WHY EU ENLARGEMENT? A GEO-POLITICAL PERSPECTIVE
What is Europe?
Europe received its name from the ancient Greeks, in reference to a territory stretching northwards from the Peloponnesus to the mainland of the continent: what we today understand as the Balkans (Todorova 2019:11). According this viewpoint, the Balkan region constitutes the centre of the European continent. The geographical location of the countries of the Balkans within the European continent is a fixed one, however the relationship of the Balkan countries to the political organisation of the European Union (EU) is complex. Some countries of the region – Croatia, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Slovenia – are included in the Union and others are engaged in a lengthy process with the objective to be admitted to the European Club.
The Article 49 of the Treaty on the European Union states that “[a]ny European state which respects the values” [of the Union] and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union”. Several European countries would be eligible to apply for membership, but not all of them have shown interest. It is mainly internal reasons that have deterred countries such as Switzerland and Norway from joining the EU or, in the case of Iceland, that have led the country to withdraw its application after having started negotiations with the EU. The UK, an EU member for 47 years, left in 2020. Turkey’s EU negotiations have come to a standstill, having been blocked by some EU members in light of the country’s failure to comply with EU values after the 2016 attempted putsch. Still, a look at the European map shows us that, apart from the six Western Balkan states, i.e. Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, others - such as Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and (after all) Russia - comply at least with the territorial prerequisite. However, European states also have to fulfil political conditions and should have developed into stable democracies. Additionally, as we are currently experiencing, a further extension towards the eastern parts of Europe will create further tension with Russia. The Western Balkan countries are fulfilling the geographical requirement for EU membership and are engaged in ensuring that they meet the conditions on fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law.
This commentary will argue in favour of the EU enlargement of the six Western Balkan countries, whereby the obstacles of EU accession are deliberately neglected. This aim is to leave behind the narrow specialist discourse on EU enlargement and to focus on broader geographical, social and normative - maybe idealistic - arguments why a politically closer Europe makes sense. We just need to have a look at the map of Europe - the continent - and to remind us of the underlying ideas of the EU.
Values Defining the Political European Spaces
Spaces are places of social relations, which are constantly being newly reshaped, imagined and created, on the basis of historical legacies, political decisions or recounted narratives and perception. The union of European nations, which constitutes the EU today, has created a new political space, through which its influence transcends its set borders and reaches out to other areas, especially in the neighbourhood and even further afield. Moreover, the EU has established internal subdivisions through political facts, e.g., the Eurozone and the Schengen Area, and through perceptions, e.g., due to its powerful position constituting a European centre with an aligned periphery and semi-periphery. Political spaces are not only demarcated by territorial conditions but by values, norms and ideologies. The EU’s guiding values are “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.” EU members are obliged to comply with these values, however not everyone does. The Western Balkan are intertwined with the EU in many sectorial areas of cooperation, but still outside. The question remains, when is a European state European enough to become an EU-member?
Nowadays, the EU’s image as a stable political sphere based on fundamental rights and democracy and acting as a capable political actor is damaged due to internal divisions and - in relation to the Western Balkan countries - to its indecisiveness towards wholeheartedly supporting the EU enlargement policy. EU countries have opted to veto the accession of some countries. This reinforces the division between EU and non-EU members, especially for those who wish to join this exclusive European space. The EU’s “normative space” created by promoting and fostering ideas of basic fundamental rights and democracy is shrinking and the EU is not yet ready for realistic power politics.
Why integrate the “Western Balkan space”?
A look at a map might already provide an answer to the question of why it makes sense to integrate the Western Balkan countries into the EU. The countries are encircled by other EU member states. Dreiack (2016:187) argues that the Western Balkan countries could even be seen as located “inside, outside and ‘between’ the European Union”. Reaching Greece from Central Europe means crossing through the Western Balkan countries. Once the Western Balkans are EU members, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece would lose an external EU border and gain new EU neighbours. The obstacles of cross-border cooperation, transport, and people-to-people contact would be eased. Petrovic and Tzifakis (2021) claim that the EU Commission has started to take the geopolitical factors of the countries of the Western Balkans into consideration when making the case for their EU accession. Due to the region’s location, the EU needs access to the Western Balkans’ infrastructure to improve their interconnectivity in the areas of transport, energy and telecommunication. Hence, in the framework of the Transport Community, which was founded in 2017 and consists of the EU members and the six Western Balkan states, the EU is providing extensive funds for projects which facilitate the integration of the Western Balkans’ infrastructure into the EU. On the other side, the Western Balkan countries are adopting the EU’s rules and regulations in the field of transport. Linking the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) with the region's networks is beneficial not only for the Western Balkans, but also for the entire continent. The geographical layout of the countries cannot be overlooked. Borders might be drawn on the basis of landmarks, but people – due to personal reasons and necessities - sought to overcome borders or boundaries to (re-)connect with their neighbours. Unfortunately, the in some circles prevailing animosity between people can be explained by political elites’ interests to instigate tension within societies in the region to strengthen their more nationalistic political position. However, personal connections between people prove to generate wealth in the economic, cultural and social fields. The EU has acknowledged that the Western Balkan countries are their neighbours, that - despite borders and boundaries - they are connected and that, as boundaries are quite artificial, overcoming them is an objective. The EU cannot see itself as an isolated unit able to look after itself on its own.
This fact becomes especially apparent in relation to security issues. After the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the experience of war on the continent came as a shock to Europe. Europe was, at the time, not prepared to deal with the issue appropriately. The fear existed that the wars might spill over into the neighbouring countries, creating a feeling of insecurity. From early on, the EC and, later, the EU demanded that countries in the region should establish a political dialogue and should collaborate on specific issues to re-establish trust. To foster stability, the countries of former Yugoslavia and Albania received a promise that they would be included into the European family. Now, with the delay in the enlargement of the EU and the appearance of other foreign actors in the region, security has been the subject of renewed attention from the EU. This was demonstrated by the influx of migrants in 2015, which required the need for the EU to collaborate closely with the countries on its southern border to manage the flow of people making their way to central and western Europe. However, it became the task of the non-EU members to close off access to the fortress Europe on behalf of the EU. Again, the geographic location needs to be taken into account when discussing the reasons for bringing the countries, if not into the EU, then at least into the EU’s sphere of influence. Maintaining peace and stability is of mutual interest to neighbouring regions.
The EU is the largest trading partner of the Western Balkan countries. Even though the countries of the Western Balkans form a rather small group, with fragmented economic structures, small markets and an overall low purchasing power, some EU members have an interest in increasing their investment and in expanding business opportunities in the region. The economic interconnectedness of the European countries across the European continent is obvious; however the EU market, due to its size, also pulls other smaller economies closer to it, even bringing them into a state of dependency. To be economically viable, economies need to establish trade relations with the EU. The countries in the EU’s neighbourhood have either negotiated bilateral access to the EU’s markets or are trying to fulfil the criteria for EU membership to be able to enjoy its benefits. Ideas for a partial integration of the economies into the EU market demonstrate once again how much the countries, especially the neighbouring ones, are already interconnected and economically linked with each other. The countries in the Western Balkan region are looking for foreign investment, especially from the EU, and with it the much-needed creation of jobs.
The rather weak economies and a relatively high unemployment rate, especially among the younger population, mean that people are leaving the region to find work elsewhere in Europe. Due to brain drain and the push to look for better education and employment opportunities elsewhere, people from the Western Balkan region have already moved and settled in the EU. Their family, relatives and friends and their cultural roots are often still based in the region, thus requiring a personal effort in establishing a connection between the home and the guest countries. Occasionally, the guest countries become more and more a home after some time. People are another reason why EU enlargement makes sense. According to data from 2021, the total population of the six Western Balkan countries amounts to approximately 17.7 million people. Accepting the countries into a common union makes sense when considering that many people from the Western Balkans have already moved to the EU and are essential for their host countries’ economies. Brain drain is a huge problem for the region, while the immigration of skilled labour is beneficial for the economies for the EU’s economy. People’s life arrangements cross over (national and EU) borders and, by establishing new relations, they create living spaces that encompass more than one country.
European history has contributed to establishing differences and division between its people for generations. Should we not start to work together to find common ground and improve the lives of everyone on the European continent?
Finally: Can the EU bring Europe together?
Empires dividing Europe, changing external political influences, states under tutelage, autocracies, democracies, genocide, oppression, murder, war - Europe has seen everything. After World War Two, when Germany and France came together to build an amicable relationship, the seed of a European Union aiming to overcome past atrocities and to put the welfare of its people at its centre was planted. If we still believe in the overall idea of the EU, the acceptance of European countries into the union should not be questioned, but rather encouraged. The EU should not establish new barriers or hurdles, but support to overcoming them. Even though there might be some practical problems with EU enlargement at the moment, it is important not to lose the bigger picture and to work towards the attainment of the EU’s ideas. This also means supporting and providing honest assistance to countries in the neighbourhood.
Europe is a continent which is not only a geographically determined space, but is embedded in cultural, economic and political relations. The reality is that, although they are not officially members of the EU, the Western Balkan states are part of Europe and connections between states and peoples do exist. Globalisation means that the Western Balkan countries are pushed to find a trustworthy and supportive partner to be able to compete economically. The EU, due to its proximity, is the most obvious and the most logical partner. EU enlargement must be viewed in the larger context of geography, world politics, globalisation and social connections. The EU is not isolated, but embedded in the continent. You cannot ignore your neighbours.
Christina Griessler, PhD, is a Research Fellow at the Network for Political Communication (netPOL) and Chair of Comparative Politics with a focus on Central and Eastern Europe in the EU, Andrassy University of Budapest
Read more about our commentary series on the Balkans and the challenges of democratic transformation HERE.