The Western Balkan Countries’ Integration into the EU and Georgia’s Perspective
Author: Kakha Gogolashvili, Director of EU Studies Center, Rondeli Foundation
With the end of the Cold War, discussions began across Europe on the topic of integrating countries from wider Eastern Europe (European countries which had previously been under communist Soviet/Russian influence) into European Union structures. The biggest obstacle in this direction is the democratic transformation of the region and the difficulty of preparation for EU and NATO membership. It was evident that the area of the wider Eastern European region was inherently diverse, and the need for its differentiation was necessary so as to pursue a more tailored policy thereafter.
With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly after, Eastern Europe’s political notion split into three parts:
• Central and Eastern Europe, which comprised of countries in the North-South corridor between Poland and the Baltic countries, to Bulgaria and Slovenia and included 10 countries from the former socialist bloc.
• Southeast Europe, which encompassed countries from the Western Balkans (including those from the former Yugoslavian communist state) to Turkey (although Turkey has never been considered a Eastern European country).
• Eastern Europe (in the narrow sense), which included geographically European countries of the Soviet Union (not including the Baltic states) such as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Russia itself, and nominally, the South Caucasus.
With the fall of the communist bloc, the process of preparing the Central and Eastern European countries (CEE) for EU membership began almost immediately. At the same time, Southeastern European Countries (SEE), specifically, the Balkan states, were embroiled in a bloody conflict as a result of which EU and NATO membership perspectives for these countries looked very bleak at best, and unrealistic at worst.
As far as the South Caucasus, at the time, it wasn’t even considered a part of the Eastern European region), but the political agenda and civil reality of these countries allowed this sub-region to be grouped with the rest of Eastern Europe. Subsequently, Georgia’s acquisition of European Council membership in 1999, and later, the mentioning in the preamble of the Association Agreement with EU (2014) that Georgia is “an Eastern European state”, have virtually eliminated any doubt as to whether Georgia is entitled to apply for EU membership of the basis of article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty.
The end of hostilities in the Western Balkans in the beginning of the 21st century brought along new perspectives and opportunities for the whole region. In 1999, the Western Balkan countries (including the quasi-state of Kosovo) were offered a new type of deal with the EU – the so-called Stabilization and Association Process (SAP) – offering a framework promoting peace, stability, freedom, economic prosperity and a promise of EU membership candidate status.
Notably, the term “EU candidate country” was first used with CEE countries. In reality, the creation of this seemingly positive term actually represented the creation of a barrier to joining the EU that any country seeking membership had to overcome.
In the case of the Western Balkans, yet another appellation – “potential candidate country” was created, bringing along with it yet another hurdle towards full membership. “Potential” candidate countries are deemed to have a clear prospect of joining the EU in the future (similar to the promise that Georgia has received with regards to NATO membership) and they are included in the integration process, but they have not yet been granted candidate country status.
With regards to the Eastern European countries, from the perspective of EU institutions and member states, EU membership was not even considered. Even 22 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Association Agreements signed in 2014 did little more than to recognize the “aspirations” of these countries to join the EU. This is not a promise to join the EU itself, but nevertheless, it is a very important, officially recognized admission of such a possibility. It is noteworthy that upon the conclusion of the Association Agreements, calls for the European Union to recognize the “European perspective” of these newly associated states appeared in European Parliament resolutions. It is also worth mentioning that European Parliament resolutions don’t carry and legal or binding authority and so for now, Georgia and its partners – Moldova and Ukraine – have to settle for the mere recognition of their aspirations by the EU.
Evolution of the three regions and their drive towards the EU
As it stands today, one part of the broader Eastern European countries – the CEE countries – are an integral and indivisible part of the EU, the second part – the SEE countries – are moving in this direction (including Turkey, which started EU membership negotiations in 2005, although the process is temporarily paused), and the third part – the EE countries – with the exception of Russia, are working towards achieving functional integration with the EU. Nevertheless, it must be said that in the long run, sectoral integration will inevitably ripen the issue of institutional integration.
There is an impression that the EU will gradually absorb Eastern Europe, although it is important to take some details into consideration:
• The decision on the accession of the CEE countries was based on political and security priorities and realities existent in the immediate post-Soviet actuality of the previous century. This was practically a coalesced process of placing all the candidate countries in one basket and preparing them for membership in one fell swoop. All in all, almost every country (except Bulgaria and Romania) received EU membership collectively, in 2004; and the latter two completed their accession process not longer after, in 2007.
• With regards to the Western Balkans’ integration (SEE countries with the exception of Turkey), even though the status of “potential candidate” was bestowed to these countries simultaneously (in 2000), the conclusion of Association Agreements, the subsequent acquisition of “candidate country” status, the consequent membership negotiations and the eventual membership acquisition process took place in wholly different fashions.
More detail on the Western Balkan integration process
Right at the beginning of the current EU Commission’s term in 2015, both the President and the Commissioner for Enlargement Issues – Jean-Claude Juncker and Johannes Han, respectively – declared that during their commission’s term, EU enlargement would not take place. Indeed, in the first half of their five-year term, there was virtually no progress – neither in negotiations that had already started with Serbia and Montenegro, nor in any other direction. The situation changed after the “Brexit” referendum in Great Britain, more precisely, in 2017 when negotiations on UK leaving the EU got underway.
The stir caused by Great Britain’s desire to leave the EU caused a fair amount of rumors and doubts. There was even talk of certain new EU members like Hungary leaving the union. Far-right political movements were given additional basis for “Euro-skepticism”. The situation was further complicated by the European migrant crisis, and attempts to deal with it became a source of major disagreement between the member states. It became necessary to take certain actions to stop these damaging myths about the state of the union. Since predictions about the EU’s “inevitable collapse” were being made, the EU choose the “best form of defense” and “went on the offensive”. The political reality called for a revival of the expansion process in the Western Balkans, which had begun in 2000. In the first half of 2017, the Council of the European Union instructed the European Commission to actively pursue and continue the process of integrating and approximating the Western Balkans into the EU. Accordingly, in February of 2018, the Commission prepared a Communication - “A credible enlargement perspective for enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans” – which defines the main tasks of the countries of the region that are necessary for their integration into the EU. The document openly emphasizes that Serbia and Montenegro both have a real opportunity to conclude negotiations and join the EU by 2025. Although other countries in this region were not given such a definitive timetable, it was said that they have a “window of opportunity” and they should double their efforts to take advantage of this opportunity. It became clear that the European Commission was ready to begin accession negotiations with Macedonia and Albania. As far as Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was promised “candidate country” status. Kosovo found itself in the most obscure position, as it is yet to be recognized by all EU member states. Its Stability and Association Agreement isn’t full-fledged either, as the EU is represented by the EU Commission in this matter, and the EU Commission does not grant full legitimacy to the international agreement. A positive development for Kosovo in all this is that Serbia’s negotiation chapter 35 obligates it to resolve the conflict with Kosovo as a precondition to it joining the EU.
The economies of the Western Balkan states are closely linked to the EU. About 80% of their foreign trade turnover goes to the EU. It is also recognized that this region is important for EU security, and its stability is vital for the EU. The EU also places great emphasis on the importance of political unity in the region, and the cohesion of values (which is not yet fully achieved).
Despite the fact that a political decision to expand the EU by 2025 has pretty much been made, Western Balkan nations are unable to meet the criteria for membership in a number of directions. The February 2018 EU Commission Communication notes that the Western Balkan states should pay particular attention to the rule of law, competitiveness, regional cooperation and reconciliation.
In May 2018, the heads of state and government assembled at the Council of Europe in Sofia made a special declaration, which supported the process of integration of the Western Balkan to the European Union and identified the main tasks for achieving this goal:
• Support for the rule of law and good governance;
• Strengthening cooperation and security and migration issues;
• Socio-economic development, with special emphasis on youth;
• Development of infrastructural connections in the region and with the EU;
• Digital agenda for the Western Balkans
• Fight against impunity
EU countries view developments made in these directions as not only objectives for Western Balkan states, but also for the EU itself, and it plans to increase financial and other types of support to this end.
The Western Balkans example shows that the expansion of the EU remains a relevant and topical matter. For the EU, security and economic priorities push it in this direction. Despite various problems, the EU does not spare its efforts to accelerate the transformation and integration process for both Montenegro and Serbia – both of which are relatively close to membership – as well as the region. This process is sure to be reflected in Eastern Europe, namely, the countries involved in the Eastern Partnership initiative. The European Union will surely continue to work on approximation with this countries, but only three countries have a chance to become members of the EU in the medium term after Western Balkans’ integration. This may also happen due to growing international competition for influence in the Black Sea region and the Europe-Asia corridor. The competition of political systems and the acceleration of the transformation of Eastern Europe in this context is another stimulus for enlargement as this transformation is difficult to achieve without the prospect of membership in a number of partner countries. The Western Balkans’ example shows that the efforts of these countries themselves, as well as close cooperation with other aspirant countries are of utmost importance. Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine will undoubtedly draw closer and create and deepen forms of regional cooperation on the Western Balkan model. It will also be important to strengthen communication and infrastructural connections with each other as well as with the EU, ensure cooperation in security and improve the democratic process. The post-Brexit EU is unlikely to exhibit signs of “enlargement fatigue” and all the efforts of Eastern European countries who have a strong desire for closer relations with the European Union and have sufficient ambition to transform and make necessary reforms will be increasingly valued and appropriately appraised.
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