EU enlargement: keep the door open

European leaders have set out strict conditions for Balkan states hoping to join the bloc

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (left) kisses president of Kosovo Hashim Thaci during a tour of Balkan states last week. Photograph: Vassil Donev/EPA

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (left) kisses president of Kosovo Hashim Thaci during a tour of Balkan states last week. Photograph: Vassil Donev/EPA

 

Enlargement of its membership has been the European Union’s most important geopolitical tool to deal with continental instability for four decades. It is now being deployed once again with a renewed push to absorb the Balkan states of Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo. Their hopes for accession have been animated by recent visits from the EU’s leading officials, who have set out strict conditions about democracy and the rule of law, minority rights and functioning market economies if it is to happen.

Admitting Greece, Spain and Portugal after their transition from dictatorships worked well in the 1980s. A much more ambitious pathway was provided for central and eastern European states after the end of the Cold War and a 13-year transition until they joined in 2004. Their uneven readiness for entry together with economic crisis and growing migration created a deep enlargement fatigue among older members’ political leaderships and electorates over the last 10 years, however. Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said in 2014 there would be no further enlargement during his five-year term, but to his credit he has not blocked this renewed effort to place enlargement firmly on the medium-term agenda.

Juncker has stressed the EU cannot import instability. That means the pressing problems these countries face concerning the rule of law, corruption, weak institutions and regional inter-state disputes must be tackled convincingly. Just how difficult that will be is clear from the failure of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s power-sharing, Macedonia’s row with Greece, and resentment of Albanian and Kosovan roles by the Serbs.

Nor can the EU overlook the geopolitical instability arising if they refuse to confront these problems. They face competition from Russia and China in the region, as both powers seek to benefit from its need for external economic and political supports. EU enlargement is held out as an attractive alternative to other alliances for these European states. Despite all the difficulties involved, that remains a perspective worth supporting.

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