By Myriam Marino
Recent international developments contributed to highlighting a weakening position of the European Union (EU) in the Western Balkans. Most notably, since the prospect of an imminent EU membership for Western Balkan countries appears to be gradually fading, the inability of the EU to fulfil long made promises potentially encourages the countries to look for alternative sources of political recognition. As citizens begin to lose hope in regards to the EU accession and develop frustration towards the process, it projects to the entire image and reputation of the organization, providing viable conditions for anti-EU discourses and diverging views to slowly insinuate themselves in the region.
In October, the status of the enlargement plans was clarified on the occasion of the EU-Western Balkan summit, convened in Slovenia, offering ground for discussion between the Member States and Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, the Republic of North Macedonia and Kosovo. EU representatives reiterated a firm commitment towards the enlargement process, and, for their part, the Western Balkans leaders restated their willingness to adhere to EU values.
Nonetheless, if, on the one hand, the words of the President of the European Commission Von der Leyen appeared an attempt to stitch up a forming wound, on the other hand the declarations issued by the President of the European Council Charles Michel were more upfront and unvarnished. Von der Leyen’s comment on how the EU “is not complete without the Western Balkans” met with Charles Michel’s remarks, advancing the issue of an evolving debate on the EU’s ability to effectively integrate the Western Balkans and consequent delays in the process. In fact, the EU displays smaller absorption and enlargement capacities in comparison to the past. Additionally, strict rule of law and democratic standards compliance are determinant factors in the admission process, particularly in view of ongoing tendencies within the organization.
Indeed, the EU represents a relevant actor in the region due to its role in democratization processes, although not exclusively. The Western Balkans intensely benefit from the European Union and from the prospected accession. Not only is it a strictly geographic matter, but it also involves the EU in the role of the biggest investor and economic and trade partner in the region. Large sums of money are provided to enact the necessary reforms for the Western Balkans to align with EU standards and priorities, currently, most notably, in the fields of digitalization and environment. On this matter, Charles Michel commented, “We hope that these investments will make the EU’s presence more visible and tangible for the people in those countries, so they can see the concrete benefits of this partnership with the EU”.
Nevertheless, disappointment in the EU’s performance in the region and in membership prospects could easily create the conditions for alternative actors to strengthen their presence in the Western Balkans, further deepening the distance between the region and the EU.
Among the sources and tools of soft influence on the region, the Russian and Chinese powers have oftentimes resorted to the dissemination of media content to enrich the public discourse about the limitations of the European Union. Moreover, the role played in South-East Europe by these global actors in regards to the Covid-19 vaccination strategy sparked deep concerns about the non-EU strategic influence on the Balkans.
Increasing influence on the region is equally projected by internal members of the EU. During the sixth joint session of the Serbian and Hungarian governments last September, the opportunity was seized to cement the existing strategic partnership and to advocate for a “rebuilding” of Central Europe. Moreover, Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán called for quicker integration of the Balkans in the EU.
Through the support offered, the Hungarian leader could expand its sphere of influence and the circle of potential partners -currently outnumbered within the EU- to his much-contested initiatives. The theme of immigration, in this sense, represents a common ground between Hungary and Serbia. Both are transit countries, being part of what the Frontex agency refers to as the ‘Western Balkan migration route,’ involving Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Croatia, as well. While the enlargement would benefit Hungary by geographically moving the south external border of the European Union to Serbia, closer strategic ties with Orbán could potentially prove detrimental for the Western Balkans since stronger relations with “illiberal” countries would condition their accession to the EU.
Despite a delayed timeline for the accession, most Western Balkans countries seem to remain firm in their pro-EU positions, in consideration of the advantages deriving from membership. Nonetheless, soft outsider interferences urge the EU to establish a stronger grip on the region in view of both external and internal attempts at mining the EU’s foreign and internal policy.