In 2006, Javier Solana, the then head of the European Union’s (EU) diplomacy, proclaimed that
Europe’s mission was to become “a global power, a force for good in the world.” Just two years
before the economic meltdown, the EU, gazing at the world through rose-tinted glasses, pledged
to transform its neighbourhood into a “circle of friends.” Today, those rose-tinted glasses have
largely been cast aside: with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, a looming migration crisis
driven by the “ring of fire” beyond the EU’s borders, and the global rise of authoritarianism,
most Europeans look at the international arena with angst. Notwithstanding this grim reality, the
EU’s goal remains the same as what it was 15 years ago. Like its predecessors, today’s EU
Commission under President Von der Leyen aspires to be “geopolitical” by projecting the EU’s
interests and values onto the world. The key difference today, however, is that more than
anything, the Trump presidency has made Europeans realize that unconditional reliance on the
United States is a thing of the past. Hence, the EU seeks to claim its spot as a bona fide global
Turning to history offers lessons on how the EU can achieve this goal. Two centuries ago, in a
message to Congress on 2 December 1823, US President James Monroe let the whole world
know that, “the American continents…are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future
colonization by any European powers.” The Monroe Doctrine declared the Americas off limits
to Britain, France, or any other outside power. Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union in
1991, Russia has tried to assert, with varying success, its influence over what it calls “the near
abroad,” and keep away the West. China is pursuing similar goals in parts of Asia. Indeed, a cursory look at history suggests that no great power has managed to propel itself onto the global
stage without first establishing its writ over its periphery.
For years, the EU has pursued a working policy geared towards that goal: enlargement. From six
members in the 1950s, the Union has grown to 27, a testament to its power of attraction. But
unlike other great powers, the EU’s strategy combines geopolitics with transformative
aspirations. Anchoring democratic change in Southern and then Eastern Europe chimed in with
the strategic objective of unifying the continent. Political elites and societies at large looked at
“Europeanization,” meaning joining the EU, as a sure-fire way to transition from
authoritarianism, whether right wing or communist, to a liberal democracy.
Non-enlargement doesn’t work
Today, however, enlargement is in a profound crisis. The EU pays lip service to its commitment
to the Western Balkans. Whereas in the past, the membership negotiations lasted from two to
eight years, accession talks with so-called “frontrunners” Montenegro and Serbia are proceeding
at a discouragingly slow pace. Podgorica is negotiating for more than eight years, and Belgrade
for six. Other membership hopefuls such as North Macedonia and Albania are struggling to even
begin the process, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are lagging hopelessly behind.
Citizens of Kosovo are the only ones in the Balkans who still need a visa to travel to the EU.
Yet it’s not just the speed of the EU expansion, but also its content, which is an issue. Faced with
the illiberal turn in Hungary and Poland, star performers in the 2004 enlargement, politicians in
EU countries are questioning the wisdom of welcoming Balkan semi-democracies. For leaders
like French President Emmanuel Macron, the EU’s internal consolidation trumps expansion as a
This hands-off attitude empowers other member states to hijack enlargement. Bulgaria did not
face sufficient pressure even from pro-enlargement Germany, to drop its December 2020 veto on
North Macedonia’s accession negotiations. This is because the EU feels it has a bigger fish to
fry: the new budget and the spat with Warsaw and Budapest over strings attached to it,
responding to geopolitical challenges coming from Turkey, Russia or China, or reaching an
agreement on the common migration policy. Those were just a few examples; the list of priorities
that precede enlargement to the Western Balkans continues far beyond that.
The trouble is that a de facto policy of non-enlargement has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The more disengaged the EU, the less likely political elites in the Western Balkans will heed the
EU’s precepts. At the same time, dwindling commitment to democratic reform in the candidate
countries only justifies Brussels’ unwelcoming attitude. The result is a contradictory situation.
On the one hand, the region is already deeply integrated into the European marketplace and
benefits from privileged access to the EU – in terms of trade, but also, to a degree, the movement
of people. On the other hand, the Western Balkans are plagued by a return to authoritarianism
and rampant nationalism. The rule of law is at best precarious. In 2018, international watchdog
Freedom House downgraded Serbia to “partly free.” President Aleksandar Vučić has gradually
dismantled all the checks and balances that were painstakingly established in the first 12 years of
post- Milošević democracy before his party came to power. Because of this, the EU vision,
already under attack within the Union itself, lies in tatters in the Balkans. The EU’s perceived
readiness to let Vučić and other autocrats off the hook is turning the most progressive parts of Western Balkan societies against the EU because, in their eyes, such (in)action by the EU
undermines the Union’s claims of upholding democratic and liberal values.
Dealing with authoritarian backsliding
The critical lesson from previous Central and Eastern Europe enlargements is that European
integration works as an amplifier. In the 1990s and 2000s, it helped lock in reforms which were
driven internally rather than from outside. In the 2010s, sadly, the EU legitimized and bankrolled
governments undermining liberal democratic principles, as shown most vividly by Viktor
Orbán’s rule in Hungary. Similarly and more recently, in the Western Balkans the EU is
morphing into a pillar of authoritarian status quo. As a result, pro-democratic forces in the
Western Balkans find themselves in the difficult position of excusing Brussels’ co-operation with
predatory elites, or desperately looking for elusive alternative transformational models where
Europe is absent. Depopulation and outmigration is also taking a further toll on internal
momentum for change.
Democratic backslide coupled with state capture opens the door for the EU’s rivals, such as
Russia, Turkey, and China, to assert their influence over the Balkans. In general, Balkan leaders
favour Russian, Turkish, and Chinese presence over the EU because it translates into fresh rent
opportunities. Links to Moscow, Beijing, or Ankara also increase incumbents’ leverage vis-à-vis
the EU, by playing up their countries’ geopolitical value in the struggle between Europe and its
competitors. The dilution of the EU’s demands for changes in areas instrumental to the exercise
of power, be it the media, the judiciary, police or public sector employment, is a concession
Western Balkan elites are evidently willing to accept.
Facing democratic backsliding in Hungary or Poland, or in the Western Balkans, the political
elites leading the EU have drawn two main conclusions: first, that the 2004 enlargement
happened too early, and second, not to repeat this same ‘error’ in the Western Balkans. Yet, apart
from introducing new hurdles for evaluating a prospective country’s preparedness to join the
Union, the EU hasn’t found a solution to the democratic deficit problem in candidate countries.
The length of the accession negotiations will not ensure institutional consolidation and
strengthen the rule of law.
Importantly, the resurgence of authoritarianism inside the EU is not proof that enlargement did
not work. It cannot be denied that EU enlargement transformed the economies and societies in
Poland, Hungary, and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. But the hope that the EU could
remedy all domestic ills and deficits on its own was hopelessly naïve to begin with. For the EU
to deliver on its promise of democratic consolidation, the accession process has to work in
tandem with domestic forces, not work against them.
Qualified Majority Voting and people power
One solution touted by the locals in the Western Balkans is to beef up regional integration as a
means to boost economies while preparing Western Balkan countries for eventual EU
membership in 10 to 15 years’ time. A so-called “mini-Schengen” has become a buzzword over
the past few years, with Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania throwing its weight behind it. As
noble an objective as regional cooperation is, it will not deliver robust economic growth, much
less fix democratic malaise. In fact, the Western Balkans have already liberalized trade in goods
to a great extent, after more than two decades of EU-promoted initiatives overseen by
multilateral bodies such as the Central European Free Trade Agreement or the Sarajevo-based
Regional Cooperation Council (RCC). Mini-Schengen could remove some non-tariff barriers,
but it will not improve the rule of law or democratic accountability, which is a sine qua non for
long-term growth. Similar regional initiatives are welcome but are not a substitute to complete
EU accession of all Western Balkan countries.
The geopolitical imperative for the EU to establish primacy over its periphery requires
expediting enlargement. The challenge, however, is how not to undermine reforms in candidate
countries by opening the gates of EU membership. Until now, the EU has not been able to
formulate a transformational model fit for the job. Cosmetic changes such as the Revised
Enlargement Methodology, strong-armed by the French at the beginning of 2020, will not halt
authoritarian backsliding in the Western Balkans, but will likely only prolong the accession talks.
Any tweak to the content or structure of the accession negotiations is meaningless without a
thorough reform of the decision-making process guiding it.
At present, unanimity in the accession process makes it impossible to reward democratic
frontrunners, such as North Macedonia, but also punish the laggards such as Vučić’s Serbia.
Unanimous voting to approve a country’s every step along the way to EU membership gives an
easy excuse for individual member states to put a brake on accession because of bilateral
disputes or their own domestic politics.
Unanimity makes it hard to sanction backsliders too. There rule whereby all 27 member states
have to endorse a decision makes the so-called “reversibility clause” the hallmark of the new
European Commission’s methodology on enlargement, a toothless stalling exercise. The
European Parliament has already voted twice to formally suspend accession negotiations with
Turkey — in 2017 and March 2019. The European Commission and the Council have not
followed suit. The chances to punish Western Balkan authoritarians are even slimmer.
Attempting to transform the Western Balkans while finding it difficult to reign in the EU’s own
autocrats such as Orbán resembles a futile exercise of painting the sealing of your apartment to
cover the water leak from your upstairs neighbour instead of repairing his sink. Balkan
strongmen have learned from neighbouring Hungary a lesson or two on how to practise state
capture without inviting European sanctions. Should the EU prove unable to help Hungary’s
democratic renewal, it will stand no chance in the Western Balkans. The way forward is to
introduce qualified majority voting in the enlargement negotiations, but also fully implement the
mechanism linking the disbursement of funds from the EU budget with adherence to the rule of
If the EU’s celebrated transformative power is to produce positive outcomes, reforming the
decision making in the accession talks has to be matched by a grassroots impulse from the
Western Balkans. That means civil society actors must demand clean politics in their countries
and push for change, including through participation in electoral politics. There are a number of
encouraging examples in the wider EU area, from Slovakia to Romania to North Macedonia. A
workable enlargement policy should develop mechanisms to directly empower genuinely pro-
European forces: rhetorically, by calling out state capture, but also materially through investing
into civic institutions and media content whose mission is to hold power-holders accountable.
Even with Trump in power, the US set a good example to that effect by restarting Radio Free
Europe in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.
Getting priorities straight
Attempts to foster accountability and the rule of law in the Western Balkans should not hamper
the EU’s other goal: establishing a free and democratic Union from the Atlantic to the Black Sea.
The comparative examples of Orbán’s Hungary and Vučić’s Serbia suggest that countering
authoritarian backslide is no easier outside the EU than it is within the Union. Non-enlargement
cannot cure state capture in the Western Balkans either. Taking in deficient democracies may
wreak less damage on the EU’s long-term interest than indefinitely postponing accession. Of
course, there should be precautions and safeguards. To make sure that the six new potential
members (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and
Serbia) do not disrupt the already complicated EU internal decision-making processes, their
voting rights could be limited until they meet democratic and rule of law standards (on how see
Whether officials in Brussels – or Paris and Berlin for that matter – like it or not, “geopolitical
Europe” is first tested in the Western Balkans. To demonstrate that its actions and commitments
make a difference internationally, the EU should first secure its objectives and assert its role in
its own backyard—or perhaps more accurately, its courtyard, given the Western Balkan’s
location vis-à-vis the rest of the Union. Only then will Europe be able to pull it off in the wider
neighbourhood or indeed on the global stage.
The article gives the views of the author, not the position of ‘Europe’s Futures
Ideas for Action’ project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).