Transforming words into deeds – the Visegrad Group and Western Balkans’ EU integration

For all six WB states, EU accession is the primary policy goal. [OLIVIER HOSLET/EPA]

All Visegrad Group countries have declared their commitment to the enlargement of the EU and NATO, with a focus on integrating the Western Balkan (WB) countries. This unanimity may not exist for Kosovo but, according to Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s Foreign Affairs minister, “the more members we [the EU] have, the stronger we are”.

This declaration, which came during Szijjártó’s meeting last year with Tudor Ulianovschi, Foreign Affairs minister of another EU-wannabe, Moldova, can shed some light on the V4’s and the EU’s approach to further enlargement: declarations of commitment to ‘open-doors’ integration policy are not followed by decisive steps.

For all 6 WB states, EU accession is the primary foreign policy goal. Integration is a sine qua non for the region’s democratic development, peace and future prosperity. The 6 WB countries account for just 18 million people and have a GDP equalling Slovakia’s, so theoretically it should not be a big deal to accommodate them in the 500-million EU. WB enlargement should be indispensable for the EU if it truly wants to – as Jean-Claude Juncker said – “export stability” and be “an architect of tomorrow’s world”.

V4 united in promoting the Western Balkans’ integration

V4 has been very vocal about finally turning words into deeds with respect to the EU southern enlargement. Two arguments back this determination – first, solidarity and second, economic and security strategy. “We want to share our experience gained during systemic and economic transformations and our accession to the European Union” – Polish Foreign Affairs minister Jacek Czaputowicz comments.

Therefore, the Czech, Hungarian and Polish EU Council presidencies had Western Balkan integration high on the agenda, supporting finalization of integration talks with Croatia and beginning accession talks with Serbia. Slovak presidency took place only in 2016 (already with Croatia as a member and talks with Serbia ongoing) and included a more general goal of enlargement policy. But when Brussels was drafting the strategy on enlargement prospects for WB in early 2018, Bratislava was among the most ambitious European states in this regard, even suggesting that Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia should be taking part in various policy-making processes prior to their EU accession.

But ambition, at least on the declarative level, is what characterizes other V4 states as well. Czech MFA Tomáš Petříček recently called for the EU to open negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. “Both countries have made progress and should be given an opportunity to take the next step,” he said. At the April meeting with Serbian representatives Petříček said their country is a “key part of the European integration process in the Balkans,” and offered to share Czech EU accession experience.

On the other hand, of the V quartet it is only Poland that has been participating in the Berlin Process, a wider intergovernmental initiative with 10 participating countries. It supports regional cooperation of the WB, which complements the EU’s enlargement policy. This year Warsaw is chairing the group’s work, and in July in Poznan the summit of the initiative will take place.

Complementary to constructive initiatives and proposals encouraging further integration, the V4 has been also united in criticizing the EU for wavering on the WB’s integration. Slovak diplomacy for instance, headed by Miroslav Lajčák, has called Juncker´s remarks proposing dates of accession to the WB countries “unfortunate and politically damaging”. Slovak MEP Eduard Kukan, Chair of the European Parliament delegation to the EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee agrees: “If, after the dates are announced, specific actions and projects do not follow, the consequences for the countries will be negative”.

Criticism of foggy promises comes also from the part of Hungary that treats the WB as both a political and economic priority. “Opening one or two chapters a year is anything but encouragement. We should encourage these nations, indicating that it pays to focus on joining the EU, because otherwise we would strengthen anti-EU sentiments, which we all want to avoid” – Szijjártó said in early 2019.

Polish expert Marta Szpala, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), added that if Brussels remains undecided, powers from outside of the EU might take advantage of our wavering.

Western Balkans – strategic region, strategic actions

However, numerous challenges such as corruption, organised crime, trafficking, illegal migration, as well as inter-state disputes stand in the way of quicker WB integration. That doesn’t invalidate the region’s strategic value to the EUbecause it can be used as a foreign policy tool, explains Anna Orosz, a research fellow at the Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs and Trade. At the same time, the EU can be an effective democratic tool for the WB.

Due to the geographic proximity of its members, the EU’s anxieties but also interests in the region are expressed specifically by the V4. Poland highlights the stability and security dimension, while the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia add a strong economic and investment focus.

“Security and stability of the Balkans is directly linked with the security and stability of Europe as a whole, and therefore Slovakia supports the integration efforts of Western Balkan countries with NATO”, MFA states.

Slovakia is the only V4 member which does not recognize Kosovo’s statehood. Yet, on every international occasion, it encourages the extension of Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, which is the key for an early accession of Serbia that holds the candidate status already. “The more Kosovo fulfils its homework, the more it persuades sceptical countries,” said Henrik Markuš, former Director of Slovakia’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. No formal changes, however, are expected to be made by Bratislava anytime soon.

Poland’s support for the enlargement is also conditional on the success of undertaken reforms. However, Warsaw considers that the integration process is the best tool for change — a stimulus to reforms and economic development in the region. Poland is not a country that would impose additional conditions to candidate countries –  Tomasz Żornaczuk, Head of the Central Europe Programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, explains.

For Poland, support for WB integration has two dimensions — political and technical. Warsaw’s aim is to share its own transformation experience. Apart from political support, Poland offers assistance in key areas from the point of view of the integration process. For this purpose, in 2015 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs  established “The Enlargement Academy”, a training programme for WB countries. In line with the recommendations of the European Commission included in the enlargement package, it offers the WB countries support in foreign affairs, European integration, security, agriculture, economy and justice.

Slovakia has also been offering its direct know-how of transformation and EU integration processes, Tomáš Stražay, analyst of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association underlines. According to Eduard Kukan, “Slovakia does not have any problematic historical ties to the region, nor any particular interests or hidden agenda”. Therefore, Slovak diplomats can act as “honest brokers”.

Soft power battle in the Western Balkans

Certainly, all V4 countries – as well as other EU member states – also see very clearly that the WB region is a proxy chessboard for global superpowers.

Věra Stojarová, Czech expert from Masaryk University, underlines that “if the Balkan Peninsula is not a part of the EU, it will remain under the influence of external powers. Russia in particular is interested in unleashing a conflict in the Balkans,” claims Stojarová.

Thus, what is needed is soft power – but also strategic investment. That’s why “it is important to spread European values in these countries and it is important for this region to become part of the European Union and not to be under the influence of other big countries,” Radek Vondráček, Czech lower house chairman, says.

“The European Union should focus on promoting liberal democracy and the visibility of the European Union and its values, otherwise Russian propaganda will gain dominance over the entire political-social discourse,” says Stojarová.

Moreover, according to Anna Orosz, Russia – besides generating conflict between certain ethnic groups – does not offer a real political alternative to the region. When it comes to other competitors (e.g. China), the problem is that they weaken the enforceability of the prerequisites bound to EU reforms by not enforcing them in their own investment projects. Remedying this issue would mean strengthening local reforms and better coordination with competitors, says Orosz.

Benefits, as above are mutual, and Warsaw is well conscious of them. But Tomasz Żornaczuk goes beyond ethical investment-based profit. He mentions economic benefits that result from the presence of a common market in the future and more effective fight against international organized crime. Poland develops trade relations with the countries of the region, and year after year, more Polish tourists visit Albania or Macedonia. In addition, due to the demand in the labour market, Warsaw expects to attract well-educated workforce and specialists to come to Poland.

Their cultural proximity, meaning easier assimilation, may not be without significance. This translates into significant brain drain that Poland and other CEE EU Member States know all too well from their own experience. But time-wise integration also brings massive brain gain and raises labour effectiveness. This, in turn, gives emigrant professionals more perspectives when they decide to come back to their parentland.

When pointing to particular states that are important to V4, Serbia ranks first. For this, the biggest WB country, Hungary is the major V4 trading partner, while Poland ranks second. Anna Orosz adds that Serbia’s EU integration fits in line with the Hungarian government’s national identity-based policies. The Balkans expert believes that the future permeability of the borders and related infrastructural developments will strengthen relations with Hungarians in Vojvodina, which will bring benefits to the government in two ways. Thanks to the Fidesz-initiated new citizenship law, it could bring additional votes to the ruling party. In the most recent general election in 2018, the vast majority of Hungarian citizens without a registered address in Hungary voted for the ruling party.

Beyond goods and services, Viktor Orbán is also exporting his views to the region through pro-government investors’ acquisitions in Macedonia and Slovenia. Purchasing the media supporting the former North Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski is not economically profitable, but pays off politically: it is a soft power tool which expands the Hungarian prime minister’s regional influence. Besides supporting regional allies, the acquisitions also serve the purpose of promoting Orbán’s anti-immigration, Eurosceptic, illiberal worldview.

Epilogue

The EU integration of the Western Balkans is beneficial from the point of view of the long-term interests of the EU. However, Brussels, preoccupied with its own problems like Brexit and political polarization, has given up on more ambitious policies in the WB region. That is why the importance of initiatives, such as the Berlin Process and of V4 support is growing – Marta Szpala underlines.

At the time when anti-EU sentiment has  one important member state vote to leave the EU, further integration is an especially important positive symbol for the EU. However, as experts point out, it requires more than symbols and declarations. A concrete action plan stitched with dates is what is needed most. For starters, “the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia in June, just as planned, is a must in order to maintain the credibility of the EU in the region,” Tomáš Stražay advises.

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