‘Enlargement Fatigue’: Balkans Countries’ Aspirations to Join EU Face Ongoing Hurdles

By James Carstensen | July 10, 2019 | 7:15pm EDT
The flag of the European Union. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Berlin (CNSNews.com) – Despite agreeing to change its name to facilitate its entry into the European Union, the country now known as North Macedonia is facing new hurdles – along with other aspirant nations in the Western Balkans – as the bloc faces calls to slow down on enlargement.

North Macedonia, along with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, and Montenegro, all hope to join the E.U. but leading members like France are in no hurry.

At a recent summit on the “Berlin Process” – an initiative designed to aid integration of Western Balkans countries – current chair Croatia signaled that the program of expanding the E.U. would continue in a “realistic and sober way,” over the “next decade.”

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovi acknowledged “frustration with the slowness of the process” shared by the aspirant countries, but said that some current E.U. members “have deep reservations and advocate a much more gradual process.” He stressed that Croatia was not among them.

(Croatia and Slovenia are the only former countries in the former Yugoslavia to have joined the E.U., in 2013 and 2004 respectively.)

The former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia recently resolved a 27-year dispute with Greece over its official name, and has agreed to be called North Macedonia. (Greece has a northern province called Macedonia, and refused to accept its neighbor having the same name.)

Despite the blow to his country’s hopes at finally starting membership negotiations after ending that dispute – which led to Greece lifting its veto – North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev downplayed the delay.

“I would like to underline that North Macedonia does not expect an immediate entry date,” he told reporters in the Polish city of Poznan. “In a few years, we will be a member for sure, but we have to still work to improve.”

“Our citizens love Europe so much that they were even ready to accept the name change,” he added. “This is proof that we belong to the E.U.”

The E.U. expressed support for integrating the Western Balkan countries as early as 2000, but apart from Croatia and Slovenia progress has been slow.

Serbia (which applied to join in 2009) and Montenegro (which applied in 2005) have reached the second step in the lengthy process – opening accession negotiations, which requires the candidate to align its laws to E.U. policies and values.

North Macedonia (which applied in 2004) and Albania (which applied in 2014) have reached the first step – formal recognition as candidates for membership.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, which registered interest in 2016, have not even reached that stage, but are considered “potential candidates.”

Most of the countries became independent after the breakup of Yugoslavia following bloody civil wars, and deep divisions remain in the region – especially between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo which declared independence in 2008.

E.U. attempts to restart long-delayed integration talks were planned at a 2018 summit – which came 15 years after a previous summit with the same agenda – but France and the Netherlands last year delayed the process yet again, citing concerns over corruption and organized crime in North Macedonia and Albania.

Just days ahead of the latest talks in Poznan, French President Emmanuel Macron said last week France would “refuse all forms of enlargement” until the E.U. undergoes “deep reform.”

“I am more than skeptical toward those who say that the future of Europe lies in further enlargement, when we can’t find agreement between 28 nations,” Macron said, referring to the wrangling over nominating the next president of the E.U.’s executive Commission.

Germany and Poland meanwhile pushed for progress on membership for Albania and North Macedonia.

“If we look at the geographical map, the states of the western Balkans are surrounded by E.U. member states,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “So this is a strategic responsibility that is in our own interest.”

Merkel said she shared Macron’s view that reforms are needed, but “I don’t see that as an abandonment of the accession talks.”

Russia concerns

Christopher Kline, adjunct Instructor of Graduate History at Southern New Hampshire University, pointing to historical relationships between the Balkans and Russia, said there was merit to the idea the E.U. cannot afford to avoid engaging these countries.

“These smaller nations are in need of both economic allies and opportunities and will look one of two directions for those opportunities – it is in the interest of the E.U. that they do look West,” he said.

“The larger the E.U. is, the more secure the bloc will be from outside threats, while its size and economic ability are a direct threat to those same outside forces,” Kline said.

But Dr. Matthew Crosston, senior doctoral faculty in the School of Security and Global

Studies at the American Military University said the idea of accepting candidates considered “not ready” in a bid to prevent them from falling into the Russian or Chinese sphere of influence was a dangerous political strategy.

“‘Enlargement fatigue’ is more than anything a complaint that most, if not all, of the new candidates seeking membership are poorly run, economically questionable in terms of long-term development, and not exactly shining examples of ethnic and political harmony,” he said.

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