“What is keeping the entire region stable and moving forward is the prospect of EU integration.”
According to many interviewees, the promise of EU membership is the solution to almost every problem in the region, from protecting human rights and generating economic development to stamping out corruption and unleashing the rule of law. Yet the enthusiasm for EU membership is matched by fatigue about the process and skepticism regarding the strength of EU leadership. Public support for EU membership has fallen from 71 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2016 in Serbia.[i] This is not surprising when, across all four countries, we were told that the EU is “bureaucratic and slow” and “has an inability to do anything positive in its backyard and region.” In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the fact that EU officials regularly talk to Bosnian officials viewed as corrupt and develop economic plans without seeking local input has helped to solidify the perception of the European Union as ineffective and out of touch.
Also dampening enthusiasm among prospective EU countries is the backslide that Croatia is experiencing since joining the bloc in 2013. Reforms undertaken as part of the EU accession agreement have failed to make a deep and lasting impact in Croatia, resulting in disappointment. A director of an independent media network says, “The problem is, now there is no stick with which to beat Croatia, now that it is in the EU.” Prior to becoming an EU member, says another anti-corruption civil society group, there was progress on anticorruption issues, government transparency, and minority rights. However, the European Union does not want to police all member states, so there is no monitoring in place. Without signs of progress, Croatians are tiring of the EU, although there is still support for NATO.
Complicating matters is the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” referendum on June 23, 2016, in which the UK narrowly elected to leave the European Union, Italy’s December 2016 referendum, which solidified the possibility that the euro-skeptic Five Star Movement could gain power in the 2018 general election, and the possibility that France will elect the anti-EU Marine LePen as its president in 2017. The bloc itself is in crisis. Long before the Brexit vote, both Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the EU Commission, and Johannes Hahn, the EU’s neighborhood and enlargement commissioner, had said that no new countries would be allowed to join the EU before 2020. With the EU now negotiating the terms of the UK’s exit, the union will be in turmoil for some time.
One official in Kosovo explains that “there is little energy from the EU to push Kosovo toward the next round of integration and reform.” And yet, says Ramadan Ilazi, deputy minister of European integration, “There is no Plan B for Kosovo.” This sentiment was echoed across all the non-EU member countries in the region.
This should worry U.S. officials. The idealistic vision of the European Union as a knight in shining armor, pulling candidate countries away from the possibility of socio-economic decline and toward full democratic and economic success, is appearing less and less likely to come true. Significant roadblocks to accession exist, including the moratorium on new members through the end of this decade, the need for Serbia to formally recognize Kosovo, and a corresponding recognition of Kosovo by the five EU member states that do not yet acknowledge its independence. Furthermore, even if BiH, Kosovo, and Serbia do join the European Union, Croatia’s experience shows that it takes vigilance after EU accession for initial reforms to take root and transform the socio-political and business environment
Lastly, some sources express concern that if accession is applied unevenly—or within unequal timeframes—ensuing demographic shifts could destabilize the region, and BiH in particular. BiH’s 2013 census, which clearly indicated that Bosniaks now comprise more than 50 percent of the population, has sown fears that shifts in the balance of ethnicities might enflame ethnic and religious tensions. Should the European Union admit Serbia before BiH, for example, there is a chance that many Bosnian Serbs will decamp to Serbia and the promise of the EU—as many Bosnian Croats have done—further eroding the multiethnic, multireligious state. Given BiH’s current political unwieldiness, this hollowing out of diversity could lead to conflict or a nonfunctioning state that is already a magnet for religious fundamentalists.
[i] Public opinion poll on EU membership in Serbia: 48% of Serbian Citizens in Favor of Joining the EU. (2016, February 01). Retrieved February 07, 2017, from https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2016/02/01/48-of-serbian-citizens-in-favor-of-joining-the-eu/
[ii] EU border monitoring; Proposal monitoring eu border greece finland. (2016, September 01). Retrieved March 01, 2017, from http://futureanalytics.ie/eu-proposal-border-monitoring-project/