Tuesday

26th Jul 2016

Opinion

The euro crisis should not stop enlargement

  • European foreign policy effectively started in the Balkans, it would be a shame if it ended there too. (Photo: Ayuto)

Wrecked by the euro crisis and a loss of the confidence that helped it expand to the current 27 members, the European Union might be expected to shrink rather than grow in the coming few years.

Without an effective solution to the euro crisis, the odds are that states might exit the common currency, if not the EU as a whole, and further expansion seems a long way down the list of priorities.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

However enlargement is far from over, with Croatia due to join next year and other countries in the Western Balkans still working towards accession. And although the challenges are considerable, further expansion is not just in these countries’ interests but in the interests of the EU itself.

Although Croatia is far ahead of its neighbours in the accession queue, they are not doing too badly themselves. Montenegro embarked on membership talks back in June, while Serbia was pronounced a candidate in March. Even the laggards are moving forwards. Bosnia and Herzegovina might apply for membership by the end of this year if it implements landmark constitutional reforms.

The European Commission has started work on a feasibility study which, over time, might lead to an association agreement with Kosovo (still not recognised by five of the EU’s members). Stealthily, enlargement has even recovered some of its lost lustre in the case of Turkey too. Ankara and Brussels initiated a readmission agreement which is a first step towards lifting the visa regime, the cause of a long-standing grudge in Turkey. Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle has inaugurated a “positive agenda” to resuscitate stalled accession talks.

The trouble is that these institutional realities, encouraging though they may be, are at odds with day-to-day politics. The Western Balkans are suffering from an economic crisis that has only been exacerbated by the cold winds blowing from the EU, the region’s principle trading and investment partner.

The regional star performer, Croatia, is in recession, while most others’ growth rates are anaemic. As Italian, Austrian, Greek and Slovene banks struggle to weather the financial storm sweeping across the continent , the Balkans are living through a credit crunch.

Neither migrant remittances nor foreign direct investments have recovered from the slump that began back in 2008-9, and unemployment is on the rise. Integration into the EU was supposed to push up living standards and open new opportunities. In reality, exposure to Europe’s malaise, in combination with delayed reforms at home, are deepening stagnation. In politics, populists have been reaping the benefits by harnessing social discontent, as seen recently in Serbia.

Such challenges should not dampen EU resolve. Understandably the woes of the Western Balkan are far from the most pressing matter, with the future of the euro hanging in the balance and Syria in flames. But neglecting the region would be dangerous, and would effectively write off the notable gains made since the dark days of the 1990s. European foreign policy effectively started in the Balkans, and it would be a shame if it ended there too.

The main risk is through slow erosion, rather than a swift and decisive death. Officials and pundits alike tend to see the Western Balkans as the Union’s backyard, surrounded by EU territory, and economically and politically dependent on Brussels. Interdependence, however, is not destiny.

There is a widening gulf between the pro-EU rhetoric of the elites in power and the familiar routine of patronage, corruption and rent-seeking that shapes the politics of the region. A lack of pressure from Brussels only sends encouraging signals to those who have grown used to talking the European talk, but rarely walking the walk.

Such politicians also know that allies and business partners can be found beyond the EU. Tomislav Nikolic, Serbia’s newly elected president, chose Moscow rather than Brussels as the destination of his first trip abroad. Turkey’s recent economic progress underlines that EU membership is now not the only choice available.

To play a more effective role in the region the EU has to first change its narrative about the Western Balkans. Once it was all about security and conflict management; today, by contrast, the region’s problems mirror those of Europe as a whole.

The key to success is therefore to reclaim the role of the engine for growth and development, although of course much depends on whether and how the EU manages to deal with its own internal mess. Other things matter too, as the current economic crisis is potentially changing the shape of integration, with the Western Balkans risking being consigned to an outer circle in a future multi-layered Europe.

Some might see such an outcome as a blessing that lowers the costs of accession, but it could also be a curse: peripheral attachment to the EU could equally mean lack of meaningful political, economic and institutional modernisation in these countries. Enlargement has to continue being a process of gradual inclusion based on convergence criteria.

Lastly, the EU has to deploy more efficiently its scarcer resources in the next budgetary period and bolster growth in the Western Balkans through helping build export capacity, drawing in FDI and strengthening regional cooperation. Only then will the EU demonstrate in this vital region that Europeanisation remains the best bet for the future, for the region and for the EU itself.

The writer is an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Column / Brexit Briefing

Brexit plans missing in action

The Brexit referendum has created an almighty political and economic mess, with little sign of a British or EU plan to clean things up.

Opinion

Brexit seed was planted in 2004

The clause allowing a member state to leave the EU was introduced at a time of prosperity. EU leaders should not repeat the mistake and use the crisis to reinforce eurozone membership.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Belgrade Security ForumMigration, Security and Solidarity within Global Disorder: Academic Event 2016
  2. GoogleHow Google Fights Piracy: Creating Value While Fighting Piracy
  3. EJC"My Visit to Israel" - Opinion by MEP Lopez Aguilar, Chair of the EP Working Group on Antisemitism
  4. World VisionChildren Migrating, Out of School and at Work as Hunger Deepens in Southern Africa
  5. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceStand-Up (and Exercise) to Prevent Chronic Diseases
  6. Centre Maurits CoppietersLaunches a Real-time News Hub Specialised in EU Stakeholders
  7. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen Calls for International Probe Into Turkey Coup Allegations
  8. GoogleEU-US Privacy Shield: Restoring Faith in Data Flows and Transatlantic Relations
  9. World VisionWorld Leaders & Youth Advocates Launch Partnership to End Violence Vs. Children
  10. Counter BalanceReport: Institutionalised Corruption in Romania's Third Largest Company
  11. Access NowEuropol Supports Encryption. We Can Relax Now… Right?
  12. GoogleLearn about Google's projects across Europe on Twitter @GoogleBrussels