2xXHGBT, last accessed on 21 May 2018.
 Sedelmaier, op. cit. p. 5
 Cooperation and Verification Mechanism for Bulgaria and Romania, https://bit.ly/2LEeWkC