We’ve Got to Get the EU’s Balkans Enlargement Back on Track

The following originally appeared in Europe’s World. Heather Grabbe is director of the Open Society Institute-Brussels and director of EU affairs for the Soros foundations network.

The EU has to succeed in the Balkans. If it can't keep the peace in its own backyard its foreign policy won't be taken seriously anywhere else. But Štefan Füle, the EU's new Enlargement Commissioner has an impossible balancing act. He has to keep the accession process moving steadily forward enough to motivate the south east European countries, but not so fast that EU leaders complain and threaten to block it. It's a Catch-22; the Enlargement Commissioner has to promise membership is just around the corner to motivate the would-be members, but cannot offer a date or promise short-cuts because conditionality would then lose its credibility.

Yet if these countries consistently fail to meet the conditions, Brussels cannot just walk away from the Balkans. The region is in many respects already part of the EU; it is an enclave within the EU, sharing borders with member-states like Greece, Bulgaria and Italy that have been the source of much inward investment. The European single market is the Balkan region's most important trade partner, and problems in the region spill over into the EU very quickly—quite literally, in the case of environmental accidents on the Danube, and metaphorically with organized crime using the Balkans as a major route for the trafficking of weapons, drugs and people. EU interior ministers see lax border controls, failings in the rule of law and persecution of minorities causing migration as a threat to the security of their own countries.

So Balkan and EU leaders alike are stuck with an increasingly unpopular policy. Enlargement has consistently lost support in public opinion surveys around the EU as it is seen as expensive and as the potential source of more migration and crime. But when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels to discuss the Balkans they know there is no alternative to the accession process. What other policy could the EU possibly offer that could resolve the region's problems? Eventual EU membership, with conditions to encourage reforms along the way, is the strongest political incentive and most substantive support the EU can offer to any country.

But enlargement policy has steadily lost credibility and public support in the Balkans too. The process is slow and bureaucratic by nature, and the EU has had to add conditions to deal with the legacies of war. Many Serbs blame the EU for giving independence to Kosovo (even though not all member-states recognized it) and for demanding the delivery of indicted war criminals to the Hague Tribunal. Some Bosnians and Macedonians feel that the EU has failed to deliver on promises made around the peace deals at Dayton and Ohrid. Across the region, reform fatigue and the sense that living conditions are not getting better have made people jaded about promises of a brighter European future.

In the popular imagination, the accession process occupies a familiar paradigm for the region: the distant imperial capital which imposes its rule and demands tribute has over the centuries shifted from Constantinople to Vienna and now to Brussels. Power resides in the Berlaymont, and fealty must be sworn to the blue flag with gold stars, yet people still feel little improvement in their daily lives.

How can the new Commissioner overcome this psychological trap of broken promises and half-hearted reforms? An important way will be to offer interim rewards that motivate countries to keep going, and raise public support. Robert Cooper, a senior EU diplomat, has described EU foreign policy as "Speak softly and carry a big carrot"; the EU is offering the Balkans the biggest carrot it has, yet it still looks rather small because membership is so far away. The answer is to chop the carrot up and offer pieces along the way to keep the would-be members interested by giving them financial benefits and inclusion in EU policies and programmes, as well as strong political engagement.

The EU is now proffering a huge chunk of carrot in the shape of visa liberalization, which is the benefit most prized by citizens of Balkan countries. This is an example of successful conditionality at work. The EU set very specific conditions for these countries to meet, and a concrete and certain reward within a few years. Some Balkan countries have worked hard to tighten border controls, improve document security and introduce biometric passports, and in return the EU is marking the new year by lifting visa requirements for Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, with a review for Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina due mid-year.

A few lessons from history would also help Commissioner Füle. Between 1989 and 2004, the same formula of a membership promise plus tough conditions helped post-communist central and eastern Europe—such as his native Czech Republic—to achieve a massive transformation. In the countries that were emerging from central planning and authoritarian rule, the EU's conditions for 15 years provided both an anchor and a catalyst. The anchor of EU-focused reforms gave a sense of stability and direction to the public administration even when governments changed every year, while the promise of accession was a catalyst that made reforms go faster because the rewards of membership were only a few years away.

So why isn't this formula working in the Balkans? The growing academic literature on enlargement suggests that conditionality needs favorable circumstances on both the supply and demand sides if the accession bargain is to work effectively. On the supply side, the EU has to be consistent, coherent and credible in the demands that it makes. It needs to be consistent in asking for the same reforms year after year, regardless of changes of government. This is a critical factor when party coalitions in Balkan countries are unstable and governments fall so often.

The EU needs to be more coherent in the demands it makes, so that politicians and civil servants are pushed in the same direction instead of being given different messages from different parts of the EU. It is all too easy for the EU's present member states to undermine conditionality by whispering in a Balkan prime minister's ear that their own country's special relationship with his means that these conditions matter little so there is no need to change the system. As to credibility, the EU needs to show it is capable of delivering on its commitments, with its political leaders genuinely offering membership at the end of the process.

For conditionality to work, the EU has to be strong in both its promises and its threats, with no special pleading from any of the member states. Unfortunately, the EU has in both cases frequently failed in the Balkans. Self-styled "friends of the Balkans" have too often argued that one country or another is so important and so European that the Commission should not demand such difficult tasks as reform of the judiciary or delivery of indictees to The Hague. Other EU leaders have questioned the enlargement process, arguing for a "digestion period" after Croatia's accession, during which no more new members should join. Both proposals would undermine the conditionality that helps would-be member countries to transform themselves.

On the demand side, conditionality transforms countries most effectively when would-be members have strong states, a cross-party consensus giving priority to accession and substantial inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI). The central European countries that had the most capable national administrations made the fastest progress towards EU membership. But in the Balkans, states are weak.

After the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989, there was a strong push towards the reunification of Europe through the EU accession process. This united all the mainstream parties in favor of undertaking any reforms that the EU demanded, with euroscepticism generally setting in only after these countries had achieved membership. But in the Balkans some nationalist leaders are already questioning whether it is worth meeting the EU's demands.

Inward investment keeps hope alive even when economic restructuring is causing job losses and social pain by bringing in new capital, job opportunities and hope that better times are ahead. But FDI into the Balkans is a trickle in comparison with the amounts that flooded into Poland, Hungary, and Estonia in the 1990s.

The situation in the Balkans is far from hopeless, but the EU needs to maintain its credibility by taking much more care in future. It also needs to keep working on state capacity-building in the region and work on bringing in more foreign investment.

Enlargement has been the EU's one really successful external policy. The EU is providing much of the support that the Balkans needs to become fully part of the European mainstream, escaping its ghetto of economic stagnation and organized crime. There is every reason for Štefan Füle to forge alliances with the many European leaders who support enlargement to make conditionality credible, consistent and coherent, and at the same time to strengthen the EU's promise to the Balkans that they really will join when they really meet the conditions.

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