EU Membership is the Solution to U.S. and EU Concerns in the Western Balkans

On October 6, the 27 European Union (EU) member states met with their counterparts in the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia – at a summit in Slovenia to discuss the Western Balkans nations joining the EU. However, many dismissed the summit as a perfunctory effort by Slovenia, who currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, as the possibility of membership in the bloc seems to be slipping further away. 

Today, entho-nationalism and tribalism are on the rise in the region. Bosnia looks to be on the verge of possible civil war. EU leaders are increasingly worried that Serbia is again showing authoritarian tendencies. Moreover, the United States, which has historical and strategic interests in this region, continues to warn its European allies that Western adversaries like Russia and China are gaining influence. As the EU and the United States continue to grapple with these internal and external threats to regional stability, the worse the situation becomes. The longer the EU holds out on extending EU membership to the Western Balkan nations, the more likely the region is to descend into chaos. The solution is for the EU, with U.S. support, to push the accession process in earnest to ensure the region’s guaranteed chance at stability.

EU Enlargement

When the Cold War ended in 1991, the former Soviet states in Central and Eastern Europe began integrating with the EU, seeing Western institutions – like the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – as the keys to more stable and prosperous futures. Soon they began pursuing membership in these Western institutions. As a result, ten former Soviet republics joined the EU in 2004 – the Visegrad Four of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia; the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and Slovenia, a former member of Yugoslavia. Three years later, Bulgaria and Romania joined, as well as Croatia, another former Yugoslav republic, in 2013. It seemed almost certain that EU would next expand into the Western Balkans.

The Western Balkans After the Cold War

That was not necessarily the case. After the Cold War, Yugoslavia took a bit of a different path than Central and Eastern Europe nations. While never part of the Soviet empire, Yugoslavia was a socialist state, comprised of six republics and run by its own dictator, Josep Broz Tito. Soon after the end of the Cold War, a strong sense of nationalism quickly replaced communism in the Western Balkans. 

Yugoslavia collapsed, descending into war in the early 1990s along those same ethnic and tribal lines suppressed under Tito’s rule. After Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in 1991, war broke out in Croatia where Serbs tried to create their own state. By 1992, the conflict spilled over into Bosnia, where its Bosnian Serbs, backed by Serbia, drove Bosnian Muslims from their homes in what has been labeled an ethnic cleansing campaign. Then, in 1999, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a Serbian province, fought another brutal war of independence against Serbia.

Europe turned to its American allies to end the conflicts. The war in Bosnia ended only after the United States brokered a peace deal with the warring parties. In 1999, NATO stepped in with a US-led bombing campaign in Serbia in an effort to halt the violence against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The decades-long bloody wars left those countries war-torn and devastated. Yet, the possibility of EU membership served as a catalyst for reform in the Western Balkans. 

EU Enlargement into the Western Balkans? Not So Fast

Since 2003, the EU, supported by the United States, has essentially promised the remaining Western Balkan nations the prospect of membership in the bloc, assuring them that their future lies with Europe. Today, the remaining Western Balkan nations – minus Slovenia and Croatia, which declared independence in 1991 and are already members of the EU – are at various stages in the membership process. 

Still, these talks are barely progressing. Montenegro and Serbia are the furthest into the process, already having opened formal accession talks several years ago. Albania and North Macedonia – whose membership bids are linked – are awaiting official negotiations to commence. Lastly, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina remain potential candidates for membership, yet are nowhere near actually starting the negotiations. Yet, admitting new members from the Western Balkans is no longer as popular as it was nearly 20 years ago. But, that is exactly what the EU and the United States need to be pursuing.

Political Fault Lines Rumble Once Again

Just over a quarter of a century after the end of the war in Bosnia, the country is again facing renewed threats to political stability (Lowy). The 1995 Dayton Accords eventually brought peace to Bosnia, a country comprised of several ethnic groups including including the Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks, and Catholic Croats, after several years of bloody, ethnically driven war.

The Accords implemented a government under which one Bosnian Serb, one Bosniak, and one Bosnian Croat share power. There is now speculation over whether the Dayton Accords may no longer be able to hold Bosnia together. In early October, the Bosnian Serb leader, part of the tripartite presidency, announced plans that amount to secession to build up a Serb-dominated state. Just as it did in the early 1990s, Bosnia once again finds itself on the verge of civil war.

A Turn Toward Authoritarianism

The EU and the United States are concerned that Serbia is growing more authoritarian under President Aleksander Vucic. This is a threat to the stability of the Western Balkans region as well as the larger EU given that Serbia – the prevailing republic in the former Yugoslavia under former President Slobodan Milosevic – spent much of the 1990s clashing with the other former republics. Mr. Vucic is a reformed ultranationalist who, in the waning days of the Yugoslav wars, interestingly served as Milosevic’s information minister. 

Under Mr. Vucic, Serbia has turned toward authoritarianism as the ruling party, the Serbian Progressive Party, controls the government, judiciary, and security services and limits the local media. Moreover, Serbia has undergone a democratic backslide of sorts, filled with allegations of corruption, cronyism, and voter intimidation in what Foreign Policy politely describes as soft autocracy. To make matters worse, Serbia is ramping up its defense spending to “unite Serbs wherever they live.” While Serbia is nominally democratic, deeper engagement with the EU and a push for reforms would do a lot to help Europe extinguish the growing authoritarianism on its southeastern flank.

Outside Influence 

Further compounding Western concerns that Serbia is developing closer ties with China and Russia. Western officials fear that Russia, who regularly provides arms to its Slavic ally, is encouraging Mr. Vucic to destabilize the Western Balkans. Beyond Serbia, Russia has increased diplomatic interactions with several countries along tribal and religious lines to hinder the region’s integration into the EU and NATO. This, however, is the West’s fault as the EU and the United States have neglected the region for decades, laying the groundwork for China and Russia to fill the vacuum. 

China now has economic ambitions and ties in the region, including the extension of its Belt and Road Strategy. The nations in the Western Balkans, as a result, are looking to China for trade and investment. Delaying EU membership to the Western Balkans only opens the region up to the EU and United States’ adversaries filling the void left by Western institutions. Deeper engagement and progressing accession talks would help the EU and the United States more efficiently and effectively battle growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region. 

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