For Brexiters, the notion of the ‘transformative power’ of the EU must sound either romantically naive or completely fanatical. Yet for the countries of the Western Balkans, the prospect of EU membership has not only incentivised reform, but helped ease the scars of war.
Or at least it did until the perceived downgrading of enlargement by the Jean-Claude Juncker Commission was compounded by Dutch rejection of closer EU ties with Ukraine, and by member states invoking their own interests to prevent the progress of new candidate countries. Now as Europe erects a dam to withstand further waves of enlargement, the region’s waters risk becoming ever more turbulent.
For the EU to admit a new member, all 28 member states must be in agreement. Previously this meant ratification by all 28 national parliaments. The Netherland’s referendum rejecting the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine, despite only just scraping over the required participation threshold, has set a dangerous new precedent; namely that the people will have the final say on which countries accede to the union. Other countries, such as France, have threatened to follow a similar course in the future.
Whilst at this stage only consultative in nature, such referenda increase the political cost to domestic leaders of advocating further enlargement. Ignoring the will of the people - or at least a part of the people galvanised by bombastic euro-sceptics - is likely to damage a government’s standing, whilst reinforcing the sense that the EU is undemocratic.
That the people were ill-informed about the content and purpose of the EU-Ukraine agreement matters not a jot. Referenda on one issue are often hijacked for other purposes; whether bashing the government of the day or the EU more generally. With enlargement scepticism on the rise, it seems that only apathy can prevent such anti-enlargement votes from succeeding.
And so the number of veto points over accession is multiplied; the commitment of 28 capitals dependent on overcoming the populism of euro-scepticism and winning the argument for further enlargement.
Stereotypes deriving from the previous waves - namely, corruption and organized crime in Romania and Bulgaria - have further hamstrung the Western Balkans case, leaving aside the debate about the prevalence of either too strong (authoritarian) or too weak (failed) states. Neither of these negatives can be reformed without the pull of EU membership.
The accession process was already ridden with a host of veto points that allowed individual member states to stall accession. Croatia - itself a beneficiary of Slovenia’s constructive stance in resolving a dispute over territorial waters in the Gulf of Piran - tried to postpone the opening of chapters 23 and 24 with Serbia, contrary to the stance of the EU’s remaining 27 member states, though it later backed down.
Croatia had demanded Serbia better protect its Croat national minority and fully co-operate with The Hague. It also called for the annulment of its law on universal jurisdiction, which allows Serbia to try war crimes allegations deriving from the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The law, which Serbia was encouraged to adopt, has enabled the prosecution of many involved in massacres such as Srebrenica.
Ironically, chapters 23 and 24 deal with the judiciary and fundamental rights, and justice, freedom and security. They were selected as the first two chapters precisely because of the steps Serbia needs to make in these respective domains. The Croatian parliament had previously committed to resolve bilateral issues with its neighbours without blocking their EU accession.
The dilution of this commitment bodes ill not only for Serbia, but for Bosnia & Herzegovina, where Zagreb is becoming increasingly assertive in advancing the rights of Bosnia’s Croats. Earlier this year the EU suspended Bosnia’s favourable trade preferences following a dispute with Croatia.
Politicians in the region have long sold different reforms by arguing that they are required for their country’s future. Even as anti-EU parties have prospered throughout Europe, domestic politicians have remained steadfast in insisting that there is no alternative to membership.
There is, however, skepticism about how genuine the EU’s commitment to the region really is. Juncker’s statement that there would be no further enlargement during his Commission sowed more seeds of doubt, despite no country being in a position to accede within that timeframe. The stance of the Netherlands and Croatia, combined with the Brexit referendum and the cynical rhetoric about possible Turkish membership, are likely to prompt a new wave of pessimism about the region’s European future.
Without a clear perspective on membership, the power of EU conditionality will diminish, at a time when there are already concerns about the growing influence of powers such as Turkey and Russia. A vote in favour of Brexit would also deprive the EU of one of the most vociferous advocates of further enlargement. With EU conditionality already more arduous than in previous rounds, and attitudes becoming ever more entrenched, the region faces an increasingly tough fight to convince Europe to lower the drawbridge.
Closing the door on EU membership will prompt greater political turbulence throughout the Balkans. The glue of EU accession has brought Kosovo and Serbia to the same table, prevented Bosnia & Herzegovina from further fracturing and ensured that Serbia is not fundamentally split between east and west. The EU has sparked reconciliatory processes and ensured countries complied with their obligations deriving from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
The prospect of a European future has helped politicians stave-off the threat of more nationalistic options, helping to calm political scenes which have struggled to grapple with the legacies of war and transition. The Serbian Radical Party (SRS) of Vojislav Seselj (recently acquitted of war crimes by the Hague) has returned to the Serbian parliament after a brief hiatus; the president of Republika Srpska (one of Bosnia & Herzegovina's two entities), Milorad Dodik, has resorted to increasingly nationalist, secessionist rhetoric; whilst the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has engaged in a revisionist, denialist approach to the country's past.
Others are likely to follow as the region's political sphere shifts to the right, putting the liberal forces on the back foot and compromising the reform progress made in recent years. The spillover of such dynamics will affect not only the Balkans, but Europe more broadly. As with Europe itself, sustained peace depends on dynamics that only the EU can help foster.
This article is part of a series bne IntelliNews is running to mark the 25th anniversary of the split of Yugoslavia on June 25.