Somewhere along the process of democratic transformation in Southeast Europe, enlargement – and the future of the Balkans – got mired in a mixture of miscommunication, lack of responsibility, and the illusion of stability. Conveniently, the hidden struggle to answer to the Kissinger question – who is in charge in Europe? – on behalf of the Western Balkan public has been met with deafening silence in Brussels, member states and Balkan capitals alike. That silence helped hide the elephant in the room.
“Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” In 2009, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso proudly answered to US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s famous 1970s quip by mentioning its new High Representative and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, only to hear later that Kissinger himself neither found the answer convincing nor had uttered the question in the first place.
If someone desperately needs the EU’s phone number, it is the governmental and societal leaders of the Western Balkans – and they do much more than any state secretary in the United States in recent history.
The exit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel eliminates one prospect who could pick up the phone, though she was an ambiguous and cautious interlocutor at times. This comes as the region and the European Union (EU) do need to talk. Democracy and the economies are barely moving forward. Serbia is taking steps back. North Macedonia’s government is unable to begin EU accession talks as it can’t capitalize on its reform track record, its EU accession path being blocked by Sofia despite Brussels supporting it clearly. Montenegro began talks nine years ago and has only closed one-tenth of the accession chapters. No other country seems to be getting a chance to meet an earlier 2025 accession target. The European Commission has shown commitment to moving forward with at least two hopefuls for EU candidacy, but various member states have defied the expectation.
What went wrong? Traces of the explanation can be found in Merkel’s own comments during her farewell tour in Belgrade, where she spoke of the “absolute geostrategic interest” in accepting Western Balkan countries into the European Union. On the other hand, the region has “a long way to go” before finding its way into the bloc, she added.
Behind this answer, another remains hidden. The EU is taking Western Balkans’ enlargement for granted, but not in the years to come. The Western Balkans aren’t. Tensions lurk behind the veil of autocratic (or post-autocratic) systems the European bloc has fostered, dangling the threat of undoing all European (and American) efforts at stability and progress in a strategic region.
Somewhere along the process of democratic transformation in Southeast Europe, EU enlargement – and the future of the Balkans – got mired in a mixture of miscommunication, lack of responsibility, and the illusion of stability. While Western Balkan capitals aren’t mere recipients of EU policy (having their own agency), the EU retains some responsibility as it promised enlargement – offering hope to Balkans nations and spurring anticipatory reform – but has yet to deliver. Conveniently, the hidden struggle to answer to the Kissinger question on behalf of the Western Balkan public has been met with deafening silence in Brussels, member states and Balkan capitals alike. The silence has paradoxically helped hide from the EU public the elephant in the room: only through EU accession can the Western Balkans achieve long-term stability in an ever-changing, fast-moving world.
Not without success
The EU’s Western Balkan dealings are not without result. The EU facilitated the peaceful Serbia-Montenegro divorce and contributed to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s state building through support for reform and the civil society. Together with the US, it helped broker the 2001 Ohrid Agreement between North Macedonia and the National Liberation Army, deescalate a crisis in 2015 after a wiretapping scandal and solve the name dispute with Greece a few years on. Other initiatives, such as the Serbia-Kosovo Brussels Agreement, yield mixed results but at least provided room for dialogue.
EU conditionality, which ties membership progress to reform implementation, pushed Albania and North Macedonia to update legislation even before beginning the talks, just to make sure they do. Reform can also help Western Balkans’ economies, the latest example being European Commission’s €9 billion COVID recovery plan. Through the Berlin Process initiated under Merkel herself, the Western Balkans are getting chances at rapprochement and connectivity.
Two types of stability
What the EU prides itself on in dealings with the Western Balkans is very similar to putting one’s hand on cracks in a dam to prevent it from leaking – it could help in the short term, but it can still break. The EU opted for two diverging types of stability. One had to do with placing hands in the way of the dam’s cracks – the help to solve immediate issues. The other was the prospect of enlargement – sealing the cracks through lasting and permanent solutions.
Eighteen years of EU-Western Balkans summits saw a painful dialogue on enlargement. The bloc promised the region membership in 2003 and dangled EU integration as the ultimate stabilization mechanism, with three Balkan states Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia subsequently joining the club. Last year, the EU declined to even include the word “enlargement” in the EU Western Balkans Zagreb Summit’s declaration, much to the chagrin of the region’s capitals. “Enlargement” returned into the declaration this year in Slovenia, but with no new membership deadline. Conflicting messages of EU bodies foster the feeling of doublespeak. Judicial and other reforms seen as positive signs resulted in Brussels recommending that North Macedonia and Albania begin talks, but various EU countries (France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and now Bulgaria) blocked the process for years. Skopje and Tirana hear from the Commission they are ready to move forward, only to learn from the European Council they are not.
When it comes to immediate issues, the EU has shown preference for Balkan actors capable of solving them.
It struck some raw nerves in Europe that Merkel had to warn of Serbia needing to improve its rule of law. Her words followed years of criticism she stood behind, a European approach that did little to pressure local powers-that-be into strengthening democracy and the rule of law, but let “stabilizing” politicians capture entire states. This process of kicking responsibility for governance to the local level was preferable so long as the Balkans didn’t turn – yet again – into a powder keg. What researchers Johanna Deimel and Antoinette Primatarova first described (1) as “stabilitocracies” (a term widely used to describe the region over the last decade) fueled by the West turning a blind eye applied to the rest of the peninsula, namely to Bulgaria, where European legitimacy helped prop up Boyko Borisov’s government despite all corruption and bad-governance issues.
No European institution has ever promoted stabilitocracy officially, but Germany, which wanted stable Balkans creating no problems at its border, backed it in Serbia, Albania, and Montenegro. Hungary and Austria played the same role for North Macedonia’s Nikola Gruevski.
That the EU didn’t mind working with stabilitocratces was manifested in its reaction to the 2019 protests in at least four countries (Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina), which some were quick to refer to as a potential Balkan Spring, but which were virtually dismissed by EU institutions as they indicated they would be working with governments and not with the opposition. Despite support for local elites, the EU failed not only to reassure them of continued enlargement, but also to show attention when trouble came. It first excluded and then included the region from its response to the COVID pandemic; it mattered little that subsequent press releases pledged billions in aid. It took the EU a month-and-a-half to exempt the Western Balkans from a ban on COVID-related medical equipment, which the six countries could not have afforded themselves, having to contend with limited supplies from China and Turkey. Similarly, it was only in April that Brussels pledged 651,000 COVID vaccines for the region, when other great powers such as China and Russia had filled in the gap for months, even helping Belgrade kickstart a jab diplomacy of its own.
The elephant in the room: The water dam failure
While little could be done to change EU mechanisms at the moment, the results are that the Western Balkan public gets neither symbolic gestures of support nor small signs of progress when possible. Paradoxically, this feeds into local leaders’ narratives as they try to “diversify” partners and pursue relationships that require them to question their own rule of law, such as those with China, Russia, or the UAE. The EU has long tolerated both this and the process of state capture (a situation where the ruling elite’s private interest prevail over democratic institutions), which in fact pushes accession countries further from the bloc.
Merkel’s words remind us that Germany’s position in the EU is one of a reluctant hegemon. A country seen as leader on a host of pan-EU issues failed to use its alleged powers on a process much more intimate and intrinsic to the bloc than foreign policy, such as enlargement. The EU’s approach was to legitimize Balkan governments by addressing ad hoc crises while engaging (or letting members engage) with stabilitocratic powers-that-be.
And here comes the paradox: the EU put its hands on cracks of the dam to counter different crises and simultaneously worked to boost capacity – fortify the dam – through funding and political support and, ultimately, dangle enlargement as a carrot. But, given that it had invested a lot in both operations, it turned a blind eye on how they interfered with each other. Balkan leaders thrive on crises just as they thrive on European legitimacy. If the cracks appeared, they could pose as the lone defenders against the flood while looking at the EU for Plan B if they thought it could break. The rise of new Balkan leaders meant the EU never managed to convey the message that the dam had to be self-sustainable – and could not withstand without democracy, institution-building and reforms and, ultimately, enlargement (also a big political prize for local elites) in a world where great-power competition was making a buffer out of the Balkans which, in turn, impoverishes them, drains them of their economic future and human capital, and threatens the EU. Where the message was received – in North Macedonia – was where its own members didn’t seem to understand the importance of living up to promises. Failure to abide by them sends a new message all across the region – there is little point in making the dam self-sustainable if the game can go on forever. “We are supposed to act like we think that there will be enlargement even though we know there won’t be,” Milorad Dodik, a strongman president of Bosnia, said amidst his campaign to withdraw the entity from some national institutions.
The letter is yet to arrive
The Western Balkans are well aware of the communication problem. “Dear Aunty Europe […] It’s been a while,” wrote journalist Dejan Anastasijevic in 2017. He called six countries “poor cousins” who “stopped fighting, kept our rooms clean as much as we could, we were nice to neighbors. We even shared our toys and stuff sometimes, even though we didn’t really want to, just to prove we can be good… But the reward never came” and they “slowly started letting go”.
“Aunty Europe’s” main officials, formally and informally picking up the phone in EU and members when “called”, weren’t the same in back in March 2017 – except for Merkel, who departed from the chancellery. That said, little has changed since then. A year later, the EU presented a new Western Balkans strategy during the Bulgarian EU Presidency to show the region it still mattered.
But hopes evaporated quickly. Even Bulgaria’s own political interests changed, and no one, not even Merkel (despite her personal relationship with Borisov) could stop that. Others perhaps didn’t want to, as not everyone was keen on accepting new members. In France, the reason is a combination of voters’ opposition and the upcoming presidential election.
Judging from the event of these four-and-a-half years, it is as though Anastasijevic’s “letter” is yet to arrive. The EU therefore has yet to show it received it and will take responsibility.
The problem is that the EU’s decision-making – and communication – structure has diluted its sense of having a responsibility for the Western Balkan mess. Will there be new leaders for the Western Balkan societies – or anyone else – to take the region’s call, or who could have enough leverage over their regional counterparts, is an open-ended question, now that a reluctant interlocutor’s departure is a leap into the unknown. If it doesn’t get an answer, the EU and the Western Balkans can go on with their game of mutual deceit – undelivered change in return for undeliverable promises – forever.
- Antoinette Primatarova and Johanna Deimel, Bridge over Troubled Waters? The Role of the Internationals in Albania. Center for Liberal Strategies, 2012.