Andrea Despot is deputy director of the European Academy Berlin. Dušan Reljić and Günter Seufert are senior associates at EU External Relations Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
The following is an excerpt from a longer briefing.
"Following Croatia’s EU accession in mid-2013, it is probable that the Union’s enlargement process towards Turkey and the Western Balkans will initially grind to a halt, possibly for a decade or more. To bridge this gap, the Union should ensure candidates’ integration within as many EU policy areas as possible prior to accession, so that the stabilising and democratising effects of the EU’s enlargement policy remain intact.
In a period in which national insolvency is posing a very real threat to several EU countries and the EU’s reputation among the population of the member states is in decline, saddling itself with additional problem cases through enlarging the EU in the Western Balkans would be, according to many influential decision-makers in the West, tantamount to negligence.
As far as Turkey is concerned, some EU countries do not appear particularly troubled that no new negotiating chapter has been opened for almost two years and the accession process has reached deadlock.
New accession hurdles
The European Commission has adopted a de-politicised, quasi-technical enlargement procedure that is legitimised by the fact that it shuns any obligation to either the specific interests of individual EU states or those of the candidates. Nevertheless, the Commission concomitantly seeks to achieve a whole battery of political objectives of strategic importance to the entire Union. Consequently, the prospect of accession is designed to defuse ethno-political tensions in the Western Balkans and enable the EU to mediate border and status disputes, thus boosting security in a region girdled entirely by EU member states.
It is hoped that political reforms complementing the accession process will expedite Turkey’s democratisation, safeguarding its connection to the West as a result. "Anchoring Turkey to the West" has always been considered an indispensable element of transatlantic security architecture.
Turkey is likely to play an important role in European security and development policy in the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the political turmoil in the Southern Mediterranean.
The strict objectivity with which the Union’s various bodies seek to scrutinise compliance with the accession criteria sits rather uncomfortably with these political goals. It thus comes as no surprise that political considerations play a pivotal role in the closing stages of any round of membership negotiations, be it Bulgaria, Romania or Croatia.
The remaining candidates in Southeastern Europe are fully cognisant of this latent manoeuvring between politically motivated membership deliberations and strict compliance requirements. It is reinforcing their impression that for them the EU membership bar is being raised ever higher. This is already a long-established view in Turkey. Opinion polls show that Turks believe that Europe’s reservations towards Islam is the main reason for this delay.
The European Commission is finding it increasingly difficult to play an integrative, conciliatory role in the light of the growing number of partner states and the subsequent heterogeneity of their interests. Today, applicant countries no longer find themselves confronted by European Union institutions alone, but face a chorus of voices, which convey what are, to some extent, contradictory messages.
Today, smaller states such as the Republic of Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are reaching similar conclusions to those of medium-sized power on Turkey. Although compliance with the EU’s demands remains an indispensable prerequisite for expediting the accession process, it offers only a limited guarantee that this process will be executed in a predictable manner and membership will materialise.
The EU connection: risks for the Western Balkans
Rather paradoxically, the growing economic interdependence with the EU harbours increased risks for the Western Balkans. Western Balkan states conduct up to two-thirds of their foreign trade with the EU. However, the eurozone crisis has resulted in declining exports to the EU by the majority of Southeast European countries and dwindling investments by the former. The banks are predominantly in Italian, Austrian, Greek and French hands. Many of these are considered at risk and reluctant to grant loans. In several Southeast European countries, bank transfers by migrant labourers boost the formers’ gross national products by up to 25%. The economic crisis has caused these transfers to decline, and the first migrants are returning from Greece and Italy.
Simultaneously, economic rationale demands that accession candidates reduce their dependency on a few selected EU states such as Germany, Italy, Austria and Greece and consolidate their economic relations with Russia, Turkey, China and other countries. This goes hand-in-hand with the intensification of political links with players outside the EU.
In the light of the anticipated hiatus in the enlargement process, the political costs of such autonomous action appear minor. And who can provide the accession candidates with a guarantee that, after this period has elapsed, economic solidarity mechanisms currently at work within the EU will continue to make an impact, and that the existing model of political equality for its members will still be valid? This is because the future of the EU has never looked as tenuous as it does today. And the gulf between the candidates’ considerable political and economic expectations on the one hand and the gruelling, protracted membership process and the unpredictability of its outcome on the other has never been so great.
Fundamental change with no guarantee of membership?
In some cases, the distance to the EU is increased by political demands from Brussels which call the national identity of aspiring members into question. As a result, the EU demands more than the mere rectification of conspicuous deficits, particularly as regards the repression of corruption and establishment of the rule of law, instead working towards the transfiguration of ethno-religious national paradigms. However, this approach not only threatens the power base of members of the political elite, but also affects the self-image of much of the remaining population.
Its efforts to play a meaningful role in conflict transformation in the region inevitably turn the EU and its key states into a type of political party as far as domestic disputes in the Western Balkans are concerned. The flagging accession process is causing a decline in this "party’s" influence and thus in the power of pro-European forces in Western Balkan politics and society.
Turkey’s stagnating accession process
In Turkey, the issue of EU accession no longer determines the political agenda. The fundamental rejection of Turkey’s admission articulated in Paris, as well as the stance of Germany’s main governing party, robs the EU of the vehicle of conditionality, which would, or so it had been hoped, successfully fuel the reform process.
The disassociation of domestic policy from the EU’s expectations, guidelines and norms has contributed to what are in essence, positive changes in the judicial system and investigations into putschists and other political criminal organisations within the state apparatus today degenerating into vehicles for domestic disputes, with the result that Turkey is further from legal security and the rule of law today than it was prior to the constitutional referendum.
Now that the political import of Brussels has declined in the eyes of Ankara, Europe’s economic significance for Turkey is also experiencing a downturn.
During the crisis, the European markets were the first to slump, with the result that Middle Eastern and Asian export regions made the strongest contribution to the Turkish economy’s subsequent recovery.
The diminishing political and economic relevance of the EU in the eyes of Turkey has dashed Brussels’ hopes that the Ankara government’s desire for accession would induce it to cooperate more closely with the EU in terms of foreign and security policy. Nowhere is this more evident than in Cyprus.
Sectoral integration as an interim solution
If the EU wishes to preserve its languishing influence in Turkey and the Western Balkans, it must develop a policy that leaves the question of further memberships open and nonetheless creates additional leeway for action in the applicant countries.
This situation calls for a reinforcement of sectorial integration. Candidates could be treated like EU members in selected policy areas while committing to the adoption of the Acquis communautaire as regards specific issues.
One example of sectoral integration is the Energy Community. Similar integration mechanisms could be realised in the services sector, in the fight against cross-border criminality and corruption and as regards the use of the EU structural fund, not to mention other sectors. Population decline in the EU makes it advisable to initiate appropriate measures to align the education systems of accession candidates and strive towards the gradual opening of the European labour market for citizens of these states in a timely manner.
A joint development of a growth model based on increased export is required in order to halt the decline in industrial production and mass unemployment. Financial experts in the region have proposed the creation of new instruments in the light of the reluctance of commercial banks to grant loans and the limited resources available from international development banks. Fikret Čaušević, member of the governing board of the Central Bank of Bosnia-Herzegovina, called for the issue of Euro-Balkan bonds, to be safeguarded by an EU guarantee fund designed specifically for the Western Balkans.
Lifting the visa requirement for Turkey
The introduction of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens would send a particularly clear signal regarding the advancement of the accession process. This would doubtlessly trigger fresh sympathy for the European Union and create new allies in Turkish society.
Preserving the accession process is also important to the Turkish government. It serves to maintain the flow of investment, secure the markets and bolster the country’s international reputation and thus its regional standing.
One could even go so far as to state that by now the continuation of the accession process means more to Ankara than accession itself. This new stance should allow the EU to revive the accession process, thus gaining renewed leverage over Turkey."