Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania have agreed to a borderless travel zone between their countries. While this is an effort to open their economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the regional initiative also reflects frustration with the European Union for its slow accession process. In the meantime, by assuming the presidency of the Visegrad Group, Hungary has made the accession of the Balkans to the EU one of its main priorities. This puts Hungary in a strong political position. The risk of a migration crisis in Europe following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan means that the EU has no choice but to step up its enlargement program.
European integration in the Western Balkans in danger
The European Union faces the very real prospect of seeing the process of European integration in the Western Balkans fail.
As the EU continues to insist that candidates do their homework, future Member States are refused membership after having kept their reform promises. This undermines the credibility of the accession process and the incentive to undertake further reforms is weakened.
More than three years have passed since the European Commission advised start accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. Despite the significant reform steps the two countries have taken during this period, some member states still have objections.
In 2019, France judged the reforms undertaken as insufficient notwithstanding the historic agreement that Skopje reached with Greece to remove a long-standing obstacle to membership. North Macedonia and Albania appeared to be on the verge of entering into negotiations early last year after accepting French calls to adjust the enlargement methodology. However, Bulgaria used its veto in Skopje last year due to a dispute over language and history.
However, instead of addressing its issue of credibility, the EU let itself be preoccupied by French and Bulgarian concerns about enlargement. The enlargement methodology was amended early 2020 and the enlargement commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, suggested decouple Skopje and Tirana during accession negotiations at the start of the year. The damage this has done to the EU’s position opens the door for non-Western powers to expand their influence.
Nowhere is this more clearly the case than in the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. In the area of vaccination, Serbia has chosen not to look to the EU. Instead, Belgrade signed a memorandum with China and the United Arab Emirates to produce the Chinese vaccine, Sinopharm, on its soil.
One concern for the EU is that Skopje and Tirana do not seem reluctant to engage with Serbia despite its growing ties with Beijing. North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Albanian counterpart Edi Rama agreed to a borderless travel zone with Belgrade out of frustration with Brussels.
As a sign that the EU is facing the prospect of China becoming a formidable political force in the region, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic cited the deal as an effort to develop Balkan markets.
EU under pressure to speed up enlargement
The potential for another migration crisis following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan adds urgency to the EU’s precarious position in the Western Balkans.
Almost 15,000 illegal attempts were forced to enter Europe by the Western Balkan route Last year. That number could increase on a scale not seen since World War II as the Taliban tighten their grip on Afghanistan. Caroline Van Buren, representative of the United Nations Refugee Agency in Afghanistan, declares between 20,000 and 30,000 Afghans leave their country every week. The security challenge facing the EU’s external border means that Brussels has fewer alternatives than stepping up its strategic engagement in south-eastern Europe.
After taking over the rotating EU presidency from Portugal this summer, Slovenia has made enlargement a key part of its regional stabilization strategy. Foreign Minister in Ljubljana Anze Logar warned of the consequences for Europe if the Balkans do not Rest assured they will join after the reforms are implemented. With enlargement pushed back on the EU’s agenda, Hungary is in a position to exert considerable influence.
In recent months, the EU has clashed in Budapest over respect for the rule of law. Orban threatens veto the € 1.8 billion EU budget after Brussels agreed to a mechanism designed to withhold payments to Member States that do not respect the rule of law.
However, through urge the acceleration of enlargement under his chairmanship of the Visegrad group, Orban may wonder about the purpose of such disputes.
Using the threat that irregular migration poses to European security, Budapest has attempted to defuse tensions with the EU over its controversial judicial reforms. Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga called on Brussels to focus too much on internal matters rather than on the security of its member states.
Varga’s argument will be difficult to dismiss as the Slovenian EU Presidency has made enlargement one of its main priorities.
Hungary tests EU resolve on core values
Orban now finds himself in a strong political position. The EU is under increasing pressure to review its current approach to the enlargement of the Balkans. As Slovenia assumes the EU Presidency, Budapest can expect to play a key role in guiding policy.
During a meeting with Vucic in Belgrade in July, Orban urged the EU to move forward with the accession of Serbia. The Hungarian Prime Minister underlined the importance of Serbia’s accession to the EU for the security of his country’s southern border.
What the meeting with Vucic represents is a direct challenge for Brussels. He wondered whether adherence to fundamental values should take precedence over the regional stability that enlargement would bring. Moreover, if the EU ignores Orban’s appeal to Serbia, it would reinforce Hungary’s claims that the EU considers double standards over respect for the rule of law, given reform efforts in the Balkans.
With a migration crisis in Europe looming, Orban can expect to find some of his EU counterparts coming up with similar views.
Hugo Blewett-Mundy covers South East European affairs. His research interests are EU foreign policy and the post-communist transition in Central and Eastern Europe. Hugo obtained a Masters degree in Russian and Post-Soviet Politics from UCL after graduating in Politics and Central and Eastern European Studies from the University of Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter here @ hugobm96