The EU tries to revive Western Balkan Enlargement in Midst of a Pandemic

The EU tries to revive Western Balkan Enlargement in Midst of a Pandemic

Russia, China, and the EU have tried to use the Covid pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen their influence in the Western Balkans. An Economic and Investment Plan announced by the European Commission is an attempt by the EU to revive the enlargement process after stalling following the French veto of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. The risk for the EU lies in whether the Investment Plan will be enough to help resolve the region’s issues of corruption and internal disputes as well as meet the geopolitical challenge presented by Russia and China.

On 6th October, the European Commission announced an Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans. The aim of the Plan is to spur the long-term economic recovery of the region, support a green and digital transition, foster regional integration and convergence with the EU. With a funding of €9 billion, it is the latest substantial sum of EU financial assistance to the region, which has not only been left stricken by the Covid-19 pandemic, but has also seen an expansion of Chinese and Russian influence. 

It is a clear signal to the rest of the world that Brussels is trying to revive Western Balkan EU enlargement since it stalled following President Macron’s veto of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania at the EU summit in October 2019. The risk for the European Union is whether the Investment Plan will do enough to confront the geopolitical challenges as well as the deeply entrenched domestic disputes that the region currently faces and remedy the breakdown of the process that resulted from the French block on negotiations.

Macron’s veto and internal Balkan disputes stall the enlargement process

The approach taken to integrate the six Western Balkan states with the EU has been frustrated both within the region and the EU itself. Despite the achievement of Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAAs) with the EU that have set in train a process of Balkan European integration since 2016, long-standing political issues, including corruption and internal disputes following the collapse of Yugoslavia, remain to be addressed. Since Emmanuel Macron’s veto of accession talks, the Western Balkan enlargement process has struggled to incentivise reforms in the region. 

The revised strategy proposed by the European Commission at the start of 2020 in order to meet French concerns places an emphasis on fundamental reforms to the rule of law, fighting corruption, the economy, and properly functioning democratic institutions; however, this strategic approach based on conditionality – the instrument Brussels uses to foster the region’s political-economic transformation – loses its ability to incentivise reforms when the implementation of such measures threatens the position of the region’s ruling elites, and as a consequence diminishes the prospect of other Balkan countries joining Croatia in becoming EU member states.

Conditionality fails to make substantial progress on reform

Montenegro is a case in point. Despite the pro-EU orientation of the Montenegrin prime minister, Dusko Markovic, his government faces accusations of autocracy. The country still needs to solve the politicisation of institutions and the issue of judicial independence, according to Ana Durnic, a public policy researcher from Institute Alternative in Podgorica. Although governments in the region may appear to be advocating deeper European integration, substantial reforms of the post-Yugoslav political systems remain to be implemented. The latest European Commission report for Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, states that Sarajevo needs to ensure a professional and depoliticised civil service. In Serbia, minimal progress has been made on domestic political and economic reform as well as on settling differences with Kosovo – the ethnic Albanian state that declared independence from Serbia in 2008. 

And where progress has been made on the issue of corruption in the case of North Macedonia since it established a State Commission tailored to the issue, nation-building is still a hurdle yet to be cleared. Bulgaria stated that it will veto the formal launch of EU accession talks with Skopje until the negotiating framework used provides legal guarantees concerning North Macedonian claims over language and an ethnic minority on Bulgarian territory. The approach to Western Balkan enlargement based on conditionality clearly seems to be struggling to make substantial steps forward on the path to the region’s European integration. 

Russia and China exploit the EU’s stalling enlargement strategy

The weakening of the EU’s position in the Western Balkans due to the setbacks in the accession process noted above has created a geopolitical opportunity for Russia and China to expand their influence in the region – particularly since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The task of Balkan governments to respond to the public health emergency entrenched autocratic politics in some cases much to the advantage of the anti-Western forms of governance exercised in Moscow and Beijing. 

In Serbia, President Vucic feels vindicated by his decision to implement severe restrictions in his country and encourage Chinese medical assistance and economic investment following forecasts that Serbia would be one of the few countries in Europe to escape recession in 2020. It suggests that the political will in Belgrade to implement democratic reforms is diminishing as Vucic sees in China an attractive alternative to the EU’s emphasis on making fundamental reforms.

As far as Moscow’s influence on the region is concerned, the process of distorting facts on the pandemic’s outbreak is utilised by the Kremlin to undermine the European Union’s standing in the region and further weaken the resolve of the Balkan governments given the lack of progress towards EU accession. North Macedonia and Serbia have both become exporters of a Russian disinformation campaign that states that Brussels is so overwhelmed by the crisis that it has turned its back on the region according to Nicolae Tibrigan of the Laboratory for the Analysis of Informational Warfare and Strategic Communication In Bucharest.

Will the Investment Plan be enough to put EU Balkan enlargement back on course?

The Investment Plan is a recognition by the EU that it needs to do more than use political conditionality if it is to maintain traction with the Western Balkan enlargement process. As the strategy towards accession currently stands, Balkan governments are struggling to see the benefits of implementing reforms based on democracy and the rule of law as they seek to recover from the economic consequences of a pandemic. 

And so this latest move by the European Commission to provide economic assistance to the Western Balkans may help to evolve the current strategy based on conditionality. The risk is whether the EU’s marriage of fiscal power with criteria for membership is comprehensive enough to change the political environment in a region that at the moment looks to be favouring both Russia and China.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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