The failure to move Albania and North-Macedonia into EU accession candidate status last October made the governments and the citizens of these two countries pretty upset. Friends of enlargement were appalled by the perceived arrogance and ignorance of France and the other non-supporters of the case.

This was, however, not a unique hiccup, but another sign of European indecision, which at the same time highlights the limitation of substituting policy with communication. And the issue is more complex than just blaming the reluctant group of wealthy member states. In his famous book Europe Entrapped (2015), the political sociologist Claus Offe portrayed EU integration as one that was entrapped, namely in a half-way arrangement from which it cannot move either forward or backwards. For Offe this was mainly an issue of deepening, but the image also applies for widening as well. There are many further applicants for EU membership, some of them already in candidate status and, even if by geographic position or population size the Western Balkans would not be a very large-scale enlargement, there is simply no obvious way for doing it, and some even question the reasons.

Those outraged by the October shock have to admit that there is no automatic right to EU membership. On the other hand, the enlargement sceptics should appreciate that there was a particular understanding in the last few years regarding reform delivery on the one side (including change of name of one applicant country), and the nature of the reciprocal step on the side of the EU. This is what has been derailed, and any further delay threatens with serious loss of credibility and drop of confidence.

Three lessons

While waiting for the proverbial “step to the right direction”, there is some time available to reflect about the 25 years of Eastern enlargement. I would like to highlight three important lessons that might provide some food for thought in the Western Balkans context.

The first point is that individual versus group enlargement was a major question 20 years ago. Those considering themselves more advanced were claiming the right to join the EU ahead of the “laggards”. At the end, however, the EU opted for the “regatta” model, which means opening the door for a group as a whole. Some adjustment of the timing was needed and perhaps some investment into the capacity of the weaker ones were also made, but the group approach seemed superior. Maintaining regional balance and cohesion is a legitimate concern for fellow-Europeans, and the EU has to ensure that those with the ambition don’t simply try to impress the centre but demonstrate the capacity to be nice to each other.

The second lesson is that while it is just the entry date which will eventually make it to the yearbooks, enlargement is a very gradual process both before and after the actual entry date. Ex ante: the candidate countries already receive pre-accession funds, and benefit from visa liberalisation. Investment is also facilitated to them by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which turned out to be keen to diminish its involvement in countries that have already joined the EU. On the other hand, free movement of labour and full agricultural subsidies did not come at once for the Eastern “new member states”, they did not immediately join the eurozone, and many of them did not immediately enter the Schengen zone either. Altogether, the enlargement process is by definition a transition process, which puts in question the sole focus on the actual accession year, which nevertheless remains important since it signals the start of participation in political representation and decision making.

The third lesson is that while most observers and political actors focus on the legal and financial aspects of accession, the social dimension is equally important. If it is ignored, it will haunt the partnership in later years. Following the 2004 enlargement round, Eastern and Western member states were locked in a poisonous debate on social dumping for about 15 years. It also took a long time to clarify that the Union expects all member states to integrate their Roma minorities, which is still a policy lacking real enforcement tools. Since trade union membership fell in the East much faster than in the West, collective bargaining today is much weaker, and wage convergence is lagging behind GDP growth (hence the activity of MEPs from the East to encourage the EU to coordinate minimum wages and define minimum standards in health and child care).

“Today this premise does not hold anymore: the EU cannot just deepen and widen, but also shrink.”

In the 1990s, students of the European Union in the East could learn in Lesson One that the EU can practically do two things: deepen and widen. A key task for leadership is to balance between the two. Today this premise does not hold anymore: the EU cannot just deepen and widen, but also shrink. Furthermore, at least theoretically, former EC President Jean-Claude Juncker’s 2017 White Paper opened up the possibilities of functional withdrawal as well (e.g. going back to “just the single market” or becoming a “multi-speed” integration). While “undeepening” remains theoretical for the time being, shrinking is absolutely real, with manifold consequences, including on the budget of the EU.

Brexit has made things more complicated for the would-be new members, not least because the UK governments in the past decades were among the most pro-enlargement ones, driven by the intention to make further deepening more difficult. In the future, the British will surely maintain a view on South-East Europe, but without a direct say on who should be EU member, and who should not. In any case, the point is that following Brexit, the EU needs to find a new equilibrium, which would already take into account the would-be new members on the Western Balkans. This, in turn, should not be a simple consideration about what can be financed today or tomorrow, but what this all means in an historic perspective.

“Brexit has made things more complicated for the would-be new members”

One hundred years ago the European great powers, those on the winning side of the Great War, reinforced by the USA, tried to hammer out peace agreements in and around Paris. The exercise was not very successful, rather it planted the very landmines that later helped blowing up the continent again in less than two decades. Of course, the fact that World War One actually began with a pistol shot in Sarajevo, does not mean that the region would always remain explosive for others, but it definitely has remained a source of instability. The Tito era stands out as an extraordinary period of peace and development, but the post-war Yugoslavia was destroyed by the 1980s debt crisis, insoluble distributional issues, rampant nationalism, and eventually violence and genocide.

“Unfinished business”, as often heard in the jargon factory of Brussels, is probably not the right expression. The “geopolitical” Commission should speak about an incomplete reconstruction here. On the other hand, the region that is greener and younger, has a lot to offer to the EU facing population ageing and climate change. Progressives have to ensure that when EU nations launch a Conference on the Future of Europe, further enlargement, and specifically the integration of the Western Balkans appear among the top issues of the debate, if not at the very top.