Catherine Ashton served as EU high representative for foreign affairs; Misha Glenny is a former BBC correspondent and expert on the Balkans; Mark Medish served on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration; Alex Rondos Rondos served with the Greek government from 1998 to 2004 and Ivan Vejvoda is the former executive director of the Balkan Trust for Democracy.
The European Union is signaling a watershed reversal of its enlargement policy, as reports out of Brussels suggest that EU leaders no longer support an assured path to membership for Western Balkans countries.
By hesitating on the Balkans, the EU is inviting those who do not share its norms and values onto its frontiers and its cultural and geographic space. This would be a reversal of commitments long given, and on which Western Balkans countries have relied. It would also be a strategic mistake.
The bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s, triggered by the collapse of Yugoslavia, were a stark reminder of the perils of nationalism and tribalism. The plight of tens of thousands of refugees, together with images like those of a demolished Sarajevo — the home of the 1984 Winter Olympics not long before — helped galvanize political will in Europe, clearing pathways to EU membership for these countries. The U.S. was a strong partner in this concerted Western engagement.
With the end of the Cold War, the door had opened for the historic integration of Central and Eastern European nations into the common European economic and political project. So, in 2004, 10 countries joined the EU. These included the Visegrád Four, made up of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the three Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and Slovenia. They were joined three years later by Bulgaria and Romania, and by Croatia in 2013.
The others in the Western Balkans — Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, North Macedonia — were offered a firm European perspective at the same time as Croatia, as early as 2003. This is what is now stalling and in jeopardy, despite the NATO memberships of Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia in the last few years.
As enlargement fatigue has set in, attitudes in the EU have been changing over time. The costs of the 2009 financial crisis and the Greek bailout have frayed nerves. The Western Balkans countries have also been particularly slow and uneven reformers, and lingering corruption concerns and anti-democratic trends in new member countries have made many wary of importing new potential problems. Anti-immigrant attitudes and fiscal conservatism have also hardened across Europe. And Brexit has undermined assumptions about Europe’s common destiny.
These are not issues to be ignored. But neither are the broader political questions raised by a move away from given commitments, which established a journey and destination for the Western Balkans. This was the promise of peace and security, a guarantee of a broader Europe based on values and ideals, made by the EU and backed by the U.S.
There is no denying that the challenge of integration has grown over the years, and the response requires renewed patience, confidence, imagination and energy. But the stakes are high.
The alternative is regression toward a divided Europe, surrounded by powers that have neither its interests nor its values at heart. Leaving the Western Balkans in a permanent twilight zone on the margins of Europe would be a strategic defeat — and an avoidable one.
All of us writing have devoted substantial parts of our careers to the success of the European project with special attention to the integration of the Western Balkans. In our view, the EU should not be turning away from the region. Instead, it should reaffirm the offer it made to the people of the Western Balkans, while working closely with the U.S. to push for needed reforms and progress. The Biden administration should be a strong partner in helping to achieve that goal.
Now is time to show renewed confidence in a strong Europe and promote the democratic values that still inspire so many in the region and across the world.