Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
05 February 2024


Professor Christopher Walsch contributes to our commentary series on the Balkans and the challenges of democratic transformation

2023A threatening experience in Eastern and Southeast Europe

The year 2023 was a life-threatening experience for many citizens in peripheral Europe. Ukrainians had to run for shelter every day due to Russian air raids pointed at civilian targets. Putin’s cruel aggression enters its third year, and no end is in sight. Following the horrible year 2022, millions of Ukrainians remained or became anew displaced, not to speak of the tens of thousands who died or became veterans by defending their country. In October 2023, more than one hundred thousand Karabakh Armenians were forced to flee the place where they have always lived due to the command of Azerbaijan’s president Aliyev. At the same time Kosovo Albanians saw the army of neighbouring Serbia, staging at the hand of Serbian president Vučić, to threaten their security at their borders. A phone call from Washington, not from Brussels, led to a Belgrade drawback.

2023 was an existence-threatening experience for states and their governments, all EU candidates. Ukraine experiences being eaten up by Russia’s imperial ambitions every day. Moldova experienced an attempted coup d’état by Russia’s Wagner group in late September 2023. Georgia experienced hard-felt pressure from Russia, Kosovo by Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina continues to exercise self-destruction. EU members Finland and Sweden scanned the signs and gave up a decades-long policy of neutrality and non-alliance soon. They decided to seek protection in NATO already in May 2022.

European Union enlargement agendas: from the criteria odyssey of the 2010s and early 2020s …

The European Union recognized that Russia’s continued full-blown war against Ukraine has been the game-changer in the 2020s and beyond. Russia’s bleak empire-building renewed momentum for EU enlargement, not least in the Western Balkans. All 27 members of the EU have their positions and those sceptical to enlargement, like France, turned 180 degrees and are now in favour. The European Council continued to make gestures despite its infamous record of blocking closer approximation of the Western Balkans to the EU. The European Parliament is alert and active. The most detailed assessment is from the European Commission’s annual enlargement reports. The 2023 editions observe “new momentum” and recommend closer cooperation, particularly in foreign and security policies.

These meticulous surveys reiterate the seemingly endless list of tasks for the candidates to fulfil all the rules and regulations of the club. By doing this, the EU shies away from two fundamental problems. The first one is that only one side has the power to define benchmarks. The conditions the EU sets look like a high jump competition with the crossbar always heightened (e.g., solely the EU defines the rule of law or corruption). Besides, EU member states placed hidden obstacles in the runway that were unknown before (e.g., Bulgaria teaching North Macedonia lessons on her culture by making this exercise a condition for EU membership). The second fundamental problem is the EU-created myth that the competition is merit-based. Despite the different reform processes in each candidate country, the EU has punished individual merits by remaining fixed on the Western Balkans region as a whole. Europeanizing Montenegro and North Macedonia play in a different league than authoritarian Serbia. Is the EU serious about handling them in one group in 2024? By today, Angela Merkel’s strategic consideration that the Western Balkans' path to Brussels goes only via the inclusion of the most significant power has backfired. One can argue that a Europe-oriented Belgrade would pave the way for the other five Western Balkan states. However, Serbia has not moved in the direction of the EU in the last ten years. Instead, Serbia drifted away from EU values. Under the ‘Western Balkans as one region’ thought, nationalist and more and more openly revisionist Serbia holds up everyone else.

From failed strategy back to the criteria conundrum: as the candidates have, in the eyes of the EU, hardly achieved results, a revised methodology now serves as a facilitator, i.e., lower the bar in the run-up for accession. Flexibility and gradualism help, as well as the growing experience with differentiation in the EU that affects a revitalized EU-WB approximation. It is also important to mention that the EU did not forget to include more sticks in its toolbox for candidates who do not conform anymore: the process can become “reversible.”

… to pragmatic integrations based on security and a common market

Russia’s threat to the international order and the shattered EU enlargement toolbox led to two insights. The paramount one is that security comes first. This means that the EU should integrate NATO members Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia already in 2024 at all levels in the common foreign, security, and defence policies; non-NATO EU candidates whose security depends on the West are also to be included at as many levels as possible. This entails a much more proactive stance of European NATO members on protecting Kosovo’s, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s, and Moldova’s borders. Learning from what Ukrainians have to go through, such should be self-speaking in 2024. A cynical person would add that pro-active preventive security is also cheaper because costs for security are a much-debated issue in Europe.

The second insight is that gradualism can be exercised best in common market affairs. A common market of EU and EU candidate states is not so far from becoming a reality in several sectors. It is again the EU that should lead and pro-actively support the candidates, stage-by-stage, so to say, to make one sizeable common market out of three: the EU Single Market, the Western Balkans Common Regional Market, and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with the new EU candidates. Transition periods certainly apply. Yet it is clear that only the one organization that sets all the conditions can lead: this is the EU. And it should do so generously but also consciously (to avoid member states’ controversial rows like the one over Ukrainian grain in 2023). Following partial de-globalization, which has recently manifested in a number of failed intercontinental trade agreements, a genuinely European common market is a viable alternative and within reach. Let us see what 2024 has to offer. It may be that even Great Britain, where an election will take place this or early next year, will move closer to the EU’s Single Market by extending or replacing the current UK-EU trade agreement.

The power and the institutional capacity lie with the EU

For the citizens of the Western Balkans' small, vulnerable, and culturally diverse states, the EU is much more than only a marketplace. Having experienced war, violence, and multiple crises recently, human rights and the rule of law standards, legitimacy, accountability, and transparency of politics and policies are indeed what WB citizens long for. Why is the EU not more creative in involving candidate countries in several democratic decision-making processes? From 1962 to 1978, members of the European Parliament were appointed by their national legislative assemblies. Why not admit this handful of WB Members of the European Parliament (without voting rights until full membership) following this year's elections? Why not involve experts originating from WB countries in the Council Working Groups, involving ambassadors and ministers from WB countries in selected COREPER and Council of Ministers meetings (without veto rights until a new mode of decision-making is agreed upon)? Why not slowly feed in WB nationals in the administration of the European Commission? Again, the power to initiate such moves lies with the EU and not the candidate.

Admitting Romania and Bulgaria into the club rather sooner than later is, so far, the most hotly debated example of EU generosity. Initiating and enforcing tough strings after accession, called the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, produced tangible results during the fifteen years it was applied. According to the last report on Romania, the procedure could be closed recently. The country was integrated into the EU rule of law reporting scheme, now established annually for all members. Many argued that full membership was admitted too early. On the other hand, one should consider membership's wider ideational and societal impact. The incentives of full market integration and access to EU cohesion funding are central, but also the legitimacy of being an acknowledged member, which all have a long-term effect on visions and ideas, socialization, and learning.

The rule of law is the elephant in the room. Or other?

The EU is correct to make the fundamentals of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law central. Internally, it was essential to extend the reporting to all members and candidates to not only point at problematic cases. All rules apply to all members and must be enforced in violation cases. One can also easily depict the interconnection between politics in EU member and EU candidate states. Why should president Vučić of Serbia adhere to membership criteria when non-compliance is not seriously sanctioned, as in the case of EU member Hungary? EU decision-makers could think of the Article 7 procedure (suspension clause) if only for the sake of normative change in discourse. For many years, the rule of law procedure has become relatively comfortable. Instead of being punished, violators of the rule have now moved centre stage and often dominate the European Council. These games go to Viktor Orbán. Who wants to see the European Council dancing to the tune of Serbian president Vučić?

Being a member – an appraisal, a path, and an immense challenge ahead

This text started with 2023 catastrophes and will close with an appraisal of achievements and significant challenges. The Euro has turned 25 in 2024. Hardly anyone noticed. Has southern Europe ever had a more stable currency over such a long period? 2024 can proudly commemorate twenty years of the eastern enlargement of the EU. 2024 sees another round of free and fair European elections in 27 member states. Since 2024, citizens of Kosovo have travelled visa-free to the Schengen area. Regarding free travel, Romania and Bulgaria could have a minor breakthrough with Air Schengen. A sad but significant achievement is that Ukrainians also defended themselves with such commitment in 2023 (and will continue to do so in 2024).

The Balkans are geographically and strategically a part of Europe. Despite Bulgarian nationalist hick-ups and perpetuated corruption, despite Greek economic and financial amplitudes of up and down and up again in the recent past, and thorny Romanian pathways to the rule of law, all three Balkan cases have proven to handle issues in a role as an integral part of the European Union. EU, as well as national formulas to cure the odds, were, rightfully so, subject to debate, but this did not prevent them from experiencing their hardships as a story that is European and can happen to EU members. The same should apply to the handful of remaining Western Balkans countries. In his initial contribution to this series, which discusses proximity and neighbourhood, Adam Bence Balazs pointed to the role of the United States in post-World War II Europe. Today, the EU, privileged to enjoy the support of the United States and Great Britain, has to take this role for Southeast and Eastern Europe.

The great challenge of EU enlargement these days is the inclusion of Ukraine. This entails a decisive stance towards imperialist and law-violating Russia. To be realistic, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia will see full membership only in the distant future because of their unresolved territorial issues. The positive notion, however, is that integration happens in various policy areas and political practices. The power to keep this process going and finance it lies with the European Union, starting with economic integration and through institutionalized inclusion in many policies.

Even if one member wishes to block the process (Hungary vis-à-vis Ukraine is currently the hardest nut), all other EU member states, the European Commission and the European Parliament, will find ways to solve the problem. Often called ‘new intergovernmentalism,’ EU member states were creative in finding solutions to monetary and economic crises in the 2010s by establishing multilateral agreements outside the institutional framework of the EU. If unanimity prevents the EU from acting and all attempts in this consensus-oriented organization do not bear fruit, then matters can also be processed this way. As to EU enlargement, nothing stands in the way to act and reward the pro-European reformers.


Christopher Walsch is an Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations, Institute of Global Studies, Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary.

Read more about our commentary series on the Balkans and the challenges of democratic transformation HERE.