Dimitar Bechev is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“The European Union might be going through times of introspection but enlargement still goes on, largely ignored by the bulk of Brussels watchers. While leaders are scrambling to re-energise growth and fight endemic youth unemployment across the Union, Croatia is making its entry as the 28th member state on 1 July.
But that does not mean that the door will be closed once Croats are in. Starting with Montenegro which is also negotiating its accessions, other countries are poised to follow suit.
The past week offered even more reasons to be upbeat about the prospects of further EU expansion. On Friday (28 June), the EU Council endorsed foreign ministers’ resolution to give Serbia green light to start accession negotiations by January. The momentous decision, ironically coinciding with the anniversary of the 1389 battle of Kosovo, acknowledges the progress scored by Belgrade in normalising relations with Pristina. The agreement brokered by High Representative Catherine Ashton back in April is already hailed as a landmark success of EU foreign policy at a time economic crisis is progressively eroding Europe’s ambition to leave its mark on world affairs.
Serbia’s success is good for Kosovo too. It makes it possible for the young country, still unrecognised by five EU members, to negotiate a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA). Under the rules of the Lisbon Treaty, it is to be signed by the EU as a whole rather than individual states, which is acceptable to non-recognisers. Talks with Pristina matter as there is internal opposition to normalising ties with Serbia. As Kosovo MPs ratified the April deal on Thursday (27 June) hundreds rallied by the Vetvendosje (Self-determination) movement clashed with police outside the parliament building.
Albania is yet another opportunity for the EU. The elections last Sunday transferred power from Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party to the Socialist-led Alliance for European Albania headed by Edi Rama. With the opposition winning 84 out of 140 seats, strongman Berisha had no other choice but concede a defeat. Coupled with the relatively high turnout, the positive assessment of international monitors means Albania may be granted candidate status by the EU this year.
Declaring a victory in the Western Balkans would be premature. For one, progress elsewhere highlights the fact that Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are lagging behind. Though the Commission thinks that Macedonia, a candidate since 2005, should also kick off membership negotiations the name dispute with Greece remains a stumbling block.
Bosnia’s fragmented politics rule out meeting the EU benchmarks, though the “baby revolution” recently demonstrated there is civic energy which could pressure politicians to forego their narrow agendas and focus on public interest.
More importantly, the region is in the claws of severe economic crisis. Even star pupil Croatia has already passed through four years of recession. International financial Institutions see few reasons for optimism in Southeast Europe, especially as key trading and investment partners in the eurozone struggle with low or negative growth.
In the ex-Yugoslavia and Albania, high unemployment and dwindling living standards have not produced social upheavals yet, as seen in neighbouring Greece or Bulgaria. Yet it is a daunting task for governments to carry out governance reform as demanded by the EU while dealing with fiscal challenges and thinking of ways to win the next election.
Accession continues to command popular support, but in the words of Croatian analyst Dejan Jović, it is “eurorealism”, not enthusiasm, that prevails. There is simply no other option, especially as Croatia’s accession moves the Union’s frontiers even further into the area. But don’t mistake that for the EU’s famed transformative power.”