Dec 04, 2023

Overcoming Geopolitical Enlargement Anxiety

Widening the European Union is now considered a “geopolitical necessity.” To succeed, however, the EU needs to escape the fears that have kept it stuck in a credibility trap.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama attend the Western Balkans Summit at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, November 3, 2022.
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With the latest “enlargement package” presented by the European Commission in November, the EU is continuing on the geopolitical enlargement track it has charted since admitting Ukraine and Moldova as candidate countries in July 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. The commission has now recommended beginning accession negotiations with them and granting candidate status to Georgia. It has also presented a new growth plan to the “old” candidates in the Western Balkans, offering gradual integration and access to the European Single Market, and a conditional offer to start accession talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The next political challenge is to get the European Council, which meets in mid-December, to endorse these plans. In the medium-to-long term, the EU will need to find the institutional solutions to get itself and both new and old candidates ready for the next round of integration, as for example presented in the Franco-German expert group’s report on “reforming and enlarging” the EU. These debates are certainly necessary, but in Brussels, the wheels of institutional change grind slowly, especially when treaty changes may be required.

Until now, the EU has responded to the geopolitical momentum by extending the existing enlargement process to the three new candidates. Although geopolitical pressure significantly accelerated the process, it has not changed in substance.

But after years of stagnation in the Western Balkans before Ukraine’s application, using the same strategy for a larger group of candidates is not a wise approach. Between difficult institutional overhaul and continuing business as usual, there is a third option readily available: The EU can use the substantive levers it already has to respond to  geopolitical challenges and demonstrate a way forward for old and new candidates.

Geopolitical Enlargement Then and Now

Geopolitical motivations have always driven EU enlargement, both from the point of view of the EU “insiders” and the “outsiders” wanting to join. EU integration of Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries was one way of avoiding a vacuum vis-à-vis Russia, guaranteeing their independence while opening markets. Even earlier, the integration of post-dictatorial Greece, Spain, and Portugal safeguarded their democratization processes, preventing political and economic instability.

The context of these accessions is not fully comparable to today’s: Both the nature of the EU and its geopolitical position have changed. Over the past two decades, the EU has significantly built up its role as a foreign and security policy actor and anchored fundamental rights, democracy, and the rule of law more centrally into its legal framework. It also perceives itself in a more vulnerable geopolitical situation. Just ahead of the accession of the CEE countries, the EU boasted that it had “never been so prosperous, so secure, nor so free.” Since then, it has sustained a succession of crises: The global financial crisis, terrorism, the pandemic, and now Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine. Therefore, today’s EU views enlargement as a “geostrategic investment.”

But the EU should not approach geopolitical enlargement from a perspective of vulnerability. The Ukraine impetus proves the appeal of the EU both as a provider of security and a guardian of values. Both are powerful arguments that the EU can rely on to confidently shape its future. Keeping geopolitics connected to values is the EU’s advantage. To leverage it, the EU needs to address the fundamental dilemma of the last decade of enlargement policy focusing on the Western Balkans. Fused with geopolitical risk, this dilemma now seems harder to escape.

For two decades, the EU’s enlargement policy has not been able to substantially anchor democracy and the rule of law in the Western Balkans. Instead, democratic backsliding and “autocratization” have become the norm. One reason for this is that the EU long prioritized security over democracy in the region, fearing a potential re-eruption of violence in the former Yugoslavia.

When the current European Commission took office in 2019, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made a “geopolitical EU” her hallmark. When the EU realized that the countries of the region had diversified partners, engaging in economic and political cooperation with powers like Russia, China, Turkey, or the United Arab Emirates, it worried what of its enlargement leverage was left. “No-strings-attached” cooperation offers from these powers might appear more attractive than its normative demands, but the EU itself was unable to make positive offers, hindered by a series of vetoes. At the same time, it was not able to call out non-compliance: If it were to pressure candidate countries too hard, they would have alternative partners readily available.

Thus, “geopolitical enlargement” remains constrained by the central dilemma of enlargement policy. It is designed around the credibility of two prospects: that of closer EU integration in exchange for reforms, and that of sanctions for non-compliance with EU norms. For years, the EU failed to significantly advance the integration of countries in the region or respond to them taking a more autocratic path. Cases in point are North Macedonia, which spent 17 years waiting to start accession negotiations, blocked even after its politically costly name change, and Serbia, whose score on the V-DEM Liberal Democracy Index that measures the rule of law, civil liberties and electoral democracy worldwide halved between 2010 and 2022. As a result, the EU is caught between two options: to let outsiders in, and import their problems, or to lose its influence amongst them.

With Russia’s war against Ukraine upping the geopolitical stakes in the region, the EU remains trapped in the same vicious cycle. The risk is not just that external powers might come in to replace the EU’s incentives, but also that they could meddle in existing regional conflicts. In the latest Serbia-Kosovo confrontation, Western media compared Serbia’s troop movements to the border to those of Russia ahead of the invasion of Ukraine, and some analysts warned of a “Russian third front.” The EU has not been able to get Serbia to align with its sanctions against Russia, nor kept it from signing a new gas deal and foreign policy agreement with Moscow last year. This put the EU in a weaker position, as it fears not only losing influence but also a larger-than-regional conflict

The EU is now in a difficult situation where it feels that any negative signal would push countries into Russia’s open arms, but any positive signals might further diminish the credibility of a merit- and norms-based process. But even though the EU needs to take conflict risks seriously, it also needs to recall that it has positive and negative levers.

Addressing Anxieties

On the positive side, the speed with which the EU has taken enlargement decisions over the past year has restored some credibility. The admission of the new Eastern candidates sparked progress on long-frozen items on the Western Balkans enlargement agenda, like commencing accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, granting candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and advancing visa liberalization with Kosovo. With the new growth plan and the promise of single market access, the EU is also trying to send positive signals to the Western Balkans.

To restore the intended functioning of enlargement conditionality, the EU needs to address issues with existing candidates like democratic backsliding and divergence on important foreign policy items. While the EU has insisted that enlargement will remain merit-based, prioritizing  “fundamentals” and foreign policy alignment for new candidates, it has not been as outspoken toward those already in the race. This will be crucial in the current geopolitical context as the EU’s values and geopolitics are intertwined. The EU can push for them using the tools of enlargement policy. It can employ three strategies to break the negative cycle in the Western Balkans, and chart a positive path for the next rounds of enlargement.

Three Ways Ahead

Despite imperfections, the problem-solving potential of enlargement that proved effective in previous rounds remains. Enlargement can be used creatively to address both the EU’s own and the region’s political challenges. Accommodating the Western Balkans into the single market, now endorsed by the Commission, will enable the EU to address skills shortages while mitigating the brain drain from the region. Gradual integration into existing EU programs would allow candidates to participate in shaping therules that govern them. Effective strategic communication efforts can emphasize the benefits that cooperation has already brought citizens. This might push them to  pressure  their governments to uphold EU norms,and advance integration. Finally, using the EU should use the geopolitical momentum to advance foreign policy and value alignment in Western Balkans candidate countries.

Doing so will require the EU to stray from a status quo driven by  anxieties. Physical responses to fear usually take the shape of “freeze,” “flight,” or “flight”; and the EU can use them to avoid getting caught up in its geopolitical fears.

Freeze and Size Up the Situation

First, the EU needs to step back and analyze its position in the region. In fact, it should be more optimistic. Although the share of non-EU trade and foreign direct investment (FDI) is rising in the Western Balkans, the EU remains the most important partner. It accounts for 59.5 percent of imports into and 81 percent of exports from the region in 2021, and 61 percent of FDI in the region comes from the EU. Even if projects such as Montenegro’s series of Chinese highway deals create vulnerabilities, the EU should not forget that it also harbors such risks within its own borders. It also needs to recall that it remains, alongside NATO, a key regional security provider, for example with EUFOR Althea in Bosnia. It should avoid the impression that it only pays attention to local issues if it is afraid of great power involvement.

Pointing to external influences as the main drivers of de-democratization is also too simplistic. Corruption and a lack of transparency have indeed accompanied some of the investment projects from non-EU third countries in the region in recent years. But even if these projects benefitted autocratic strongmen, they did not create them. Moreover, a 2019 study found that EU funds similarly contributed to funding state capture. Highlighting foreign interference allows the EU to avoid addressing that de-democratization is primarily domestically driven, and to gloss over its own mistakes.

Perceived geopolitical meddling in the region requires a nuanced assessment. The influence of Russia for example, may not be as pronounced as feared. Russia’s tactics, relying on limited economic and political linkages, have been described as playing a “a weak hand well.” Even its relationship with Serbia may not be as steadfast as assumed. Despite not aligning with EU sanctions, Serbia has voted in favor of the UNGA vote condemning Russia and its expulsion from the Human Rights Council. Despite a moratorium on military exercises since February 2022, it participated in joint exercises with NATO countries this year. It has likely delivered weapons to Ukraine. And while it is true that the Serbian media landscape pushes pro-Russian narratives, these originate primarily from domestic media sources. Pro-Russian narratives represent anti-Western sentiments more than connections to Russia. This is something the EU can actively address.

Fight for the EU’s Credibility

The EU needs to restore credibility with the citizens of the region. It will need to set clear boundaries and call out violations, particularly when it comes to the “fundamentals.” In serious cases, it should be ready to halt the disbursement of funds. A more gradual approach to integration—which the commission and certain member states now advocate—will allow it to address specific violations without blocking the entire process. It is a good sign that the funds of the new growth plan appear to be tied to fundamentals. But the provisions are still vague, and the key will lie in implementation. Moreover, the EU needs to condemn norm violations outside of the annual formal monitoring process. It should also make sure to emphasize that alignment on key foreign policy stances is crucial to future membership—not just for “new” Eastern candidates.

Rather than leaving communication about the EU to political elites and often unfree media in enlargement countries, the EU should proactively communicate with citizens. It needs to make sure that any withheld steps toward integration are clearly linked to the non-compliance of governments and are not a punishment of citizens. It also needs to better communicate the scale of its support to the region. According to a 2020 poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), for example, 73 percent and 71 percent respectively of Serbian citizens considered Russia and China to be among the most important economic partners of their country.

The EU should showcase the significant investments it has already made and is continuing to make—for example through the new packages in the €30 billion Economic and Investment Plan (€9 billion of which is grants), and now with the growth plan and single market access. One simple measure could be increasing the visibility of EU investments with signage on buildings and billboards.

Flee Forward into the Region

To truly revitalize enlargement policy, sending positive signals and maintaining flexibility will be crucial. Promising enlargement by 2030 is a signal but might not convince skeptical candidates. The 2023 Balkan Barometer shows that 40 percent of Serbians and 37 percent of North Macedonians never expect EU integration to happen. A merit-based process will require candidates to advance individually, rather than risk getting stuck as a block. Additionally, the EU needs to be ready to move forward step by step. The proposal for single market access and gradual integration is one way to do so. But it also needs to be ready to think outside the box and not miss the bigger picture in which it commands the more significant political levers.

Serafine Dinkel is a Marie Skłodowska Curie Doctoral Fellow at the Université libre de Bruxelles and the University of Warwick working on EU enlargement and neighborhood policy. She is also an Associate Fellow at DGAP’s Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Future of Europe.