Brake on E.U. Enlargement Dims Hope for the Balkans

Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (L), next to Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, calls on neighboring Slovenia to lift its blockage of Croatian E.U. membership on Feb. 18. (Photo: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

On May 1, the European Union celebrated the fifth anniversary of its "big bang," the massive wave of enlargement in 2004 that saw it accept ten new members—eight former communist countries from Eastern Europe, plus Malta and Cyprus. When Romania and Bulgaria joined two and a half years later, in 2007, the E.U. counted 27 member states, almost half a billion people and 30 percent of the world's G.D.P.

In the years since, the E.U.'s enlargement policy has been considered an unequivocal success. It has brought jobs and growth to the new member states and provided new markets for the old ones. It has spread stability and democracy, while creating an unprecedented area of free movement of people, capital and ideas on the European mainland.

For the troubled Balkans, the E.U. enlargement policy has also been considered the principal instrument for maintaining stability and keeping the countries of the region on course for democratic reform. If these countries have made efforts to keep nationalists at bay, it has been in large part due to the endlessly repeated promise that one day, they, too, would join the club.

As recently as last November, E.U. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said that 2009 could potentially be a great year for the countries in the Western Balkans. Croatia was expected to complete negotiations, which meant formally joining the Union in 2010. Macedonia was supposed to get a date for the start of talks, advancing it to a higher level in the accession process. Serbia was to get candidate status, the level preceding the start of the negotiations phase.

Enter the global economic crisis. Five years after the "big bang," the prospects for the enlargement process have never seemed gloomier, with some of the major E.U. member states expressing clear reservations about new accessions. In late March, German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested "a consolidation phase" for enlargement, following Croatia's formal accession. Similarly, France has been insisting that no new accessions take place until the Lisbon Treaty—the new E.U. constitution that should make decision-making in the Union more effective—has been ratified.

More concretely, Germany asked the European Commission (E.C.)—currently the E.U. executive—to delay its opinion on Montenegro's membership application, which the government in Podgorica submitted in December 2008.

Meanwhile, Croatia, whose accession seemed a foregone conclusion, has found itself blocked by neighboring Slovenia over a territorial dispute. As an E.U. member state, Slovenia can exercise what amounts to a veto on new accessions. While neither the other E.U. member states nor the E.C. approve, there is little they can do outside of grumbling and trying to mediate the dispute. Croatia, which could have entered by next year, might now have to wait until 2012, and even that depends on resolving the dispute with Slovenia.

Most of the recent reservations regarding enlargement have to do with the economic crisis. As rich European countries shed jobs and their economies plunge, fears and animosity toward migrants—including workers from new member states—rise. That, in turn, puts pressure on politicians to respond to such fears, especially when elections are near, as they are in Germany, as well as in the European Union itself (the campaign for the E.U. parliament officially begins next month). Some experts explain recent German moves vis-à-vis enlargement in this light.

That puts member states at odds with the E.C., which has been tirelessly repeating to Western Balkan countries that progress on enlargement is entirely up to them, depending only on how well they do with reforms designed to harmonize national governance and policy with E.U. standards.

Voices have been raised against the anti-enlargement bandwagon. Enlargement Commissioner Rehn recently exhorted the European Parliament not to "make enlargement the scapegoat of economic recession." Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who in the past has played an active role in the Balkan crises, has also argued that the Western Balkan countries should "not be punished" in order to please the voters in some countries.

But given member states' behavior, that now looks increasingly like empty talk.

Another casualty of the economic crisis may be the eagerly awaited visa liberalization that the Western Balkans, including Macedonia and Serbia, had been hoping would take place in 2009. With actual membership a distant prospect, the dropping of visas is the next best thing, and the Balkans has been desperate for it for quite some time. The E.C. is expected to recommend it over the next couple of months, after which the interior ministers of the E.U. member states could make a final decision towards the end of the year. But even on this count, the commission had to go against the will of some member states. Diplomatic activity is under way, and the final outcome is still not known.

The prospect of enlargement has played a stabilizing role in the Balkans, making its sudden removal a cause for concern. The timing is particularly unfavorable, too. In Macedonia, nationalism is on the rise, in part due to obstacles to international integration, such as the Greek veto on entry to NATO last year. Serbs in Kosovo are increasingly anxious, Croats are increasingly embittered, and Bosnia is, by many accounts, in the worst shape it has been in since the Dayton peace deal that ended the war in 1995.

The economic crisis threatens to push the Balkans into recession, but economies can rebound. And besides, poorly performing economies are business as usual in the region. Should the crisis also kill the region's shiniest political hope, it could have a far deeper and more lasting impact.

This article was originally published on World Politics Review,

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