Western Balkans caught between the EU and Russia?
The President-elect of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said the EU would accept no new members before 2020. This makes the role of Commissioner of Enlargement obsolete and the position is being replaced by a ‘Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy’. This sends out a hugely negative message to any country wanting to join, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.
The announcement on Wednesday, September 10, 2014, was a surprise to some but came as a total shock to the Western Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. All of them are either accession candidates or are seeking accession. Turkey, which has spent years negotiating to join, is used to being held in suspense and may raise their eyebrows. But EU membership is no longer a priority for Turkey and could even be a disadvantage.
The announcement did not surprise GIS.
Our expert, Professor Dr Blerim Reka, former Macedonian Ambassador to the EU and Pro-Rector of South East European University, wrote in March 2014, ‘Balkan States pose geopolitical challenge for European Union’. He said ‘The new EU policy, the Eastern Partnership of 2009, is eclipsing its enlargement policy’ and ‘The pull of the Caucasus is gaining ground compared with the Balkans’.
He added, ‘The EU’s geopolitical focus is outside the Balkans and EU membership for the Balkans cannot be expected realistically before 2022.’
Enlargement is not a popular issue in many EU countries. The EU has never defined at what point it stops growing. Hopes of membership for Western Balkan countries were nourished by the EU, although conditionally. Disappointment - or dashed hopes - as experienced now in the Balkans, can be dangerous.
The Eastern Partnership, an association agreement with Ukraine and countries of the Caucasus such as Georgia, was a priority for the EU. The Western Balkans appeared less important. Now we are standing by the smoking ruins of the Eastern Partnership initiative - thanks to the Ukraine crisis.
So what about the Western Balkans? Keeping these countries in uncomfortable suspense is likely to create a political vacuum which is dangerous. A political vacuum causes instability and could be exploited by larger powers, such as Russia, to extend its influence.
GIS analysed the Balkan river systems in a report, ‘Serbia faces tough choice over Russian project in Balkan geopolitics’ on July 30. A stable and peaceful Balkans is essential for peace in Europe.
The EU has to apply a sustainable policy in coordination with countries of the Western Balkans to support their efforts. If membership is not possible short term, then other solutions should be explored. Lifting EU visa obligations could be a strong sign. These visa obligations are toothless anyway and rarely stop undesirable entry.
Just sending this negative message, by abolishing the EU's department for enlargement, places EU-friendly governments in Western Balkans’ countries in real difficulty.
Any future crisis in the Western Balkans will not remain a local matter like those in Kosovo or Bosnia. It is likely to be a geopolitical crisis involving another confrontation between the EU and Russia.