The dynamics of European Enlargement – the Western Balkans case

The dual question of statehood and state capacity is a specific feature of South East Europe and encourages the search for a modified, adapted approach to enlargement. The argument that border and minority issues in the applicant states are interdependent strengthens the case for a concerted regional approach to enlargement. 

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Conflict Background


By Ahmed M. Al-Soukkary

When the Cold War ended, confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union for domination and influence over Europe came to an end, bringing about many shifts in the international system. A question then arose: What would succeed that great political, military, economic and ideological conflict as the central issue in international relations? Though the enormous power and pervasive influence of the US was universally acknowledged to be the defining feature of world affairs, the re-emergence of Europe as an integrated economic power characterized the post-Cold War world.[1] The EU perceives itself as a successful model for regional integration which it seeks to diffuse by actively promoting the development of genuine (intra-) regional economic and political cooperation.[ii]

In order to achieve the goal of European unity, the EU has witnessed different stages of gradual enlargement, with Croatia becoming its latest member. Applications for EU membership can best be understood as a combination of three effects. First, the magnet of market access and affluence. Second, anchor effects that lock-in reform, macroeconomic stability and credibility, democracy (often after episodes of autocracy or worse) and, in some undefined but strongly perceived sense, security. Finally, hegemony effects, through rule setting, sanctions and ambition, both political and economic, but equally the expectation of special concessions, aid and transfers.[iii]

EU enlargement has always been a two-way process. New member states benefit from belonging to the EU – the world’s largest trading bloc and most advanced exercise in shared government; whilst the EU gains from extending itself into wider territories, welcoming new cultures and new markets. Over recent years, this two-way process has taken on an additional dimension as the EU has begun to integrate countries from the rapidly-changing world on its eastern borders. Many candidate states have had to introduce major reforms in order to qualify for membership.[iv]

There is an ongoing debate on the perception of European enlargement policy. Many consider that a federal Europe will be better equipped to promote the interests of its citizens, carrying more influence in the UN, WTO, IMF and other intergovernmental organizations than its individual states do. Furthermore, Europe has much to contribute in terms of its liberal traditions and political culture, providing both a partner and a necessary balance to the USA; not to mention the gradual convergence of European and American policies that has been existing in contrast to the underlying transatlantic tensions that accompanied the two US-led military interventions in the nineties. According to this perspective, once unified, Europe will become an (even more) important negotiating and trading partner – one of the biggest economies in the world. It will have a population of 450m – more than the US and Russia combined. It will be the world’s biggest trader and generate one quarter of global wealth. It presently gives more aid to poor countries than any other donor.[v]

On the other hand, there are many counter arguments to the idea of a federal Europe. If the EU became a unified state, there would be a loss of UN Seats – a major democratic, liberal voting bloc in international institutions such as the UN would be lost, in return for one vote (for an incredibly powerful state). Due to the UK and France being UN Security Council permanent members – with Germany (G4 – along with India, Japan and Brazil) hopeful of gaining a seat in the future – removal of these nations from the UNSC would leave it open to greater sway by American, Russian or Chinese influence. As it is, the UK and France provide a powerful voting bloc in the SC. (Italy has offered the plan of a revolving seat for EU member states.). Therefore countries from the EU are powerful enough as it is and creating only one country can result in the exact opposite situation. None of the benefits listed are actually benefits of a federal Europe. They all have been achieved via the EU. This means that the EU itself is strong and influential enough. There is no need for deeper development as it will only bring disadvantages.[vi]

Between these arguments and counterarguments, Western Balkans countries are turning to the EU to speed-up their economic reconstruction, improve their mutual relations (long scarred by ethnic and religious wars) and consolidate their democratic institutions. There are three levels of analysis on relations between Western Balkans and Europe. First, the Western Balkans represent a complex and diverse reality in Europe, yet an integral part of Europe. The question is therefore elated to standardization of all European countries in terms of political and economic organization; a strategic goal that has been clearly defined since the first day of the EU’s founding in 1951. Once the post-cold war security architecture in Europe began to be settled, economic arguments became far more pronounced.[vii] Second, there are common components between the EU and the Balkans, but also historical, political and ethnic differences. Third, in strategic terms, the region is important for Europe as a single entity bridging Central Europe with the South-East of the Old Continent, stretching to the borders of Europe at the Mediterranean Sea.[viii]

Though the Western Balkans has geographically belonged to Europe, it has been labelled a “black hole” and often treated as the “constitutive other” to Europe.[ix] More than a decade after the dismantling of Yugoslavia, the present image of the region gives rise to impressions of relative stability and joint commitment of the Western Balkans countries towards future EU membership.[x] The economic and financial crisis that hit Europe shifted attention from enlargement. However, it has been repeatedly stated by the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of the EU that the future of the Western Balkans is within the EU.[xi] The commitment of the EU to the Western Balkans within the new framework of the Lisbon Treaty has been reaffirmed at high-level meetings between EU officials and heads of governments from the region.[xii]

Following the recent waves of enlargement in 2004, 2007 and 2013, there was a fear amongst stakeholders in ‘old’ member states that further enlargement could cause future costs and problems. These enlargements, taken together, are unprecedented in the EU’s history. Never had so many accession countries been admitted within such a short period of time.[xiii] All of these factors placed an enormous strain on the EU’s institutions and structures. Much was written on the impact of the enlargements on the EU, its member states and non-state actors such as trade unions.

The integration of West Balkans countries will depend on many factors that will determine not only the pace of European integration, in general, but also the settlement of many open problems between Western Balkan countries and EU member states. [xiv] Despite continuing record-high EU unemployment and a struggling economy, membership talks for Serbia began in January 2014. The breakthrough for Serbia came following a historic agreement in 19 April 2013 with its former province, Kosovo, to normalize relations [xv], ensuring that both can proceed on their respective European paths. It is also probably the most striking recent example of the transformative power of the EU and a clear signal that even the most difficult decisions can be made if there is strong motivation and political will. After a ground-breaking agreement on normalization, both parties now meet regularly under the aegis of the EU to solve outstanding practical issues to the benefit of citizens on both sides.

EU accession is not taking place in a vacuum. In the current economic climate, citizens of both member states and aspirant countries are increasingly concerned about the impact of enlargement. The management of the enlargement process itself reflects these concerns. The negotiation process is based on strict conditionality, where each step forward is dependent on tangible progress on the ground. It is about creating a solid track record in areas such as fundamental rights and freedoms, the rule of law, good governance and democracy. The possibilities to integrate Western Balkan countries demonstrates that progress is possible where there is a political will to focus on reforms and where the EU agenda is considered to be a national priority. Opportunities to move decisively forward on the integration path are clearly visible and equally open to all aspiring countries, which is key to the credibility of enlargement as one of the key policies of the EU.[xvi]

The process creating future EU Member States has implications for the other closely-related aspect of state capacity. It is one thing for the prospect of EU accession to facilitate a reformist consensus among candidate states and sometimes to help tip the political balance in favour of democratic forces (as was the case more than a decade ago in Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria) at the expense of post-communist nationalists. It is another point to facilitate institution-building and state capacity. The dual question of statehood and state capacity is a specific feature of South East Europe and encourages the search for a modified, adapted approach to enlargement. The argument that border and minority issues in the applicant states are interdependent strengthens the case for a concerted regional approach to EU enlargement. The shared European roof can help defuse contentious territorial and institutional issues in parallel to the EU accession process.

There are some tools which the EU employs to closely supervise the readiness of Balkan countries to integrate. Each year the European Commission adopts its “Enlargement package”. Most importantly, this package includes the annual Enlargement Strategy Paper which sets out the way forward. The package also contains the so-called Progress Reports, in which the Commission services present their assessment of what each candidate and potential candidate has achieved.[xvii] This is where the role of EU Member States directly involved in the region is of great importance, although the contentious issues concerning the territorial waters between Croatia and Slovenia or the name dispute between Macedonia/FYROM and Greece are still a reminder that an EU neighbour need not be a vector of integration.[xviii]

Finally, it is estimated that there will be still a risk that integration of the Western Balkans in the EU could not end the region’s historic antagonism unless a lasting reconciliation is concluded among the different parties (especially between Serbia and its neighbours). Full membership should be an incentive to encourage countries to reconcile their disputes and deal with a broader perspective, based not on ethnic criteria, but on interests. This is the only way to make their integration a driving force to the EU.

Dr. Ahmed Magdy Al-Soukkary is an Egyptian academic lecturer in International Negotiation Studies and Mediation Processes with a D.Phil. in International Relations (IR). His academic and research interests include International Relations, Comparative Analysis of Conflict Studies, Cross-Cultural Communication, and Foreign Policy. His areas of expertise encompass mainly Turkish Politics, EU Accession Negotiations. He is currently a postdoctoral scholar in Politics of European Integration with a concentration in Balkan Studies. For more information on his publications, please click here. He can be accessed on


1) The other things defined the post-Cold War world is the rise of China as the center of global industrial growth based on low wages. Meanwhile, Russia, the main remnant of the Soviet Union reeled, while Japan shifted to a dramatically different economic mode. See: George Friedman, “Beyond the Post-Cold War World“, Stratfor Global Intelligence, 02 April 2013.

2) Tanja A. Börzel and Thomas Risse, “Diffusing (Inter-) Regionalism: The EU as a Model of Regional Integration“, KFG Working Paper Series, No. 7, September 2009, Kolleg-Forschergruppe (KFG), “The Transformative Power of Europe”, Website of Free University Berlin.

3) Jacques Pelkmans, European Integration: Methods and Economic Analysis (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 3rd ed., 2006), p.431.

4) IPA Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance – A new focus to EU assistance for enlargement (Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, European Commission – Directorate General for Enlargement, 2009), p.4.

5) “Debates – This House Believes In a Federal Europe: A Federal Europe Will Be a Stronger International Actor“.

6) Ibid.

7) Jacques Pelkmans, op.cit., p.431.

8) Ognyan Minchev, “The Western Balkans: Between the Economic Crisis and the European Perspective“, a paper presented with the sponsorship of the Balkan Trust for Democracy to the Institute for Regional and International Studies, September 2010.

9) Margit Feher, “V4 Countries Support EU Expansion in Western Balkans“, Website of the Wall Street Journal, 31 October 2013; see also: Vukašin Mićunović et al. (Authors), Margot and Boško Milosavljević (Translators), Handbook on Yugoslavia (Belgrade: The Federal Secretariat for Information, 1987), p.19.

10) Gorica Atanasova, “Does Europeanisation Equal Democratisation?: Application of the Political Conditionality Principle In the Case of the Macedonian System of Governance“, Analytical Journal, Vol.1, No.1 (June 2008), p.1.

11) “European Commission: Research & Innovation: Policy Framework Regions: Western Balkans“, Website of Commission’s Enlargement, 24 May 2013.

12) “White Paper on European Integration of the Western Balkans“, a paper adopted by the YEPP Council in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on September 18, 2010, Website of the Youth of the European People’s Party (YEPP), P.5.

13) We can refer here to the fear of trade unions and workers in ‘old’ member states that large numbers of Central and Eastern European workers and enterprises would avail themselves of their free movement rights under EU law in order to engage in ‘social dumping’. As a result, all ‘old’ member states apart from Ireland, Sweden and the UK initially restricted access to their labour markets for workers from those countries that joined the EU in 2004 (with the exception of Cyprus and Malta). The same happened in 2007 when all ‘old’ member states apart from Sweden and Finland imposed limitations on the rights of Bulgarian and Romanian workers to move to their territories. See:  Rebecca Zahn, European Enlargement and the Economic Crisis: Impact and Lasting Effects, ETUI Working Paper, European Trade Union Institute, Brussels, January 7, 2013, p.5.

14) YIber Sela and Bekim Maksuti, “Future Enlargement of the EU –The Challenge Call Western Ballkan and Turkey”, a draft paper prepared for the Euroacademia International Conference titled: “The European Union and the Politicization of Europe”, Vienna, 8 – 10 December 2011.

15) “When will Serbia join the European Union?“, Website of Debating Europe, 15 July 2013.

16) Linas Antanas Linkevičius and Štefan Füle, “Western Balkans and Turkey: new opportunities for EU enlargement“, a joint article by Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs and EU Commissioner for Enlargement (ELARG), Website of Lithuanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union 2013, 31 October 2013.

17) Enlargement package is a set of documents explaining its policy on EU enlargement. “Countries, Strategy and progress reports“, Website of European Commission.

18) Jacques Rupnik (ed.), “The Western Balkans and the EU: the hour of Europe“, Chaillot Paper – No126 – 06 June 2011.

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7 Responses

  1. An indeed comprehensive & intelligent piece. It would be very interesting also to study how the EU model could be adopted as well in the ME. & what’s Russia’s reaction to EU enlargement in its former sphere of influence in the South-Eastern Europe. Also if Europe has reservation with regard to accepting Turkey as a member mainly because of its unique Islamic identity & culture, would EU also has reservations to accept Albania & Kosovo for the same reason?!

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