Increasingly, the Western Balkans are ready for the EU. But is the EU ready for the Western Balkans?

The reforms required of EU candidate states to guarantee accession are only half of the equation to a sustainably enlarged bloc. With the possible addition of as many as ten members—each with veto rights—on the horizon, the EU must make its own reforms. 

The 27 member states of the European Union at present seem to agree on little besides the magnitude of the crises with which they are confronted. From the relocation of migrants to responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, member states disagree on what should be expected from each country, and the bloc as a whole.  

One of few points of consensus to emerge in the aftermath of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine is that EU enlargement is imperative to the continent’s stability. The promise of future EU membership has been one of the bloc’s favourite carrots to dangle in negotiations with neighbours, but after decades of stagnation and apathy towards enlargement, that promise had begun to lose its credibility. 

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, three countries—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, and Ukraine—have been awarded candidate status while Georgia and Kosovo have applied for membership. The long-dormant accession processes of North Macedonia and Albania have received new life as negotiations finally opened, and EU leaders have promised another longtime candidate, Serbia, expedited membership if it normalises relations with Kosovo.  

“As we prepare the EU’s next strategic agenda, we must set ourselves a clear goal. I believe we must be ready — on both sides — by 2030 to enlarge,” said European Council President Charles Michel at this year’s Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia. “This is ambitious, but necessary. It shows that we are serious.”  

But now that the Balkans nations have pursued the EU’s preferred reforms for almost two decades, it is the EU itself that appears unready for the realities of enlargement and post-enlargement.  

Making decisions about decision making 

Decisions concerning security and foreign policy, enlargement, institutional reform, and treaties of the EU currently require unanimity.  

Article Seven of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU)—which allows for the suspension of member rights in the event of a serious and persistent breach of the EU’s values, notably rule of law—requires unanimity minus one to be activated. Because unanimity minus one is a difficult threshold to reach, de facto alternative means of sanctioning rule of law backsliding have developed including the conditioning of budgetary funds.  

Amid increased polarisation and the politicisation of EU policy by populist movements within many member states, achieving unanimity on contentious policy issues has proven exceedingly difficult. Decisions are often blocked by vetoes linked to other negotiations rather than the issue immediately at hand. 

Today there are 27 veto players in these crucial decisions, but if all EU candidates—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey, and Ukraine—and potential candidates Georgia and Kosovo are admitted, that number would increase to 37. With so many actors able to hold decisions hostage for concessions—including pairs of countries with radically divergent or even adversarial foreign policies, like Kosovo and Serbia—the EU could become further paralysed.  

“More members will mean more diversity,” said Michel. “We will have to adapt our institutional framework and procedures, so an enlarged EU is able to take efficient and timely decisions.” 

Other policy decisions, such as those on migration and asylum, require a so-called qualified majority of 55 per cent of member states, currently 15 of 27, representing at least 65 per cent of the EU’s total population to pass. If admitted under this current system, candidates Ukraine—with a pre-war population of over 43 million —and Turkey—with around 84 million—would reshuffle the balance of power within the EU to become among the most influential states in the Union.  

Confronting a post-enlargement reality 

With EU enlargement back on the agenda, member states are scrambling to determine what expansion would mean for seat allocation in the European Parliament, the bloc’s budget, and general policymaking.

The French and German governments commissioned 12 non-government experts on EU institutions to determine how the EU can be made ready for enlargement while also improving its capacity to act, protecting the rule of law, enhancing democracy and preserving fundamental European values. Their report, released in September, outlines a comprehensive series of recommended reforms. 

“Whether in health, energy, migration or financial crisis management, the EU has acted by invoking emergency powers or has resorted to intergovernmental arrangements as European instruments were lacking,” observes the report. “While ad hoc approaches were justified by time pressure, the EU should learn from the multiple crises to refine its set up so it can take effective measures within the EU framework, ultimately allowing for more democratic deliberation and control.” 

The report suggests that the EU replace unanimity with qualified majority voting (QMV) on all policy—though not constitutional—issues and lower the threshold for sanctioning rule of law violations to four-fifths. However, it also suggests that member states should be able to opt-out of policy areas transferred to QMV and that the calculation of QMV shares be recalculated from 55 per cent of members representing 65 per cent of the EU population to, perhaps, 60 per cent of members representing 60 per cent of the population.  

In its current de facto state, budget conditionality is limited by the need to prove a direct link between rule of law concerns and unsound financial management. The report recommends codifying it into a de jure instrument of sanctioning rule of law violations and other behaviours detrimental to the sound financial management of the European budget.  

To financially prepare for enlargement by 2030, the report recommends increasing the EU budget in the coming budgetary period both in nominal size and in relation to gross domestic product as well as enabling the Union to issue common debt in the future. 

Differentiated integration has long been used to internally allow certain member states to opt-out of certain forms of integration—like acceding to the monetary union—and externally to allow non-EU states to participate in individual policies—like Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland joining the Schengen Area.  

The report proposes differentiation within EU frameworks to dissolve blockages, and as many outlined reforms would require treaty revisions, potentially unwilling states could be offered opt-outs in the new treaty to allow other countries to move ahead with deeper integration. 

The report ultimately envisions four tiers of European integration: the inner circle of states in the Schengen Area and Eurozone; the entirety of the EU—united in common values and access to cohesion funds and redistributive policies; associate members—primarily European Economic Area (EEA) states that are fundamentally aligned with the EU on values but choose not to pursue closer political integration; and the European Political Community—including countries like Azerbaijan that are beyond the EU’s single market and values but have converging geopolitical interests. 

Maintaining momentum in the Balkans  

However, none of these grandiose reforms will happen overnight. As Balkan fears that their accession negotiations may never conclude persist—worsened by the suspension of Turkey’s negotiations—the EU must find new ways of maintaining motivation among candidates that have been queuing for decades while Brussels puts its own house in order. 

None of the Western Balkan candidates are members of the EEA. However, a report released by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw) last month suggests the Union could buy itself time to carry through its own reforms while keeping Balkan partners engaged by pushing its existing stabilisation and association agreements in the direction of a customs union.  

The EU’s association agreements with Central and Southeast European countries also served as de facto pre-accession instruments, and the report suggests the expansion of those with West Balkan states would deepen economic policy coordination by giving those countries increased say in shaping decisions related to free trade and movement. 

Overexpansion could result in a permanent structural inability to harmonise national interests into a common European interest. But even if enlargement never happens, the EU will still face increasing pressure from populists to dismantle the cumbersome, technocratic bureaucracy in Brussels in the name of national sovereignty and revert to a purely economic community.  

Reforming the EU’s decision-making processes wards against both by improving the quality of its democratic governance while ensuring enlargement is sustainable—but the EU cannot keep kicking the accession of its eager candidates down the road indefinitely.  

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