EU Enlargement and Western Balkans [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Dimitar Bechev, Lecturer Oxford School of Global & Area Studies, and a Visiting Scholar of Carnegie Europe. They talk about the Balkans in the context of the EU enlargement, the current situation in respective potential candidates, opportunities and threats resulting from premature entry into the EU, and the prospects for further European integration.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): What is the current status of the enlargement process in the Western Balkans?

Dimitar Bechev
Dimitar Bechev

Dimitar Bechev (DB): It is really fitting that we are having this conversation right now, not only because of the last week’s summit, but also because it is the tenth anniversary since Montenegro started membership negotiations. When it comes to Montenegro, a lot of chapters have been opened and it is right now ahead of the pack. This, however, does not mean that much, because the country did not receive a clear commitment from the European Union that they will be finalizing the negotiations and signing a treaty.

Next in line is Serbia. It started the negotiations in 2014. This country is also stuck – even to a greater degree than Montenegro. They have not opened any new chapters over the last year. At the same time, the unresolved dispute over Kosovo has been a major issue.

Then, there is, on the one hand, Albania, and, on the other hand, North Macedonia. This is where a lot of attention has been paid, because these two states have been blocked by Bulgaria. The Bulgarian veto concerns North Macedonia, as there is a long-standing dispute around history and the Macedonian language. Albania was a collateral damage to this veto. Right now, there emerged in Skopje a proposal by the French president advising against moving forward in this process, which might actually stop it. However, it is far from certain what will happen.



Last in line are Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The former is still, unfortunately, not even recognized as a candidate. The recent decision to grant the candidate status to Ukraine has gone down really badly in Sarajevo. In the case of the latter, the process has been hampered by the fact that five EU member states do not recognize Kosovo as sovereign state. On an operational level, the country has met all the pre-requisites for visa liberalization. Unfortunately, this has not been granted. For comparison, everyone else in the Western Balkans has been travelling visa-free since 2009-2010. This creates a lot of bad blood in Kosovo for being left out in the process.

This is the situation right now, in a nutshell. It is challenging for the region. And it does not look like there is light at the end of the tunnel.

LJ: Could you try to identify the differences in the enlargement process in the early 2000s and the current one? Has the process become cynical, as Gerald Knaus indicated in our previous episode?

DB: There are a lot of similarities, but also clear differences. With Bulgaria and Romania geopolitics played a crucial role in their road toward EU accession. These countries received a positive signal to start the negotiations in December 1999 in the Helsinki Council. This happened largely because the then member states wanted to reward them for their support for the West during the Kosovo war. Tony Blair said that Sofia and Bucharest played a very critical role at that time. Needless to say, I was very skeptical about the level of preparedness of Bulgaria and Romania back then, but the geopolitical aspect prevailed.

At the same time, back then, the door to the European Union was open. There was a clear commitment to the enlargement process. Even countries with institutional problems or with prevalent state capture had a chance to join. However, the bar has gone up since those days. This is partly related to the experiences of the previous enlargement. The EU leaders, not only in Brussels, have realized how much of the unfinished business there was and that once a state becomes a member the EU’s leverage in terms of its goals may even evaporate.

The fact that the process is not so easy anymore has also something to do with the obstacles that are specific to the Western Balkans – the difficult legacy of the wars in the 1990s, which translates into issues with various territorial claims and sovereignty disputes. This is clearly the case in Serbia and Kosovo. Without the latter, Serbia would quite easily speed up the process of becoming a member of the European Union.

Then, there is the experience of Poland and Hungary, who were the frontrunners of transformation back in 2004, and then, a decade later, they turned into a major headache for the EU. This is also a significant factor in why the enlargement process has changed. If you go to Paris and talk to French officials, they always bring up democratic backsliding as a major concern. Why is this the case? Either because of their genuine commitment to democracy or for strategic reasons, looking for an excuse not to enlarge the EU. Regardless of their intention, it is clear that there are these two major states in the Central and Easter Europe that are going backwards.

LJ: To what extent has the mood in the European Union changed? And how has the fact that the United Kingdom has left the EU transform Europe? What effect does it have on the Western Balkans?

DB: Overall, it is fair to say that the European Union has become much more introspective. The Eurozone crisis in the 2010s played a huge role in this respect as it has opened a discussion on internal consolidation. A lot of the political energy has been put to overhauling the existing institutions, moving away from the monetary to a fiscal union – which, in turn, brought to the surface the questions of state power and the relations between the main stakeholders. As a result, less attention has been paid to the external trajectory of the EU – except for the situations when the EU had to react, as, for example, in the case of Ukraine right now.

The fact that the United Kingdom left the European Union has made a huge difference. The UK had been a strong advocate for enlargement. Meanwhile, Germany was somewhere in the middle due to its economic interconnectivity to the region. Then, the south-east Europe is somewhat different; if we take a look at the trade figures and migration patterns, the picture that these paint is similar to that in Poland. So, Brexit has made a difference.

Now, what are the costs of non-enlargement? Perhaps, political instability and nasty populisms in the region. I do not envisage a major military conflict – like what we may observe in the east. There will not be a big migration crisis either. And this is why this status quo is becoming sustainable. It is not a perfect situation, because it may lead to democratic decay and entrenchment of state capture. People who live in these societies fall victim to this situation. But, clearly, it is not the end of the world, as it is perceived in Brussels.

For elites in the Western Balkans this interregnum provides a perfect opportunity to expand and consolidate their hold on power, on the economic lifeline in the region, and on media. On paper, they are committed to pursuing the EU membership, so it is ‘not their fault’ that there is this reluctance on the part of the European Union to welcome new members.

What appeared initially as a temporary situation has a tendency to reproduce itself. We live in a vicious circle. This is related to both the supply factors (the EU not doing its job) and the demand factors (local actors being invested in maintaining the status quo).

LJ: Is it possible to sustain the commitment for a democratic and economic change in the Western Balkans regardless of the incentives from the European Union? Is there internal determination to pursue a liberal and democratic future in the region irrespective of whether or not the EU will open its doors to new members?

DB: In the case of the Western Balkans, what is really relevant (apart from the wars in the 1990s) is the legacy of the Cold War. Yugoslavia held a very special position in the Cold War. It enjoyed very good relations with the West. Starting in the early 1960s, the communist leadership allowed people to seek employment and to move freely to western Europe, because it was critical for the economy due to remittances.

As a result, there are certain generations in this part of Europe who are accustomed to the West and who take it for granted – so much so that the narrative about the ‘return to Europe’ was extremely important (not only in central Europe, but also in Romania and Bulgaria) in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. This, however, did not really apply to the Yugoslavs. Even in Croatia, when it was joining the EU, the attitude toward the European Union was mixed – 1/3 was against it, 1/3 in favor, and 1/3 remained undecided (of course, something else happened during the referendum).

My point is about Eurorealism. People in the Western Balkans, by definition, do not really subscribe to the idea that the EU will ensure their bright future. Albania is very different, because of the Cold War, which made the country isolated. But for the rest of the region the Yugoslavian legacy matters a lot. Therefore, it is difficult to produce politicians or social movements that take the EU as their battle cry that would motivate a sufficient number of people.

This phenomenon does not mean, however, that the European Union is irrelevant – it does matter. This is true, for example, for North Macedonia. Still, there is a kind of cynical attitude toward the EU. Now, because of the impasse, it has become reinforced in the region. This has a historical resonance.

So, how do we move away from this vicious circle? We need to make it clear that institutional consolidation, transparency, and democracy are not about Brussels but about how the European societies function. It is about the well-being of citizens. We want to want to live in Montenegro, Serbia, or Albania, because they are well governed, to do it for their own sake – and not because they just want to tick a box and join the EU.

I am not sure that these voices have yet reached a critical mass to challenge the status quo, in which we have politicians talking the talk but not walking the walk. At the same time, we have to give credit to the people who have pushed against the state capture.

The European Union plays an ambiguous role in this process. For many civic-minded citizens of the Western Balkans it would be much easier to pack up and leave, and settle down in Germany, Denmark, or Sweden than to challenge the status quo in their own countries. In this sense, integration not only mobilizes but also at times demobilizes. But then, of course, the situation also inspires civic action.

LJ: What about Bulgaria? What is currently happening there? What are Bulgaria’s concerns as regards North Macedonia?

DB: There is a misunderstanding that the coalition unraveled because of the disagreements over North Macedonia – that is not the case. The real reason why this happened was money, so it is much more mundane. It was about several billions of levs in highway contracts inherited from the previous government. It was also tied to a battle over the scheme on the border with Turkey – the EU’s external border.

These two aspects are really telling of what truly animates the Bulgarian politics. It is not the identity issues. In fact, the topic of North Macedonia is really low in terms of what keeps the political life afloat in Bulgaria. The right-wing nationalist party that was instrumental to the veto failed to reach the threshold in 2021.

Now, the big issue is what happens in the next election? Will the new party that was established by the outgoing Prime Minister, Kiril Petkov, be able to generate enough votes? They had it easy before because they were the ‘new kids on the bloc’. It is always like this in Bulgaria – someone new comes and says they will eliminate corruption and so they manage to get the voters to support them. But will the party have the power to repeat that success and to put together another coalition? It is a big question, because the forces of the status quo are very resilient and have significant electoral support – which is typical of the Western Balkans. It is difficult to have a break-through.

In the case of North Macedonia, one of the last things that the Bulgarian parliament voted on was the French proposal. So, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The issue is whether North Macedonia will accept the proposal. To make it happen we need buy-in from Skopje as well.

As far as Bulgarian politicians are concerned, they are happy, because now the ball is in the court of Skopje. They have accepted the compromise solution as it is very much accommodating for Sofia. In the long term, the problem is that if your goal is to win sympathy in North Macedonia, which will convince enough people to the veracity of your historical narrative, then vetoing and coercion are not a very productive way of moving forward. You are then alienating your neighboring country and you will not be able to win anyone’s hearts and minds over there.

This is the fundamental problem. However, I do not think that this was the initial purpose of the veto. It was rather supposed to keep the then coalition in the government for another six months and run its full mandate.

This political football is making its rounds in Bulgaria. The good news is that as salient as the issue is right now, it may die out, because there is no evidence that the voters care about it. This, however, is not enough for Macedonians, because they are stuck in this process and are hostage to Bulgaria. What may be viewed as a relatively positive phenomenon, in a way, even in this part of the world, where nationalisms are stereotypically perceived as very powerful forces (which they are to some extent), what drives policies and decisions is primarily a concern of how to keep power and have enough resources.

LJ: How can we persuade the Western Europeans, the EU citizens, that having the Western Balkans join the European Union is in their interest? Why should they even care?

DB: The most compelling argument would be geopolitical in nature. Embracing these countries will improve the European defense at a time when war politics becomes increasingly competitive. Of course, this entails some costs. Still, these countries will more likely behave like Bulgaria – going with the flow and complying with the policies (the Eurozone, green transformation, migration etc.), instead of rocking the boat like Poland or Hungary.

This will, however, happen based on the assumption that Brussels will not be interfering in their domestic business. This would be the bargain for the Western Balkans (maybe except for Serbia). We will, therefore, end up with several Bulgarias. I admit, it is a rather cynical argument, but it is a fair one.

The podcast was recorded on July 20, 2022.

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This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

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