16th Apr 2024


Austria throws a curveball over EU Balkans enlargement

  • Austria's foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg: No other EU member state has done more than Austria to advocate offering the six Balkan countries full EU membership perspectives (Photo: European Union)
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Austria's foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, has thrown the EU a curveball as the bloc holds the crucial summit that will decide whether to formally approve the start of accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova.

It would be a 'geostrategic disaster', said Schallenberg, if the EU dismisses the Western Balkans in favour of Ukraine when it comes to making the decision to open negotiations at this week's European Council meeting.

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In early November, the European Commission recommended commencing accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, but decided to withhold the start of negotiations with Bosnia until "the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved."

But the Balkans as well as Ukraine are equally important, according to Schallenberg. The Austrian foreign minister believes the EU should work to stabilise both regions (eastern and south-eastern Europe) by anchoring Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina within its orbit.

The warning from Austria's top diplomat comes amid rising tensions in the Balkans with the potential for renewed conflict.

The EU Belgrade-Pristina dialogue looks to be faltering and Milorad Dodik, the pro-Russian leader of Republika Srpska, remains unafraid to make frequent secessionist threats in Bosnia. This increasingly unstable geopolitical landscape undermines the confidence of investors at a critical time for the region as it seeks to modernise its post-Yugoslav economy for EU accession.

Considering Austria's geographic and historical experience, it should not come as a shock that Schallenberg holds reservations about the EU's current approach towards enlargement.

Geographical lynchpin

Very few EU member states possess better knowledge and understanding of what instability in the Balkans means for the security of the entire European continent than Austria.

The Ottoman Empire's defeat in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 created an opening for Russia to redraw the boundaries of the region in line with its interests. But Austria, one of the great European powers at the time, was critical to maintaining the balance of power. At the Congress of Berlin of 1878, Austria's diplomacy sealed its presence in Bosnia, which limited Russia's territorial gains to Bessarabia (two-thirds of modern-day Moldova).

Russian imperialism in the nineteenth century is not dissimilar to Vladimir Putin's capacity to act as a spoiler in the Balkans today. Western failure to resolve the disputes arising from the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1992 allowed Putin to exploit Russian-leaning sympathies in the region and derail its process of European integration.

Frustrated with the EU, Serbia has grown increasingly close to Russia and refused to align with EU sanctions in response to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

These clear historical parallels illustrate the importance of listening to the Austrian perspective. Russia's threat to Europe is not only limited to the battlefield in Ukraine, but also extends to the Balkans — a region surrounded by EU member states.

Failure to pursue a credible policy in southeastern Europe, let alone in Ukraine, would raise serious questions about the EU's capabilities to defend its values on the world stage.

Austria is often derided for being Europe's soft underbelly for Russian influence. Despite the invasion of Ukraine, there is no sign of movement towards Nato accession as military neutrality remains enshrined in the Austrian constitution.

The chancellery in Vienna, while supportive of EU sanctions against Russia, has maintained relations with the Kremlin. Austria's chancellor, Karl Nehammer, became the first EU leader to meet Putin in Moscow since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Austria as a country void of any solutions to the security challenge that Russia presents. Indeed, the escalating situation in the Balkans has confirmed Austria's pivotal role in the future success of EU policy towards the region.

No other EU member state has done more than Austria to advocate offering the six Balkan countries full EU membership perspectives. Participation in regional cooperation initiatives, such as the Berlin Process, is also a priority of Austrian foreign policy.

Austria's leadership in the region's European integration stands in stark contrast to the limited attention that the EU has given to the issue. Russia's assault on Ukraine has not materialised into a recognition of the strategic importance of the Balkans at an EU-level.

After a two-day summit aimed at resolving tensions between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, EU officials failed to participate in the press conference scheduled with six leaders of the region. This has led to widespread resentment towards the EU across the region, with scepticism growing over 2030 as the European Council's target year for accession.

The Austrian foreign minister has called on the EU to abandon its binary thinking on enlargement and move the European integration process in Ukraine, Moldova, and the Balkans forward at a gradual pace.

Schallenberg recently issued a direct challenge to his EU partners, asking whether we (as the EU) are capable of exporting stability, or risk importing instability?

One of the key lessons from central Europe's experience of European integration in the early 2000s was the important role that the EU played in building political and economic stability.

Accepting Ukraine and Bosnia simultaneously into the EU would provide new opportunities for investment and economic growth. As the EU faces down the threat from Russia today, it may do well to remember its own history and follow Austria's lead.

Author bio

Hugo Blewett-Mundy is a non-resident associate research fellow from the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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