European Union Expansion To The Balkans

The European Union has restated its commitment to the admission of six Balkan nations after overcoming divisions within the socio-political block. Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia are the countries in question; their potential membership status has conjured much consternation among the EU’s 27 member states.

An EU official questioned on the prospect of the bloc’s south-eastward expansion said, “I can’t say everything is fine… There are of course many issues, but you also can’t say the door is closed.” Slovenia, currently in possession of the EU presidency, attempted to pass a resolution that would have committed the EU to absorb the six Balkan states by 2030. However, this received push back from several member states and was ultimately defeated.

The fear lies largely with wealthier Western and Northern EU countries who are skeptical of a hasty series of EU admissions after Romania and Bulgaria’s accession to the Union in 2007. The move which occurred amid the pre-recession economic boom has been widely viewed as partially responsible for growing anxieties over immigration, especially in Britain which voted to leave the EU in 2016. Indeed, Romanian emigration doubled from 2006 to 2007, reaching a peak of almost 600,000 as Romanian citizens gained access to intra-EU labor markets with virtually no limits on self and non-employment free movement within the EU. Additionally, in the five-year period between 2012 and 2017, the number of officially registered Bulgarian citizens increased by 200,000 in Germany alone. In 2018, it was estimated that approximately 1/7 and 1/5 working age Bulgarians and Romanians, respectively, are “mobile”; meaning they live elsewhere. Such figures border on the dystopian as southeastern European nations grapple with a ‘gradual emptying’ of the land. A 2019 UN report estimates that the region, once the bastion of the display-Sovietism, is home to nine of the ten countries with the fastest shrinking populations. Bulgaria taking the number 1 spot.

Nonetheless, some within the bureaucratic echelons of the world’s largest economy seem optimistic about the prospect of the EU gaining six new constituencies. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, spoke at the summit where the decision was discussed: “We want them in the European Union, we are one European family. We share the same history, we share the same values and I’m deeply convinced we share the same destiny, too.” However, not all share her pseudo-manifest destiny aspirations. For one, President Macron, the emerging technocratic figurehead of the EU, seemed to strike a note of caution during his summit speech. While endorsing the idea of a political commitment to enlarge the Union to encompass the Balkans, he also referenced governing issues within the EU – arguably a semantic discrepancy from the notion of “shared values.” The Union may have to decide between expansion and maintaining the esteem of Euro-cosmopolitanism.

Furthermore, as with any diplomatic club incorporating so many diverse parties, tensions exist between member states and future member states. Kosovo is a prime example as five EU members still have not recognized the country since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Making things even more complex, in 2019 Bulgaria vetoed an official start to the accession negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania. The dispute stems from a linguistic disagreement whereby the Bulgarian government, in order to appease nationalist factions of its coalition government (it is thought), holds that the language spoken in North Macedonia is a regional variant of Bulgarian and not a separate language espousing unique geographical identity.

Madja Ruge, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations describes the accession talks as “stalled, messy and, to sum it all up, pretty chaotic.” She also warns that an incoherent EU strategy in the region could precipitate destabilization in an area already prone to quagmires of self-determination and identification. Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo and a supposed growing affinity for Chinese and Russian influence from Bosnia and Serbia have also served to complicate the accession process, first discussed in 2003. Ultimately, the EU must tread lightly. In a recent op-ed, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt warned that without a concise and clear extension of an offer to join the EU customs union and single market, the Balkans region is at risk of escalating geo-political disruption. Such assertions are far-fetched in my view. This is not a process that should be rushed and EU preoccupation with the coronavirus, chronic migrant issues, and bubbling autocrat-technocrat divisions within the Union make the likelihood of admission anytime soon very unlikely.


Emmet McGeown