Over the past decade, Europe has had to endure recessions, a migration crisis and the lingering effects of the global pandemic. Under increased pressure, and in addition to long-standing demographic problems, the European Union is now reconsidering its enlargement process. The bloc’s recent experiences, combined with more than a decade of growing uncertainty, appear to have convinced European policymakers not to expand the bloc into the Western Balkans. This is becoming increasingly evident in official EU discourse. The issue, which has always been a controversial topic among established members, has become more focused on identities. Public opinion has become embittered by the idea of an enlarged European Union, and the atmosphere in the Balkans, in particular, hasn’t been looking good for a while. Worse still, it shows no signs of improvement.
In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron REMARK that “the EU made a collective mistake in declaring that EU membership was our only relationship with the Western Balkans”. Shortly afterwards, at the initiative of France, the EU proposed a revised enlargement methodology for countries seeking to join the bloc. This revised methodology allows applicants to reap the financial benefits of EU membership in specific areas after completing the relevant chapters. However, if candidates’ progress plateaus at any point, the resulting prerogatives and stimuli would also diminish. Perhaps most importantly, the new system implies the possibility that if crucial reforms are not undertaken, applicants will never pass a key threshold, and thus never become full members of the EU.
Balkan countries stuck in the limbo of a perpetual process would be part of what could be considered the EU’s new strategic vision: instead of members, a group of states associated with the EU.
Associates instead of members
What does being an associated state involve? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, who spoke similarly of the UK’s relationship with Europe: these states are ‘with Europe, but not with it’. In other words, they would reap the basic benefits of being a member of the bloc, but would not have access to a greater share of the benefits enjoyed by its “senior members” – protected acolytes enjoying a certain degree of respect, but for whom the riches of the bloc. the main protagonists would always remain slightly out of reach.
All is not doom and gloom for the Associated States. Far from there. Associated states could still benefit from a modicum of stability that comes with their attachment to the bloc. Outside the EU domain freedom of movementthe future associated states of the Balkans could gain precious time to slow down – but certainly not stop – their strong demographic decline, enabling them to develop, adopt and implement new policies in response to these worrying trends. Likewise, associated states would not be limited to economic success and would benefit from greater capital mobility, medium-sized investments and even large-scale infrastructure projects, engines of growth.
In the area of security, the risk of an escalation of hostilities with an internal or external belligerent would be considerably reduced. Regarding the latter point, states concerned about Russian influence in the region would be relieved, as these new EU affiliates would be fully subsumed into NATO. For actors whose experience with Moscow has been comparatively more pleasant, such as Serbia and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, this could mean the end of the long tradition of being labeled the region’s main “troublemakers” by United States and its allies. As for internal hostilities, mutual association with NATO would significantly reduce the risk of conflict. For example, the governments in Belgrade and Priština would likely be forced to resolve the ongoing dispute over Kosovo, whatever form that solution takes. Although none of this could worsen the armed conflict in the region impossiblesuch prospects would become extremely improbable.
On a broader geopolitical level, association with the West would eliminate any remaining doubts about the ability of these states to balance today’s major world powers. But at the same time, the economic strategy of each state could differ significantly. After all, since the associated states would not participate in the EU as full members, they would enjoy greater room for maneuver in foreign trade and investment. Having nothing to bind them to the EU’s common market policies towards third parties, associated states could exploit this lack of binding regulation to maintain a certain degree of economic independence. This can include everything from individual profit-driven agreements to entering into partnerships and trade agreements with non-EU states.
Currently, Serbia is the only EU candidate in the Balkans that takes full advantage of this position. While “waiting” for EU membership, Belgrade has signed strategic partnership agreements not only with established EU members such as France, Italy and Hungary, but also with large non-member states. EU such as China, Russia, United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan. In addition to deepening cooperation with these countries in the fields of education, science, technology and many other issues, Serbia has expanded its free trade agreements far beyond the bloc he aspires to join. Now able to access a combined market of over a billion people, Serbia will certainly try to preserve this competitive advantage by attracting investment. Until Balkan states are seriously considered as potential members, there will be no reason to characterize this type of engagement as “unfair play.”
The limits of associate status
There is, however, a limit to how such measures can benefit associated states. An unfulfilled aspiration for greater economic opportunities inevitably invites investment from third countries. Contemporary geopolitics being what it is, all these investments would not remain purely commercial. In addition to seeking favorable financial opportunities, foreign actors could take advantage of the situation to project their cultural and geopolitical influence in the Balkans. This would likely hamper the ability of associated states to “go unnoticed” by their patrons within the EU. Once they become aware of the risks of foreign intrusion, EU leaders could decide to reduce these commitments, with the abundance of means at their disposal.
As might be expected, the associated states would be saddled with limited sovereignty. These countries might be expected to forgo their own trade and other interests in favor of the bloc’s existing priorities. In reality, this can lead to infrastructure projects which do not correspond to the needs of the host country, trade agreements which reduce the existing potential, requests for purchases in the defense industry which remain unanswered, etc. But if the interests of the bloc and its associates began to collide, the latter would be sorely lacking in alternatives. because of his firm commitments to the former.
North Macedonia is an example. Since its change of government in 2017, the country has clearly embarked on the Euro-Atlantic path. In a bid to speed up the process, it has undertaken a series of decisive anti-corruption reforms. Additionally, this fixed a long-standing problem name dispute with Greece, which he confirmed in a hastily arranged and constitutionally questionable deal. 2018 referendum. Nevertheless, the process was fully supported by the West, while Skopje continued to attribute the protests and dissent that followed to “Russian interference.” To top it all off, the country finally became a member of NATO. For a moment, it looked like North Macedonia was about to get what it really wanted: full membership in the EU. But then the kick in the gut came: Brussels refused to provide the country with a start date for accession negotiations – something the Macedonians had been waiting for since 2005. Due to the international outcry and the increased risk of losing credibility, the EU finally gave a “green light» to start discussions. But soon, EU member Bulgaria raised a long-abandoned issue. language problemcontesting the existence of a “Macedonian language”, which effectively takes Skopje’s aspirations back to square one.
North Macedonia made enormous efforts to achieve nothing. The country’s pro-democracy leaders have staked their reputation on this effort, and with this failure now clearly evident, the country is at risk of democratic backsliding. Firmly committed to the EU and NATO, and having angry non-European partners in the process, North Macedonia has very few cards to play. All this shows how quickly things can go wrong for associated states.
The EU itself, however, has essentially given up trying to reshape the Balkans in its own image. The liberal-democrat EU could still worry about stability In the Balkans, as well as its economic ties with the region, but it is willing to tolerate deeply autocratic practices in the region in exchange for viable solutions.
In Montenegro, another EU candidate, Brussels supported the long reign of Milo Djukanović, whose links to organized crime, as well as a range of corrupt practices, have become common knowledge in the region. Montenegro’s dictator helped secure some Western victories on the security front by splitting his country from union with Serbia, a perceived Russian ally. More recently, he led the country to join NATO in 2017 while claiming a Attempted Russian interference. Although Djukanović has begun to lose his grip on power, with his party losing the 2020 parliamentary elections, he remains the country’s president, a position he is desperately trying to retain.
In northeastern Montenegro, the EU turns a blind eye to the increase brutality of Aleksandar Vučić’s regime, which continues to erode the Serbian social fabric. As prime minister and then president of Serbia, Vučić virtually eliminated civil liberties, significantly reduced space for his political opponents in the media, and resorted to various forms of defamation and intimidation of its own citizens. His diet relationships with the criminal world are so endemic that the US Treasury Department has sanctioned people around him while threatening to expand the list if this continues. As relentless as he may be on the domestic front, Vučić is disproportionately timid and subservient in his foreign policy activities. This, in turn, has made it an advantageous partner in the Balkans, particularly compared to other domestic actors reluctant to offer as many favors at the expense of Serbia’s own interests. Vučić’s approach has proven successful so far, and under current circumstances Serbia cannot yet meaningfully challenge his rule.