The EU’s credibility as a global actor is undermined by the blockage of its enlargement process

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The EU enlargement process has stalled for the past decade and it seems unlikely that any of the current candidate states will gain membership in the near future. Taulant Hasa writes that a failure of the EU enlargement program would have substantial repercussions on the EU’s credibility as a global actor, especially as other states like China now play an increasing role more important in the Western Balkans.

Ahead of the last EU-US summit, Charles Michel, President of the European Council, enthusiastically announced that “America is back”. Several events occurred during President Biden’s visit to Europe to justify this statement.

First, the NATO summit in Brussels on June 14 eased tensions between some European NATO members and the United States, while also targeting key security challenges emanating from China and Russia. Second, a key source of trade friction between the US and the EU has been resolved with the signing of an agreement on the trade dispute between Boeing and Airbus. This potentially paved the way for further negotiations on an EU-US free trade agreement during the Biden presidency. Third, the United States reassured its European partners that it was ready to compromise on climate change.

The US has now re-committed to stated EU priorities on security, trade and climate change. But one question remains: if America is “back”, when will the EU come back to these issues? In all three areas, the EU has largely been stuck in a wait-and-see pattern.

None of these pillars alone constitute a unique enterprise. The new challenges facing the EU encourage different perspectives and an update of the pragmatism that has characterized EU policymaking since the financial crisis of 2008. The EU’s economic recovery since 2008 has been shallow and an equally disappointing recovery was evident during the pandemic, particularly in southern Europe.

Geopolitically, the Arab Spring and the Ukrainian crisis have reinforced the EU’s “soft power” approach. It is undoubtedly a “softer” power today than it was ten years ago. With the new pandemic stimulus package, the EU is giving something back to its member states. But what can it offer Europe as a whole?

Europe’s enlargement process stalled

A week after Biden’s visit, the Conference on the future of Europe took center stage in the European Parliament. Among other conclusions, there was a commitment to open the enlargement process for the countries of the Western Balkans. However, a few days later, the European Council decided not to take the next steps towards the accession of Albania and North Macedonia.

This time, alongside the pragmatism of Denmark, France and the Netherlands, it was Bulgaria that sought to attach conditions linked to ethnic foundations and the history of North Macedonia as a criterion for membership. from the country to the EU. This is more or less the narrative of the enlargement process over the last decade: institutional commitments to include the Western Balkans in the EU and political disparities between member states to set a common agenda to that end.

The EU enlargement process has targeted the preservation of peace given the involvement of the Western Balkan countries in the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. The challenges in the region are considerable compared to the previous “big bang” enlargement in 2004, especially with regard to economic transformations and the rule of law. The current trajectory of the integration process is also very different from previous enlargements. This has resulted in additional ‘sticks’ within the procedure that exist independently of the Copenhagen criteria and references from the European Commission.

Rather than focusing on the benefits of this process, the EU’s approach has tended to lean towards pragmatism. This despite the fact that the integration of the Western Balkan states into the EU would potentially reduce the risk of future conflicts and keep at bay other actors who risk undermining the stability of Europe through their trade and business activities. investment in the region. Frequent statements since the 2000s have reassured the Western Balkans that they will be future members of the EU, but it is still unclear how this promise will be kept.

Since the end of the Cold War, the international community has added different mechanisms to strengthen global security. Interdependence has grown widely, even among emerging economies, which has triggered global trade flows. In Europe, this principle of interdependence has produced substantial results, not only in terms of economic security, but also at the social level.

In this context, security is widely seen as a fundamental requirement for ensuring economic growth and social stability. Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike agree that European integration is not only an economic project, but also a project focused on peace and security. Indeed, the EU’s single market would not be possible without security in Europe.

EU Member States must recognize that despite their differing views on the enlargement process, a failed enlargement program would weaken the EU’s ability to foster peace and prosperity in Europe. This would challenge the EU’s status as a model for the rest of the world, while undermining its efforts to promote better global governance, the transition to a green economy, human rights and democracy. The enlargement of the EU has undoubtedly contributed to strengthening security in Europe and has also clearly benefited the single market.

Chinese competition

The European Parliament encouraged the other EU institutions, in particular the European Council, to speed up the enlargement process because of the increasingly important role that other states are now playing in the Western Balkans.

At recent G7 and NATO summits, Italy and Germany have expressed skepticism about the threat China poses to Europe. China is a major market for German exports, and it made headlines by providing early aid to Italy during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Italy is also the only country in Western Europe that has chosen to participate in the ‘belt and roadinitiative.

The Western Balkans represent less than one percent of the EU’s GDP. The impact of the Belt and Road Initiative in the region, which is in urgent need of improved infrastructure, could be considerable. China has shown an increased willingness to cultivate relations with emerging economies and the question now facing the EU is how it can protect the attractiveness of its model of governance.

It all depends on the enlargement process. The negotiations, with their multiple chapters and benchmarks, are a mechanism for sustaining the dream of membership of the Western Balkan states, but it is not clear to what extent these states can become resilient to this strategy.

To cope with this stalled process, the EU must once again place enlargement at the center of its agenda. Politics undoubtedly remains a useful narrative for linking regional security in the Western Balkans with European security, but the fact remains that there seems little reason to believe that states in the region are likely to join the EU in the near future.

For more information, see the recent author’s post LEQS Discussion Paper


Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured Image Credit: European Council




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