The handling of the migrant crisis by countries along the main Western Balkans route secured goodwill from Brussels for several aspiring member states, if little in the way of concrete progress towards accession. Countries like Serbia and Macedonia shone in comparison to existing EU members, showing themselves to be more compassionate than Hungary and more effective than Greece in securing the EU’s southeastern border. But as the EU becomes ever more riven by internal conflict, governments in the region are becoming disillusioned.
Back in 2015, when soaring numbers of refugees and migrants began making their way from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa into Europe, there was a sense that the EU and the Western Balkans countries were in the same boat facing a shared challenge.
German chancellor Angela Merkel declared Germany would offer a home to refugees fleeing the war in Syria, and - despite opposition mainly from new EU members in Central Europe - EU leaders agreed to share out asylum seekers across the 28-member bloc. The mood in the former Yugoslavia – where there are vivid memories of internal displacement after the region was ravaged by civil war in the 1990s – was also sympathetic. Refugees were provided with food, water and other essential items, and sped efficiently on their way from border to border on specially organised trains and buses.
This made a positive impression in Brussels. EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said in an interview with EurActiv Germany in September that the door to the EU “has been well and truly opened”. “The gradual accession of the [Western Balkans] countries to EU membership is in our own interests, there can’t be a vacuum on Europe’s borders,” Hahn added.
His comment was good news in a region where progress towards EU accession appeared to have stalled recently. After the wave of EU enlargement in 2004, only a handful of countries from Southeast Europe have since joined. At least seven years are expected to pass between Croatia’s entry in 2013 and Serbia’s, which is tentatively expected by 2020. While Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia all have candidate status, so far only Serbia and Montenegro have opened accession negotiations.
Then things started to change. The November 13 Paris attacks raised fears that jihadis were entering Europe hidden among refugees and economic migrants. Attitudes hardened further when hundreds of women were sexually assaulted in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, with many of the perpetrators reported to be of North African or Arab descent, raising questions about the threat mass migration could pose to European values.
The Western Balkans was not initially affected when the mood in Europe started to change. Thousands of migrants continued to cross the Balkans - an estimated 1.1 million arrived in Germany alone in 2015. However, the “wave through” or “open borders” approach started to be seriously questioned.
On February 24, foreign and interior ministers from Austria and the Western Balkans agreed that migration flows along the main route needed to be “significantly reduced”. Two weeks later, EU leaders agreed in a draft statement that irregular migration along the route had come to an end.
Carrying the can
Countries from Austria to Macedonia swiftly closed their borders, as each feared being stuck with thousands of migrants unable to continue on their journey. In the end, Greece was left carrying the can, with tens of thousands people now stranded on its territory.
Meanwhile, Macedonian president Gjorge Ivanov claimed in an interview with German daily Bild that his country was saving the EU from itself after Greece’s signal failure to secure its own borders. “We as a non-EU country now have to protect Europe from an EU country - that is, Greece,” he said on March 11.
The longer-term implications of the Western Balkan countries’ role in the migrant crisis is unclear. Alexandra Stiglmayer, secretary-general of the European Stability Initiative, believes governments have “gained brownie points” from their willingness to work with Brussels, and shown themselves to be capable in areas such as home affairs and regional cooperation - for example through weekly video conferences between police chiefs.
However, this is just a small part of the accession process, which involves the opening and closing of more than 30 chapters covering areas completely unrelated to the migrant crisis, such as free movement of goods and capital, judicial reform and public procurement.
Overall, the accession process will continue “with its usual rigidity,” says Stiglmayer. “I don’t think [the handling of the migrant crisis] has in any way sped up the enlargement process, which is very slow ... They have won some goodwill but that’s it.”
Michael Taylor, senior analyst, Eastern Europe at Oxford Analytica, agrees that, “I don’t have the impression that the migrant crisis was persuading the EU to accelerate the membership process for the Western Balkans - I think the assumption has remained the same throughout that there would be no accessions until 2020 at the earliest.”
The government of Macedonia, which has struggled the most to progress towards EU integration, has already lost patience with Brussels. After existing member states Croatia and Slovenia, the country was the first from the region to gain EU candidate status, back in 2005, but no chapters have yet been opened and it has been overtaken by both Montenegro and Serbia. This is because of the long-standing dispute with Greece over the former Yugoslavian country’s name, which is shared with a region of northern Greece.
On March 10, Macedonian Defence Minister Zoran Jolevski told a press conference in Slovenia that he hoped the country would have the chance to join Nato after having “shown that we are a responsible member of the international community”, Reuters reported.
However, Stiglmayer believes Macedonian hopes of progress towards entry to the EU or Nato are “wishful thinking ... especially since the country using its veto - Greece - is the one that has suffered most from the border closures.”
This has already become apparent in Skopje. In his Bild interview, Ivanov lashed out at the EU for its lack of support for Macedonia, telling the daily, “We have always been the victim of EU institutions. For 25 years, we have been lied to and manipulated.”
He was also highly critical of Europe’s handling of the crisis. “What we are seeing is that Europe does not function in a crisis situation. Brussels takes far too much time to make decisions,” he said.
While entry to the EU was long seen as the holy grail for Southeast European countries, there were further signs of disillusionment from Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic, who told a conference organised by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London that the EU had “lost its magic power”.
"Yes we all want to join, but it is no longer the big dream it was in the past,” Vucic said, according to Reuters.
“I would say ... that the EU’s shambolic handling of the whole crisis has done its reputation in the Balkans no good at all,” Taylor told bne IntelliNews.
With the main Western Balkans route sealed, new routes through the region are now expected to open up. Bulgaria has already dispatched its army to reinforce border control, but it is Albania that is expected to bear the brunt as desperate refugees trapped in Greece turn to traffickers to continue their journey.
Albanian prime minister Edi Rama has already pledged that his country will not become a migration route, but much of the mountainous Albania-Greece border is impossible to secure. Italy may help Albania patrol the border as Rome fears smuggling routes across the Adriatic - much used in the 1990s - could be reopened. But like its neighbours, Albania could end up with little to show for its efforts.