How the European Union failed to deal with the collapse of Yugoslavia has lessons for the imperative of enlargement today.
In the spirit of doing things differently and taking actual steps towards enlargement of the European Union, in January the French and German governments joined forces to convene a working group of experts. This week, a report emerged from this ‘group of 12’, including recommendations for preparatory institutional reforms.
With a window of opportunity opened by the war in Ukraine and reviving the forgotten accession prospects of the western Balkans, the new approach envisages ‘a flexible EU reform and enlargement process’. It would entail further transfers from unanimity to qualified-majority voting (QMV) in decisions by the Council of the EU representing the member states. Foreign, security and defence policy would however remain the subject of national vetoes and a ‘sovereignty safety net’ would allow member states to articulate purported vital national interests in QMV decisions.
This (qualified) enthusiasm for a wider and deeper union is new. In the background hover notions of a ‘geopolitical’ Europe exercising ‘strategic autonomy’, seeking to manage a plethora of crises. But the EU has not been readied for any major enlargements for two decades, while pooling sovereignty butts up against different interpretations of what that means to different member states.
The challenges of enlargement will loom large—thus favouring the status quo—for as long as the EU is seen as a fortress of concentric circles, allied to scepticism that enlargement may dilute the European ‘project’ and a filter of ‘merit-based approaches’, with ill-starred accession processes and ‘conflict-management’ strategies towards those left beyond the European pale. At the same time the applicant states are bidden to legal and institutional transformations, in the context of international shifts and security threats and rising domestic inequalities favouring governments led by populist leaders.
The return of some of Europe’s historical demons should favour re-examination of past choices, especially during the 1990s. The collapse of Yugoslavia provided a painful lesson for collective EU policy-making. Bilateral defence dialogues were established with successor states, without creating an effective multilateral framework for joint European action. EU foreign policy remained fragmented when it needed to bring equilibrium to a new international order. In this gap, other actors found a place to pursue their own political and economic strategies, with consequences we see today.
The accession strategies which followed for the western Balkans since the 1990s are therefore instructive to analyse the current prospects for EU enlargement, including to take in Ukraine and Moldova. The difficulties of democratic consolidation, after exposure to social transformations, changes in welfare models and economic instabilities, on top of internal conflicts or war(s), were evident. Nation-states would have to metamorphose into EU member states. Many found themselves in limbo, bound by copious normative, legal, political and economic ties to EU integration while remaining vulnerable to other external influences.
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In this period, the fascination with high politics among the rulers in Poland and Hungary today was born, amid economic shocks and shifts towards new growth models in the post-communist context. Applying a veneer of ‘copycat liberalism’ to conspiracy-minded majoritarian regimes, as Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes have put it, these leaders have been able to stay in power for so long they can now block or restrain strategies within the EU—related to migration policy or security matters—by using their claims to ‘national sovereignty’.
The Yugoslav break-up was a chance for the EU to act as a balancing counterweight between the two cold-war superpowers. European security could have traversed very different routes. The road not taken, while regulating relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, would have brought ‘an experience of learning about new cultures and new ways of doing that creates a common, European sense of belonging’, as Frédéric Mérand put it. When Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were incorporated into NATO in 1999, followed by the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004, it changed the military balance of power in significant ways now playing out.
EU-NATO complementarity was always seen as a national strategy for the applicant states, especially in the western Balkans. The NATO Bucharest summit in April 2008 however exposed the fragility of this complementary bond. It left shorthanded some applicant states, such as North Macedonia, its NATO and EU accession blocked by Greece—which pursued its dispute over the name of the ‘former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia’ as the purportedly legitimate national interest of an existing EU member.
The ‘sovereignty safety net’ suggested by the ‘group of 12’ exposes the complexity of this entangled relation between the EU and NATO, with the possibility of further complicating enlargement. Hopes but also disappointments can arise in such a space, with its potential for long-term political manoeuvres and escalations of conflict as we have seen.
This year Hungary and Poland pushed to retain the unanimity rule in EU foreign and security policy, justified as ‘defending their national interests in Brussels decision-making’. This exposes not only the challenges facing any ‘geopolitical’ aspiration but also exposes the many shortcomings in the EU related to democratic consolidation and the rule of law.
The experts’ report stresses probity, transparency and anti-corruption measures within EU institutions and suggests a new independent office equipped with large competences and the means to activate them. A comprehensive EU anti-corruption policy, which would have offered an overview of the risks in member states, was however dropped by the European Commission in 2017.
Monitoring corruption was transferred to the European Semester, a tool for macroeconomic governance not designed to address shortcomings in delivery of the rule of law. These ensure that many corrupt practices are deeply embedded within the neoliberal matrix, albeit to different degrees in different countries, creating a convenient framework for abuses of power and for populist leaders to retain it.
When political actors are not required to offer justifications for the exercise of power as part of a legitimation process involving public scrutiny and fora, citizens’ trust in the ability of the system to solve problems is further undermined. This jeopardises democratic legitimacy on national and supranational levels, while citizens remain trapped in a broken chain of democratic accountability between electoral cycles. External intervention using hybrid means, including the spread of corruption, can then target the effective functioning of the rule of law.
Yet the EU’s acknowledgement of this risk remains incremental and partial. It must uphold the rule of law among member states and offer incentives to the candidate countries in this regard. Both should embrace the new approach of a geopolitical EU, favourable to enlargement, where new European citizens can learn to exercise their rights with a sense of belonging to a European collective interest.
Emilija Tudzarovska is a lecturer in contemporary European politics at Charles University in Prague and a researcher at the Czech Academy of Sciences, SOU. Her current research is part of NPO 'Systemic Risk Institute', funded by the EU.