Once upon a time enlargement was widely viewed as the EU’s most successful foreign policy tool. Membership being considered as the ultimate reward, the Union successfully transformed it’s neighbours by encouraging democratic transitions. Brussels used to be the lighthouse, a guiding light in a treacherous sea of competing alliances.
By now the light has faded, even some EU members are searching for guidance elsewhere and the process of enlargement faces many challenges. It’s been six years since the EU welcomed a new member (Croatia in 2013) despite many standing in the line.
The current state of applications is the following: Turkey has applied in 1987, but the talks proceeded slowly and had basically stalled in 2016. North Macedonia (then FYROM) applied in 2004, Montenegro in 2008, Albania and Serbia in 2009. Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are „potential candidates”. Serbia and Montenegro have started accession negotiations in 2014 and 2012, respectively, but progress has been very slow. And, though the Juncker Commission has called for the accession process to begin with Albania and North Macedonia, so far no further steps were taken. (Accession talks might be held in October, but with the Commission’s mandate ending at the end of that month and everyone being busy with Brexit, no miracle is to be expected.)
The Bulgarian, Austrian and Romanian presidencies declared enlargement a priority: strategies and declarations were accepted, yet the number of opened chapters didn’t grow proportionally. There are only a handfull of states who not only claim that they prioritize enlargement but work towards it on the ground, both on multilateral and bilateral levels.
Trouble all around
Of course, the overall environment has changed since 2013. The foreign policy challenges facing the EU have changed. The EU has changed. It became more fragmented, not to mention the chaos of Brexit. In many countries — and for a plethora of reasons — enlargement became extremely unpopular. Even among those, who, at least in theory support enlargement, the dilema of enlargement vs deepening stalls the process. Others think that the previous enlargement was a mistake. Others are simply ignorant or associate the Western Balkans with commonly held stereotypes.
France, Denmark and the Netherlands are leading the opposition against enlargement for various, but mainly internal reasons. It’s mainly thanks to them, that the pathway originally envisioned by the Council (namely to start accession talks in June 2019 with Albania and North Macedonia) was postponed. But they are not the only ones to be blamed: enlargement fatigue is visible in all members. Recent surveys have also demonstrated, that fears of immigration have grown since Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia joined the bloc. Some other concerns are reasonable, too. Most would-be members have some important issues to tackle (like corruption, organized crime, rule of law) before they can claim that they meet the 3 sets of conditions for EU membership (collectively called the Copenhagen criteria).
The procrastination, however, has clearly left its mark upon would-be members. Most are disappointed with the EU’s slow decision making and with the fact, that if and when decisions are taken, they are not based on what happens in these countries „but on the internal situation or internal political dynamics in different member states” (quote from Albanian prime minister Edie Rama). All in all, public opinion is still very supportive for EU membership in these countries, so far there is no Plan B for them. (It’s remarkable that even in Member States, that have issues with Brussels over rule of law or corruption, the pro-EU sentiment runs higher than in some „old members”.) This is something the EU shouldn’t look over, since this feeling could quickly fade unless Europe opens its door. It’s credibility hangs on a thread: why should these countries take the sometimes painful measures towards transformation, if the EU has nothing to give in return?
The task of the new commissioner for enlargement
What has this to do with the new Commission?
First and foremost, it’s up to them to convince the candidates that the EU is serious about enlargement. That if and when delays are necessary those are based on facts, not assumptions, stereotypes or domestic issues. This, however, needs lot more than another strategy with a fancy name.
A committed commossioner could be a good starting point.
Ursula von der Leyen is now on a Europe-wide tour to gather supporters and would-be Commissioners to her Commission. In her Political Guidelines for the next EU Commission, she put special emphasis on enlargement, since: „The accession process offers a unique opportunity to promote and share our core values and interests”. There are many aspects to be taken into account when chosing members of the European Commission (including gender balance), but credibility should also play a very important role: not first and foremost in the eyes of the (old) members, but in the eyes of the candidates.
In order to maintain the EU’s credibility in the Western Balkans, it is extremely important that the new Enlargement Commissioner be someone who really understands the region, due to geographic proximity or experience with these countries. Someone who is not influenced by the common stereotypes (like „All Albanians are involved in organised crime” or „all Macedonians are Russian internet trolls”), from whom they can expect empathy and sympaty.
Furthermore, even though commissioners are not representing their home countries, public opinion mostly associates them with those countries and views their acts through this lense. A commissioner might not be considered biased towards one country or the other if his or her country had no serious conflict in the near past or has no open conflict (neither territorial, nor trade or regarding minorities) in the present with the candidates — this rules out the Balkans, for a variety of reasons (e.g. the Yugoslav war). Coming from a country, where the population is largely euroskeptic or against enlargement, won’t help either.
Since we know only about a handful of candidates (so far) it’s hard to say who could be the ideal enlargement commissioner, but I’m afraid that an imaginary Venn-diagram based on the above criteria wouldn’t have too many names in the common area.