EU enlargement debate splits Europe and Western Balkans

The EU’s recent coolness towards the Balkans has raised doubts that integration into the bloc will become reality

The presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic party of Socialist Milo Djukanovic addresses the media within casting his vote
The people of Montenegro began voting on April 15 in polls expected to see pro-Western former prime minister Milo Djukanovic elected as president of the tiny Balkan nation that is aspiring to join the EU. / AFP PHOTO / SAVO PRELEVIC
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Enlargement of the European Union to include the Western Balkans has become a thorny issue for Brussels, which is caught between the desire to curb Russian and Chinese influence in the region and the need to reassure some member states.

The European Union has supported its partners in the Western Balkans on their respective integration paths, but its recent coolness towards the Balkans has raised doubts that these efforts will ever yield a result.

On July 1, 2013, Croatia became the first of the seven countries to join, and Montenegro, Serbia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania are official candidates. Their integration procedures begun over a decade ago, but the finish line is still not in sight and some are losing patience.

Head of states present at the Globsec security conference that came to a close on Friday in Bratislava, Slovakia, agreed that the European Union must quickly turn words into actions.

“Russia, China and the others are seeking their place in the Balkans and how much of that they will get depends on how much Europe will give them,” Milo Dukanovic, President of Montenegro, said at the event. “And that’s why I would like to invite the European Union and Nato to do their job in our region, stop repeating only that the door is open.”

Montenegro applied to join the European Union 11 years ago and its entrance was envisaged to take place in 2025. Now that the deadline is approaching, however, some EU leaders were perceived to be backtracking. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the 2025 was “not a deadline”, while Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, said the 2025 date was intended as “encouragement so the parties concerned work hard”.

For the first time, no opening of new chapters was recommended for Montenegro in the Commission’s latest annual report, believed to be more negative than in previous years.

Should Montenegro fail to gain a seat in the EU in 2025, this could discourage other countries in the Western Balkans from continuing the lengthy path towards integration and push them into the arms of Russia and China.

While some of the economic concerns of integration have been effectively quelled – Montenegro, for instance, has a lower public debt than that of two thirds of European members – the EU emerged from one of the most pivotal elections in its history with a clear indication of growing discontent on the EU accession list.

Brussels cannot ignore the fact that challenges such as migration, concerns over radicalisation, organised crime and the arms trade have an important impact on Euro-Atlantic security.

The EU has made it clear that it does not intend to import the conflicts that have long crippled the region, chiefly that between Serbia and Kosovo.

Speaking at the Globsec conference, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said the dispute with Kossovo remained one of the main obstacles to integration but that ultimately “we are going to be part of the EU”.

Public opinion inside the European Union also appears divided. A recent Eurobarometer poll shows 43 per cent of the EU public support “further enlargement of the EU to include other countries in future years”, while 45 per cent are against.

Moreover, many EU leaders want to reform the EU first, before moving on to enlargement. Among them is French President Emmanuel Macron, who said that he was not in favour of widening the union before deep reforms were carried out.

Brussels faces the dilemma of accommodating different positions in its enlargement plans at a time in which the UK’s departure is raising new questions on the resilience of the decades-long union.