The EU’s signals towards the Western Balkans are fairly mixed: Soon, the bloc will drop all visa requirements for citizens from Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. At the same time, however, rapprochement with Croatia and Macedonia is halted following the escalation of bilateral conflicts with their EU member state neighbours Slovenia and Greece. The EU itself seems to stand helpless in the face of these disputes. How could this happen?
These contradictory signs are first and foremost a consequence of the EU’s polity structure. While the Commission acts as a supranational institution, the member states in the Council are bound by their domestic functional logics. Moreover, decisions on enlargement only come about by consent from the latter. Calls for an arbitrating role of the EU in these conflicts therefore miss the point, because the EU became a party to those conflicts, at the latest when Slovenia and Greece used their veto in the Council to boost their bilateral negotiation power.
This is why recent efforts by the French and the Czech presidency, as well as mediation by the Commission failed: The arbitrators are timid because they need to get along with the blocking countries. Key EU players have acknowledged this fact lately. The conflicts are most recently referred to as “bilateral”. Also, the Swedish presidency completely refused to play any mediatory role.
The only alternative to open EU brokering is building up diplomatic pressure by member states. However, this is impeded by the current political climate: Instead of having a strong push factor around like Germany in Eastern enlargement, this time there are several retarding factors impeding EU expansion. These include the current economic downturn and the conclusion of the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, itself a symptom of the unfinished consolidation of big bang enlargement. Hence, for now time is on the side of the brakemen.
The EU’s incapacity to act is accompanied by complex and deadlocked conflict constellations in the countries concerned. Due to sensitive questions of recent statehood, politicians on all sides resort to mobilisation of national sentiment in order to generate legitimacy for a tougher political line.
The name question in Macedonia is potentially disruptive to interethnic relations and thereby to stability in the country. While Slav-Macedonian national feelings are stirred up, the Albanian population becomes further alienated as it sees its most important goal endangered, namely higher living standards through EU accession.
In Croatia, contrary to early apprehensions of a national-conservative coup within the ruling HDZ, the party will retain a pro-European orientation. However, reform dynamics are likely to further deteriorate, especially in neuralgic areas as depoliticization of the administration and the judiciary.
Disconnecting the candidate countries from EU solidarity will significantly weaken the disciplining effects of EU conditionality and in the long run reverse progress already made. The EU’s primary interest in Southeast-European enlargement is stabilization of the region. It is somewhat ironic that in the current political climate, no constructive impulses can be expected from within the EU as long as this goal is not under immediate threat.
Only when the crises mentioned above are mastered can there be room again for fresh movement. Until then, EU member states should stick to the values of European solidarity and use diplomatic “massage” to relax hardened positions among all parties. Because of the widespread involvement of public opinion and high-flying emotions, it is of exceptional importance to find creative solutions allowing all sides to save face.
Political leaders in candidate countries should not lose focus on EU accession as being of long-term benefit to their countries. However, it will take time to dispel the emotionalized atmospheres and to generate a more constructive climate.
Nevertheless, this episode will tear long lasting wounds into the relations of the countries involved. The two Western Balkan accession candidates will become EU members sooner or later. Countries now ruthlessly trying to push through their national interest should not forget that they will have to deal with their adversaries at eye level – if not today, then tomorrow.
Tomislav Maršić is a researcher in the Division EU Integration at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin and currently visiting fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. He has previously worked at the Ministry for European Integration and Foreign Affairs in Zagreb.
Previous Balkan Week articles on Atlantic Community:
- Balkan Week: Could Current Conflicts Spark a New Balkan War?
- Balkan Week: Daniel Korski: Solving Europe's Bosnia Crisis
- Balkan Week Elizabeth Pond: Kosovo: Balkan Success Story and Future EU member?
Tomorrow: Wolfgang Stock: How Will Europe Protect Itself against the Nationalist Virus?