Why does it always rain on Western Balkans enlargement?

The short answer to this question is: because both the Western Balkan states and the European Union screwed up on many occasions in the past and it is sometimes more difficult to fix broken things than to build them correctly in the first place. Since the mistakes made on the side of the Balkans are frequently brought up, particularly when it comes to the question of enlargement, in my work as Europe’s Futures fellow, I turn the table and focus on where the European Union went wrong. 

International relations and the workings of a relationship between two people are somewhat analogous, after all, international relations are established between people who are not free from emotions. Those who have studied international history and diplomacy will find that both conflict and agreement in the international sphere are the result of interest-based actions and strong emotions, such as pride, humiliation, hate, fear, but also sympathy and camaraderie. 

Here, let us pretend the EU and the Balkans region take a seat on a shrink’s couch to discuss why they are so stuck in their relationship. 

Both partners have betrayed the other’s trust on several occasions and have cast doubt on the sincerity of their efforts regarding enlargement. Since, from the EU perspective, we neither can nor should control the behaviour of governments in the Balkans, we can only fix our own mistakes. The people of Kosovo trusted us to deliver on visa liberalisation for the Schengen area after they fulfilled the criteria the European Union set as preconditions for that. The Kosovars formally met all requirements years ago. This was also confirmed by the EU’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell. Visa liberalisation had been expected to be granted during the Austrian EU presidency in 2018 but has still not been delivered by the EU to this day. The European Union has broken a promise and therefore damaged trust between Kosovo and the EU. Kosovars still have to jump through a ridiculous number of hoops to travel to the Schengen area, while listening to solemn speeches about how all Balkans people are Europeans. They can rightfully feel deceived by the Union’s behaviour in this matter and have no reason to believe that they might not get played again. Simultaneously, the rest of the Balkans were watching and have learned the same lesson.

Another source of tension is one partner blaming the other for a mess they helped create. The European Union has helped authoritarian, nationalist, corrupt and otherwise troublesome figures to power in the Balkans and it has contributed to them keeping it. EU Member States did this in the false belief that they would be able to control these leaders to an extent that is sufficient to prevent major catastrophe. While this might have been true for what the Union would consider a catastrophe, it definitely was not for the citizens of the Western Balkan states, who are still waiting for an increase in their quality of life. At the same time, the various European institutions and Member States blames them for not being more democratic, liberal and for not playing by the book. How are you supposed to trust a partner that has invited a person into your home who causes you grief? Sure, many people in the Balkans also voted for these leaders, many others have been non-voters for years, whilst others find themselves trapped in dependence on the government parties and cast their vote in their favour to avoid unpleasant consequences.

Mutual respect is another pillar of a stable relationship. Important leaders of the EU have talked about the Western Balkans publicly over the past decade in a way that is nothing short of degrading. While on the one hand, EU leaders preach about the strong historic, economic, cultural and other ties between the EU and the Balkans, they mainly describe them as poor, corrupt, easy to radicalise, an economic burden and, as Emmanuel Macron put it, a “ticking time bomb”. There is no denying that there is a lot of poverty in the Balkans, as well as problems with corruption and also radicals, but these are not problems foreign to EU Member States themselves. And more importantly: These problems are what the citizens of the Western Balkans are struggling with, it is not who they are. If radicalisation is part of who we consider them to be, then peaceful, moderate and European Islam as practiced all over the region should get at least ten times the attention and coverage of islamist radicals there. 

Not unlike in some more jealous kinds of relationships, there is also the notion of “I don’t want you, but I don’t want you to date someone else”. While it makes sense from a geopolitical point of view to prevent Russia, China, Turkey and all the others who pursue interests in the Balkans from doing so by granting accession to the EU, it is not respectful to openly state this as the only reason for Western Balkan accession. The EU’s long-term goal for the Western Balkans (I hope) is to help them transform into wealthier, more democratic, strong and equal members of our Union, who contribute to its success. Just getting them through the door is not the problem. We could do that quickly, if we wanted. The whole idea of the EU is a truly united, strong Union with citizens that are better off tomorrow than they are today. And this should be reflected in our communication about enlargement too.

There are many more ways in which we as a Union can demonstrate that we truly believe in the ideals and values that we preach. We could, for example, feel empathy with our neighbours who are struggling to breathe the air in their capitals during the winter months because it is so polluted. And we could show our dedication to them by helping them fix this problem quickly. Moreover, every good relationship needs knowledge of the other partner’s loveable sides, and it needs patience and hard work to make it stop raining on Western Balkans enlargement.