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Will European Union Expand Again?

An expansion of the European Union has not been a subject of heated debate in the past few years although few analysts denied that it may ever happen. In early February of this year, the European Commission (EC) produced a number of documents on the EU’s strategy towards the Balkan countries that seek to join [1].

Not new in spirit or form, these documents have increased the degree of uncertainty. Commenting on the new strategy, EC President Jean-Claude Juncker said in 2025 the EU could admit one country from the Western Balkans [2]. He said this not to encourage the hope for integration but to make it clear that the EU will not expand before that time, not all countries in the region will be admitted and membership criteria are no longer the most important argument for accession. In all, six Balkan countries seek to enter the EU: Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and the partially recognized Republic of Kosovo (which Russia considers part of Serbia). Montenegro has the best chance for accession. It is already a NATO member and has the least legacy of conflict from its Yugoslavian past. Also it is one of the smallest countries in the Balkans. Europe would barely even notice that Montenegro joined the EU, which Brussels can only appreciate.

Incidentally, it cannot be ruled out that for Jean-Claude Juncker the statement that only one country could enter the EU was just a figure of speech rather than an expression of the unwillingness to expand the EU. Commissioner on European Neighborhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn is no more optimistic. He says there is no shortcut to the EU.

The current line of refusing to expand the EU cannot be permanent and the countries seeking to join have grounds to hope that the dominant paradigm could change when Jean-Claude Juncker leaves his position in 2019.

If one takes his words with a sense of humor, it could be considered a certain progress: just a year ago he said in public that he did not believe that any country would be ready to join the EU before 2020 [3], whereas now he admits that one country would be able to do so by 2025.

At present, of six Western Balkan countries, only Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo do not have EU candidate status. In effect, this status only implies negotiations on accession to the EU that could last forever and will not necessarily produce positive results. The experience of Turkey is a graphic example.

A positive change in rhetoric was expressed in late 2016 and early -2017, on the eve of the elections in Macedonia and Serbia. The “European hope” as such could not seriously influence the results of the election but the EU considers the prospects of European integration as an indispensable component of the domestic political discourse in the Balkan countries that periodically needs to be fueled. The fact that the issue of EU expansion is not considered to be important is demonstrated by the fact that the authors of the White Book, published in March 2017, discussed five scenarios for post-Brexit development but did not mention potential expansion.  

Any potential advantages that new members might receive from European integration will not be the same as for those that were provided for the states that joined the EU earlier.

First, many countries are expressing interest in joining the EU at a time when more of its new members are displeased with the multispeed EU project. In any case, their position in the EU will seriously differ from that of small East European countries.

Second, the funds that are designed for redistribution to even out the economies of the lagging members are being decreased by a considerable amount. This is a consequence of the reduction in revenue due to Britain’s exit and a change in the structure of expenses.

However, for the Balkan countries, accession to NATO and the EU is not just an issue of historical choice or economic assistance. It is also largely an issue of stability and a search for an external moderator. Previously, countries that had recent conflicts did not join the EU. Is it possible to guarantee that a new conflict will not break out between the Balkan countries, but this time within the EU?

In his comments Jean-Claude Juncker promised not to admit to the EU any country with outstanding border issues. This is particularly topical for Serbia and not only because of Kosovo but also because of the Bosnia issue. Few analysts consider Bosnia and Herzegovina to have the potential for further development. Therefore, Serbia and neighboring Croatia are tacitly waiting for the country’s disintegration and subsequent division of its national regions. This has not delayed European integration for Croatia but may postpone it for Serbia.

Macedonia is in the most complicated position of the region’s countries. The situation there is being destabilized not without external influence, which compels it to make practically any concessions to its European partners. Macedonia’s quick reaction to the new EU’s Balkan strategy is tell-tale. The authorities announced their readiness to change the official name of the country in order to join NATO and the EU as well as to change the name of Alexander the Great Airport.[4]

Kosovo is another problem territory. The EC has lowered the status of Kosovo after being pressured by Spain. The document published on February 6 has no word on the previous projects that gave Kosovo the right to claim entry into the EU on an equal basis with such countries as Serbia and Montenegro. It mentions a “historical opportunity” for the Western Balkan countries whereas the previous versions announced opportunities for “all six Western Balkan partners.” The document reads that Kosovo has an opportunity for sustainable progress … to advance on its European path once objective circumstances allow.” By objective circumstances the authors of the document mean the refusal of Spain and four other EU members to recognize its independence from Serbia.

Its earlier versions noted that normalization of relations will be crucial for the ability of Serbia and Kosovo to advance to the EU and that this should take place by the end of 2019 at the latest (that is while the EC is headed by Jean-Claude Juncker).[5] But the final document reads that a “comprehensive, legally binding normalization agreement is urgent and crucial so that Serbia and Kosovo can advance on their respective European paths.” As for the year, 2019 is not mentioned [6].

There is no unity on further EU expansion among European politicians either at the national level or in Brussels. Head of European diplomacy Federica Mogherini said she still hopes that Serbia and Kosovo will strike a deal by 2019. “And I would say that it is clear today – and this is our message – that we will share a common future inside our European Union… Let's bring the Western Balkans inside the European Union not in a faraway future but in our generation.”[7]

The situation may really improve after Jean-Claude Juncker leaves in 2019, but there is every chance that the opposite may also happen. Much will depend on the consequences of the disagreements between old and new Europe. The refusal of Eastern European countries to accept migrants based on Brussels-determined quotas was linked not only with their unwillingness to deal with the migrants, and not just a lack of desire to follow the EU’s migration policy but also with a decision-making model in which their voice can be completely ignored. Antidemocratic trends in Hungary, Poland and Romania have contributed equally to the discord in their relations with Brussels. Apparently, their national governments will soon make new attempts to disobey Euro bureaucracy against the background of the assertion of the EU’s multispeed development scheme. For this reason, the future of the Western Balkan states will largely depend not on them or their willingness to meet Brussels halfway but on whether the Eastern European countries will continue to disturb tranquility in the EU. If Brussels fails to form an effective system of maintaining discipline among EU members, the accession of Western Balkan states, with the exception of Montenegro, appears questionable.

EU officials realize that the Balkan countries will not only bring the burden of their historical problems to the EU but will almost inevitably violate any discipline. At present, the EU leaders are capable of influencing the policy of candidate members but almost completely lose all leverage after their European integration. One example is Croatia’s refusal to obey the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague [8] on the territorial dispute with Slovenia over the Gulf of Piran in the Adriatic Sea. Croatia explains its decision by pulling out of the arbitration. Tensions are running so high that both countries are deploying police forces in the disputed region. Croatian police are accompanying boats of fishermen to resist Slovenian police, if need be. This dispute became a kind of a test for the EC’s ability to act when Slovenia requested it to influence Croatia and force it to abide by the court’s decision. However, Brussels does not have enough instruments for arbitration.

European politicians realize that the EU has become less attractive for its neighbors in terms of integration, development of economic ties and even as a political and cultural guide. Johannes Hahn made a symptomatic statement by saying that the EU should be less afraid of competition for spheres of influence with Russia and China. The EU states account for the prevailing share of trade and foreign investment in the Western Balkans. He noted that Austria alone (his native country) has invested four times more money in Serbia than Russia. He said the EU countries should not minimize Russia’s rivalry but should realize their own weight and importance [9]. However, contrary to this statement, it is the weakening of European positions and the growing competition in the region that may be the key impetus for further integration or at least more talk about it.   

 Dmitry Ofitserov-Belskiy, PhD (History), is assistant professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics


[2] EU’s enlargement in Western Balkans: will candidates manage to overcome obstacles?”


[3] Speech delivered by Jean-Claude Juncker at a conference in the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium) in February 2017. Juncker recalled that he spoke about this in 2014.

[4]  s






Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.