Western Balkans in Focus 04 - 2021 - Item 6 from 6
The limits of EU transformative power in the Western Balkans
Serie Europese Zaken

The limits of EU transformative power in the Western Balkans

02 Jun 2021 - 10:11
Photo : Belgrade, capital of Serbia. © Pixabay

The Clingendael Spectator series ‘Western Balkans in Focus’ offers an inside perspective into the rocky path of the Western Balkans six (WB6; consisting of Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia) towards joining the European Union. In this concluding contribution, Wouter Zweers and Iris van Loon focus on the EU’s limited transformative power in the Western Balkans: economic, political and security reforms have been modest despite decades of engagement. What does the future hold for EU enlargement?

The European Union enlargement process received a boost with the adoption of a revised EU enlargement strategy and the formal opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia in March 2020. Only one year later, this process already slowed down again. A speedy integration of the six small to medium-sized South-Eastern European countries – often collectively described as the EU’s ‘inner courtyard’ – into the EU remains obstructed by continuous democratic shortcomings and a bleak accession perspective.

This well-known and long-standing challenge raises the question whether the EU’s enlargement strategy is capable of nudging the WB6 towards alignment with the EU’s accession criteria. While EU assessments and recommendations for EU candidates’ reform efforts have become more practical and specific,1  decisive reforms in key sectors (such as democracy and the rule of law) have been hard to achieve.

What explains the EU’s limited transformative power (that is, the EU’s capacity to foster reforms) in this region? And what lessons can be drawn from the different reform paths chosen by the WB6?

ZweersVanLoon-Bridge in Bosnia, 19sept2015-Grzegorz Smieciuszewski-Flickr
The old town of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. © Grzegorz Smieciuszewski / Flickr

To answer these questions, this article draws upon the pieces published in this ‘Western Balkans in Focus’ series, focusing on the lessons that can be drawn from different cases and countries. For example, is there a parallel between Montenegro’s infrastructure projects and Serbia’s foreign policy alignment? And can we identify related dynamics in North Macedonia’s difficulties of good governance reforms and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s failure to implement constitutional reforms?

On the basis of these shared experiences, this article offers five ‘lessons learned’, and asks what is ahead for EU enlargement in the Western Balkans.

The Western Balkans in Focus: an overview
opening article of this series provides a historical overview of the challenges that have defined the EU-Western Balkans relationship over the past 25 years. Its message is clear: the WB6 “deserve an EU that works for them”.
2  Other articles in this series made clear that, unfortunately, such an EU does not exist. What are the factors thwarting effective EU policies?

On constitutional reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU has not managed to spur the country’s divided political leadership to remove discriminatory elements from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s constitution and to improve good governance in the country.

While obstacles for delay have been mostly domestic, the EU’s transformative power has proven weak. The EU has not shown genuine political engagement with truly democratic forces in the country, and – perhaps as a result – has not applied the requisite positive and negative conditionality to boost constitutional reform.3

The EU remains internally divided on which WB6 country should get priority to join

In the case of North Macedonia’s good governance reforms, the picture is somewhat different. The EU has actively supported reforms through assistance and conditionality after the Western-oriented government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev took office in May 2017.

Still, the uncertainty that continues to cloud North Macedonia’s accession perspective seriously impedes the effectiveness of EU reform incentives.4  Policymakers in Skopje are uncertain whether they are truly welcome in the EU. The EU remains internally divided on which WB6 country should get priority to join. This does not only thwart North Macedonia’s accession process, but the region’s overall prospects to join the EU.

When it comes to Serbia and its foreign policy alignment with that of the EU, another challenge arises. The country’s leadership expresses mixed signals about its commitment to EU integration, and continues to expand strategic relationships with other powers, notably China. Serbia seems to have aligned its foreign policy with that of the EU only if doing so would not negatively impact its relationship with China.

It has become clear that the strategic presence of (so-called) ‘third powers’ in the region offers a challenge to the EU’s enlargement strategy based on conditionality. The EU has yet to adjust to this new strategic reality and to come up with a policy response.5

On 5 May 2021, Olivér Várhelyi, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, travelled to Pristina, Kosovo, as part of a round of visits to the Western Balkans as the first EU-funded COVID-19 vaccines arrive to the region. On this occasion, Olivér Várhelyi visited a vaccination centre with Mr Albin Kurti, Kosovan* Prime Minister, and Arben Vitia, Kosovan* Minister for Health.
On 5 May 2021, Olivér Várhelyi, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, travelled to Pristina, Kosovo, as part of a round of visits to the Western Balkans as the first EU-funded COVID-19 vaccines arrive to the region. On this occasion, Olivér Várhelyi visited a vaccination centre with Albin Kurti, Kosovan Prime Minister (R), and Arben Vitia, Kosovan Minister for Health. © European Union 2021

Third powers also play an important role in infrastructure development in the region. The construction of the Bar-Boljare highway in Montenegro is a good case in point. China has financed this highway, promising benefits that would invigorate the country’s economy. Instead, the highway has proven a painful case-study of Montenegro’s systemic governance and accountability problems, resulting in a major debt burden for the country.

The EU has not been able to convince the WB6 countries to forego ‘corrosive funding’ (mainly by China) of these ambitious infrastructure projects.6  Interestingly, the Montenegrin government has turned to the EU asking for financial assistance to cope with its debt to China, which may offer the EU the opportunity to get back in the driver’s seat.7

Five lessons learned
The EU does not single-handedly bear the blame for the unsatisfactory current status of the WB6 accession process. Moreover, the problems outlined above do not offer the full picture, since the EU enlargement process also knows several highlights. These include the EU’s immediate support and longer-term economic injection for the WB6 to fight COVID-19.

Still, the cases examined in this series offer a sobering overview of the challenges facing EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. Based on these experiences, we identify five common lessons for the EU to improve its enlargement policies in the region.

1. Jumping on the bandwagon or swimming against the stream?
The EU has proven to be an opportunistic strategic actor in the Western Balkans, moving along with momentum for its policy objectives, if and when the occasion arises. For example, when a pro-European government took office in North Macedonia in May 2017, the EU was both actively engaged and ambitious. But when the challenges proved harder and more intractable, as was the case with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s plans for constitutional reform, the EU’s political commitment proved lacklustre.

The EU should not forget about countries that risk falling behind in the accession process

The EU’s opportunistic attitude implies that those WB6 countries facing the biggest, hardest reform challenges are side-lined in the EU accession process. Conversely, the EU tends to turn over-ambitious vis-à-vis the ‘frontrunners’, expecting that swift and decisive reform is around the corner.

For example, over the past years the EU has hastily pushed reforms in North Macedonia, which has gone at the expense of the quality of these reforms. The EU has placed all its bets on a nominally pro-EU government in Skopje, although that government in practice has not managed to dismantle deep-rooted clientelism and corruption.4

The EU would do well to practice some restraint when jumping on the reform bandwagon when engaging with a new WB6 government, and the EU should not forget about countries that risk falling behind in the accession process.

2. Making conditionality function requires technical understanding and a political antenna
As Marko Sošić notes in his contribution, the EU has in Montenegro too often awarded “formal signs of progress, while neglecting whether anything actually changes for the better”.
9  This also applies to the case of North Macedonia’s good governance reforms, where the EU has too often applauded the adoption of new laws and regulations, but has largely failed to monitor the implementation and enforcement of these reforms.

Technical assessments of the state of play are therefore crucial, and it is reassuring that the 2020 EU country reports – which assess actual/practical reform progress in the WB6 – provide the most detailed assessments ever.10  But ‘assessing progress’ should of course go beyond applying technical benchmarks or extending technical reports.

A more political radar is required to ensure that the technical reform analysis is placed in the wider context of each WB6 country’s overall state of reform. A case in point is today’s problematic reform process in Serbia, where we can witness a backlash regarding the rule of law and media freedom.11  At some point, the EU will need to react in an unambiguous way and apply negative conditionality, for example through cutting back support or temporarily pausing the accession process.

3. To measure is to know
EU-commissioned expert reports on the Rule of Law in Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia – the so-called Priebe Reports – have shown that expert assessments to identify and monitor systemic corruption are essential to get some grip on these challenges.
12  Authoritative reports like these are crucial for the EU, WB6 governments, as well as citizens in the Western Balkans to achieve a shared understanding of the problems facing each country.

Only such a common understanding offers a solid basis for a successful strategy to address these challenges. The case of North Macedonia demonstrates that without a comprehensive, expert diagnosis of corruption problems in relevant institutions, rushed reforms get stuck and remain largely ineffectual. Without well-informed reviews of actual systemic political corruption in each WB6-country, any reform program will ultimately end in tears.

Arrival of the plane carrying 10.500 doses of Pfizer vaccines
Arrival of a plane carrying 10.500 doses of Pfizer vaccines. On 4 May 2021, Olivér Várhelyi, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, went to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the framework of the first deliveries of the COVID-19 vaccines funded and shared by the European Union. © European Union 2021

4. Change comes from within
As good governance reforms in North Macedonia show, outside engagement from the EU is not enough, and the “EU cannot engineer collective action externally”.
4  Especially given the EU’s continued state of crisis and disunity, EU transformative power has its limits.

The EU will therefore need to further enhance its engagements with civil society, free media, and other democratic forces in the WB6. The EU should take on board the local knowledge and expertise of these civil society actors, and offer them political and financial support. It is crucial for ordinary citizens to understand the scope of the problems facing their country, and the EU’s efforts to help their government to tackle those problems.

Providing a credible accession perspective is not a matter of words, but a matter of deeds

As Igor Bandović shows in his contribution, citizens often fail to understand and appreciate EU support in their country. This was clearly the case in the EU’s policies to address the COVID-19 crisis, where a majority of Serbian citizens wrongfully believed support from other countries (notably China) had been crucial.13

5. Commitment is an act, not a word
EU leaders time and again point out the ‘European perspective’ for the WB6. Apart from the fact that the phrase ‘European perspective’ does not mean anything (as all WB6 countries already are in Europe), all contributions to this series clarify that the actual EU accession perspective remains imbued with uncertainty.

The EU is at least partially to blame here, since Brussels and the other EU capitals have so far not managed to provide adequate and unambiguous political steering to the accession process. As the case of North Macedonia shows, it may also be the undue influence of individual EU member states (in this case Greece and Bulgaria) that may interfere with the EU’s overall enlargement process, adding requirements unrelated to the accession criteria.

The EU would do well to recognise that providing a credible accession perspective is not a matter of words, but a matter of deeds. Such deeds could include explicitly voicing a true EU accession perspective, and following up such statements with enhanced political engagement at both the Member State and EU levels – including the WB6 countries in EU initiatives where possible. Moreover, the EU could provide unambiguous political steering, and make the resolution of potential bilateral disagreements between member states and aspiring members the highest priority.

Zweers-The Ada Bridge over the Sava river in Belgrade, Serbia in 2018. Draško Tankosić - Flickr
The Ada Bridge over the Sava river in Belgrade, Serbia in 2018. © Draško Tankosić / Flickr

What is ahead for EU enlargement?
The Clingendael Spectator series ‘Western Balkans in Focus’ shows that EU transformative power is diminished by several factors, including the bleak accession perspective of most WB6 countries, divisions within the EU, a lack of commitment from the EU, and strategic competition from third powers.

Moreover, governments in the Western Balkans have proven unwilling and/or incapable of driving through decisive reforms in core fields such as the rule of law and democratic governance. Vested interests and/or opportunistic engagements with third powers seem to hold these governments back, almost regardless of their public commitments to comply with the EU’s demands.

The EU accession process of the Western Balkan countries has arrived at a crucial junction

The EU accession process has become a long trajectory, which undermines the willingness of incumbent governments to bear the burdens and costs of actual reform. The support and incentives provided by the EU remain too weak to change the cost-benefit analysis made by most WB6 governments, and to alter their decisions towards alignment with the EU.

The EU accession process of the Western Balkan countries has arrived at a crucial junction. It is clear that EU enlargement can only come about on the basis of real commitment of the Western Balkan countries and the EU. Since the EU faces numerous other major (internal) problems, the Western Balkans are unlikely to get strategic priority. As a result, the EU accession process in the region will probably muddle through for another decade.

Still, there may well be an opportunity to break this impasse by reformulating the enlargement question from a problem to an opportunity. The challenges that lay ahead for the European continent are massive, ranging from the green transition to economic recovery post-COVID and from optimising the digital sphere to education – and more.

Increased engagements from all European countries – including the Western Balkans – to tackle these challenges could provide a catalyst for further integration, especially if combined with enhanced political commitment and effective conditionality from the EU.


Wouter Zweers
Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute
Iris van Loon
Graduate in European Studies