Slow EU Enlargement Affords Hungary Leverage

Slow EU Enlargement Affords Hungary Leverage

Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania have agreed to a border-free travel zone between their countries. Although it is an effort to open up their economies following the COVID-19 pandemic, the regional initiative also reflects frustration with the European Union for its slow accession process. Meanwhile, in taking over the Visegrad Group presidency, Hungary has made Balkan EU accession one of its key priorities. This puts Hungary in a strong political position. The risk of a migration crisis in Europe following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan means that the EU has little choice but to intensify its enlargement agenda.

European Integration in the Western Balkans at Risk

The European Union faces the very real prospect of seeing the process of European integration in the Western Balkans failing.

While the EU continues to insist on candidates doing their homework, aspiring member states find accession denied after fulfilling promises on reform. This undermines the credibility of the accession process and the incentive to make further reforms is weakened as a result.  

More than three years has passed since the European Commission recommended commencing accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. Despite the significant steps in reform both countries have taken in that time, some member states still have their objections. 

In 2019, France deemed the reforms made as insufficient notwithstanding the historic agreement Skopje secured with Greece to clear a long-standing obstacle to accession. North Macedonia and Albania seemed set to eventually begin negotiations early last year after bearing with French calls to adjust the enlargement methodology. However, Bulgaria used its veto on Skopje last year due to a dispute over language and history.

Nonetheless, instead of addressing its credibility issue, the EU has been left preoccupied with French and Bulgarian concerns over enlargement. The enlargement methodology was revised in early 2020 and the Enlargement commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, suggested decoupling Skopje and Tirana in accession talks earlier in the year. The damage this has done to the EU’s standing opens the door to non-Western powers to expand their influence.

Nowhere is this more clearly the case than in the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. In the area of vaccination delivery, Serbia chose not to turn to the EU. Instead, Belgrade signed a memorandum with China and the United Arab Emirates to produce the Chinese vaccine, Sinopharm, on its soil.

A concern for the EU is that Skopje and Tirana do not seem put off to engage with Serbia despite its growing ties with Beijing. North Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, and his Albanian counterpart, Edi Rama, agreed to a border-free travel zone with Belgrade out of frustration with Brussels.

In a sign the EU faces the prospect of China becoming a formidable political force in the region, Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, cited the agreement as an effort to expand Balkan markets.

The EU under Pressure to Accelerate Enlargement

The potential for another migration crisis following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan adds urgency to the precarious EU position in the Western Balkans.

Almost 15,000 illegal attempts have been made to enter Europe through the Western Balkan Route in the past year. This number may increase on a scale not seen since the Second World War as the Taliban tightens its grip on Afghanistan. Caroline Van Buren, the UN Refugee Agency representative in Afghanistan, says between 20,000 and 30,000 Afghans are leaving their country on a weekly basis. The security challenge facing the EU external border means that Brussels has fewer alternatives than to intensify its strategic engagement in southeastern Europe.

Taking over the EU rotating presidency from Portugal in the summer, Slovenia noted enlargement as a key part of its regional stabilisation strategy. The foreign minister in Ljubljana, Anze Logar, warned of the consequences for Europe if the Balkans do not feel sure they’ll accede after implementing reforms. With enlargement forced back on the EU agenda, Hungary is in a position to wield substantial leverage.

In recent months, the EU has clashed with Budapest over respect for the rule of law. Orban threatened to veto the €1.8bn EU budget after Brussels agreed to a mechanism designed to withhold payments to member states that fail to comply with the rule of law.

However, through urging the speeding up of enlargement under its Visegrad Group presidency, Orban can question the purpose of such disputes. 

In using the threat irregular migration poses to European security, Budapest has been trying to defuse tensions with the EU regarding its controversial judicial reforms. Hungary’s justice minister, Judit Varga, called out Brussels for focusing too much on internal matters rather than the security of its member states.

It will be hard to dismiss the point Varga makes since the Slovenian EU presidency has made enlargement one of its main priorities.

Hungary Tests EU resolve over Fundamental Values

Orban finds himself now in a strong political position. The EU is under mounting pressure to revisit its current approach to Balkan enlargement. As Slovenia takes charge of the EU presidency, Budapest can expect to play a key role in setting the direction of policy.

In a meeting with Vucic in Belgrade in July, Orban urged the EU to press ahead with Serbia’s accession. The Hungarian premier emphasised the importance of Serbian EU membership to the security of his country’s southern border.

What the meeting with Vucic represents is a direct challenge to Brussels. It questions whether the adherence to fundamental values should be taking precedence over the regional stability enlargement would provide. Moreover, if the EU fails to heed Orban’s call on Serbia, it would reinforce Hungarian claims of EU double standards over rule-of-law compliance given the reform efforts made in the Balkans.

With a migration crisis in Europe looming, Orban may expect to find a few of his EU counterparts arriving at similar points-of-view.

Hugo Blewett-Mundy covers Southeastern European affairs. His research interests are EU foreign policy and the post-communist transition in Central and Eastern Europe. Hugo received an MA in Russian and Post-Soviet Politics from UCL after graduating with a degree in Politics and Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter here @hugobm96

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author