Twenty years after promises of quick accession made at the Thessaloniki Summit, the current vision in Brussels is not opening new and better perspectives for aspirant countries, Vesko Garčević writes.
Do the European Union and the Western Balkans share the same future?
The question may sound like an oxymoron, given the habit of the union's leaders to repeat that "the future of the Balkans is inside the EU".
To corroborate this point, they commonly quote the declaration from the June 2003 EU/Western Balkans Thessaloniki Summit when quick accession to the bloc was promised to the region still reeling from the violent dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.
The summit encapsulated great expectations of the aspirants as well as Brussels’ enthusiastic support for enlargement and a desire to grant full-fledged membership to the region's countries.
Two decades after Thessaloniki, while gearing up for the Second European Political Community Summit held this Thursday at Mimi Castle, near Chișinău, this question is more relevant than ever.
The spark is gone
The prospect of EU membership served as a catalyst for a democratic transformation of the region and remains Brussels’ most powerful currency.
Yet, the current relationship between the two resembles a slow fade, a romance that is nearing its end.
Partners don’t fully trust one another and consider alternative options, though they still talk about their common future.
Very little is left of the vigour Thessaloniki created. The EU process has not prevented state capture, endemic corruption, infringement on media freedom or brain drain.
The region is experiencing a revival of chauvinism, revisionism of history and genocide denial driven by unrestrained nationalism.
One can hardly imagine any country from the region joining the EU in the next 15 years under the current circumstances.
Is the current situation a mere consequence of the Balkans’ "usual backwardness," as some tend to accuse it of, or is it, rather, an outcome of the correlation between enlargement and reform fatigue?
Both sides are to blame
Since the Thessaloniki Agenda was designed as a common project, both sides bear responsibility for its success.
A cursory look over what has happened in the meantime would show that neither Brussels nor the Western Balkans aspirants have delivered what they promised in Greece.
The region has not produced convincing democratic reforms, but neither did the EU remain fully committed to enlargement.
The two ends of the enlargement equation are closely intertwined — when the EU was politically involved, the reforms were gaining ground.
The first decade following Thessaloniki can be described as a success, but since 2013, as Brussels’ appetite for enlargement has waned, the countries’ appetite for reforms diminished, too.
However, over the years, it has become politically opportune to criticise the region for the current gridlock, a move mostly meant to conceal Brussels’ reluctance to bring this process to an end.
Populists dunk on accession for extra brownie points
These dynamics challenge the myth that democratic transformation always leads to a happy ending.
The experience with enlargement teaches that countries, including new EU members, need not only a clear commitment and determination on their side but also proper political support of EU institutions to succeed.
Otherwise, they may get lost in a transitional maze, where positive trends become reversed.
The argument about the democratic backsliding of a few new EU members is valid and justifiable, but it deliberately neglects the good performance of other "newcomers" and the overall positive effects of enlargement on the rest of the bloc, particularly for its economically powerful members.
The rise of populist, far-right, Eurosceptic parties, and their attempts for a restoration of national sovereignty and devolution of power in the EU to pre-Maastricht times, are, no doubt, shaping the public discourse and changing the political landscape of the EU.
But, populism in the EU is often exploited by the traditional European conservatives, liberals or socialists who see in it an opportunity to sacrifice enlargement for the sake of extra political points with their constituents.
Brussels is struggling to meet its own promises
While there have been some encouraging signs lately, they also confirm how difficult it is for the EU to fulfil promises made in Thessaloniki.
The members appear reluctant to accept positive recommendations of the European Commission, the institution they tasked to evaluate the progress of aspirant countries.
Albania and North Macedonia began accession talks with the EU in July 2022, although the European Commission recommended the opening of negotiations much earlier, in 2018.
Similarly, it has taken more than four years for the EU members to enact the 2018 European Commission recommendation and allow citizens of Kosovo to travel to the EU and the wider Schengen area visa-free.
Around the same time, in December 2022, Bosnia and Herzegovina was finally granted the status of a full-fledged EU candidate country, 17 years after having signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU.
Rebranding the idea might revive the process
To reinvigorate enlargement, Brussels must rebrand the idea, revive the accession and acknowledge that it is not just merit-based but is also a fundamentally political process.
The decision to grant Moldova and Ukraine the EU membership candidate status last year after the Russian invasion is a prime example of how politics determine the trajectory and pace of the process.
This is not happening for the first time and didn’t begin with the last rounds of enlargement, certainly not with Romania, Bulgaria or the decision to take in divided Cyprus.
For example, political motives were pivotal when it was decided to grant membership to Spain, Portugal, and Greece — all three having had been nascent democracies at the time struggling with autocratic ghosts of their past and their outdated industrial and agricultural sectors, a far cry from where they are today.
While it takes time and effort to absorb new members, none of these decisions proved to be harmful to the EU project.
It's at least another two decades of more of the same
Shifting conventional thinking to transformative action requires, in part, a change in behaviour. A change in behaviour implies new perspectives.
The current vision in Brussels is not opening new and better perspectives for aspirant countries.
If anything, the aspirants are well capable of reading the bloc's internal dynamics well and are turning to other external actors — mainly China and Russia — whose cooperative transactional models might appear to some as a somewhat viable alternative.
Unless a reinvigorated "Thessaloniki agenda" with a realistic timeframe and achievable goals appears, any enlargement rebranding would be disingenuous, making the process even more cumbersome and EU membership less plausible.
So, the answer to the opening question is clear, but nobody wants to say it openly: under the current circumstances, the EU and the Western Balkans don’t share the same future — at least not in the next 20 years.
Vesko Garčević is a Professor of the Practice of International Relations at the Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, and the former Montenegrin ambassador to NATO and OSCE.
At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.