In this post, Julia Himmrich argues that the EU’s relationship with the Western Balkans must expand well beyond the formal enlargement process in order to provide real economic and political benefits to the region.
After the European Commission’s decision not to accept North Macedonia and Albania as official European Union candidate states, the way forward for EU enlargement looks difficult. In many ways, this is not new. Commission President Jean Claude Juncker started his Commission in 2014 by putting a damper on enlargement hopes. There would be no enlargement during his tenure as Commission President, period. At the time, this was considered a painful but honest assessment of the progress in the region and the ability of the EU to take on new members.
However, hopes were high that things would be different with the new Commission. A key prerequisite for enlargement, resolving the name dispute with North Macedonia, was settled earlier this year. The reform progress in Albania had been praised by the EU. But new Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s choice of Hungary for Directorate General (DG) for Enlargement sent worrying signals. And now, French President Emmanuel Macron, with support from the Netherlands and Denmark, has opposed opening talks with North Macedonia and Albania.
This exposed a conflict within the EU not only on enlargement but on EU reforms and the state of the rule of law in its newest member states. European leaders have rushed to soften the blow on this, downplaying it as a ‘temporary crisis’, in the words of European Council President Donald Tusk. European leaders point fingers at the minority of member states which blocked the progress. But the EU is not doing any favors to the Western Balkans or to itself by denying what many already know: EU enlargement as we know it is over.
The EU needs to accept that they are not the just judges of progress of accession candidates. The rules have changed; a good candidate is no longer guaranteed to progress in its accession. Sticking to the old carrot and stick approach is likely to lead to further resentment and disillusionment with the entire process. Macron’s opposition should be a wake-up call for the EU about what it can promise and how much it can ask from its partners. It is no longer enough for EU officials and diplomats of pro-enlargement member states to go around the Western Balkans to reaffirm the validity of the enlargement process. Going forward, the EU needs to drastically change its approach towards the countries involved in the enlargement process or pre-enlargement talks.
It’s not you, it’s us
The EU needs to be honest: it has to get its own house in order before accepting new members. There is significant division among member states on core questions on the future of the Union stopping progress on key policy issues. Some fear that growing the Union without revising the decision-making mechanisms could paralyze it for good. The divisions in the Council are unlikely to change as politicisation over all things EU is growing in member states. This needs to be honestly acknowledged with partners in the Western Balkans. Excuses and blaming the candidate and pre-candidate countries in the region for their lack of progress is disingenuous and at this stage demeaning. The limits of the EU’s promises need to be communicated and the expectations of potential members must be managed.
In order to do this, the EU also needs to take political and civil society in the region more seriously. Because of the enlargement process, the EU has held the new political and social movements in the Western Balkans at bay. It has tried to navigate around them by working with ‘safe’ leaders. This has led to the creation of several ‘stabilocracies’, as political scientist and Balkan expert Florian Bieber has coined them.
This has left its mark on public opinion. The general public has very low expectations  towards public institutions and young people are politically apathetic. For all its talk about liberal democracy, the EU has engaged too little with the full range of democratic actors in the regio n. Instead, it has invested mainly in political elites, many of whom have lost credibility in the eyes of the populace.
The Western Balkans have outgrown the enlargement process
As a result of these changes, the EU must acknowledge the Western Balkans as real partners rather than mere candidate countries. The Western Balkans already play a much larger role in EU policies than the last accession countries ever did before joining the Union. On migration and security, the EU relies on them. The global economic and political changes that are affecting the EU are just as present in the Western Balkans. The countries in the Western Balkans are international actors beyond their relationship with the EU, both politically and economically.
Accordingly, the EU needs to re-establish its credibility and show that its commitment towards the Western Balkans goes beyond the formal enlargement process. This must include making real concessions to countries in the Western Balkans where they can, including on migration and economic incentives. Full EU membership and decision-making power in the Union should remain the final goal. But what is urgently needed is tangible action to provide real benefits for the general public in the short- to medium-term.
The main attractiveness of the EU to the region remains the potential for economic growth and the opportunity to work, travel and study  in the EU. The EU therefore must provide privileges to Western Balkans states that were previously kept as the ‘carrot’ for full members before they join. This would show that the progress in the region is noted and that while the EU will revise its enlargement process overall and deal with its internal reforms, the Western Balkans are not being put ‘on hold’. Nearly all Western Balkan states have now visa free travel to the EU. These migration privileges should be expanded beyond the short tem visit they allow. Improving the access to longer term work permits, facilitating access to EU labour market are necessary. Easier and more affordable access to EU based higher education institutions and professional training courses would be a crucial benefit for the large young population. This could include adjusting facilitating student visas, reducing admission fees, more opportunities for exchange, and recognition of study programs from the region.
Ideally this should be an EU-led and EU-wide effort but pro-enlargement member states could take the lead in some of these aspects. Many EU leaders have been consternated by Macron’s veto. They can now take clear action to mitigate this setback.
Julia Himmrich is Dahrendorf Post-Doctoral Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science