News | Economic / Social Policy - Europe - Europe2024 No Accession in Sight

As the 2024 European elections near, the Western Balkans are no closer to joining the EU than before



Felix Jaitner,

Olaf Scholz, Ursula von der Leyen, and Albania at a press conference in Berlin.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, and Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama give a joint press conference during the West Balkans Conference in Berlin, 3 November 2022.


  Photo: IMAGO / Christian Spicker

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, there has been growing concern within the EU about a far-reaching loss of influence over the Western Balkans (ex-Yugoslavia and Albania) in favour Russia and China. While Russia has the potential to weaken Euro-Atlantic integration by stoking ethnic tensions, China is particularly regarded as an economic competitor.

Felix Jaitner heads the climate and environment department at Austausch e.V., a non-governmental organization in Berlin.

The EU increased its military contingent in Bosnia and Herzegovina by 500 soldiers in direct response to the Russian attack. This was justified by tensions leading up to the October 2022 elections and the danger that Russia may destabilize the country. Igor Kalabuhov, the Russian ambassador in Sarajevo, outright threatened the Bosnian government with a Ukrainian scenario if it should join NATO.

With respect to the Western Balkan states, the notion that Putin’s government has to be countered primarily with military deterrence is a dangerous one in a highly unstable region. Yugoslavia’s disintegration was accompanied by a variety of military conflicts, and event today, significant segments of the ruling elites continually challenge the post-war order that was imposed, to a significant extent, through Western intervention. Economic decline has exacerbated the crisis since the 1990s and the transition to capitalism has pushed the formerly socialist states to the periphery of the global economic system. The main socio-economic consequences have been widespread de-industrialization and the impoverishment of broad swathes of the population.

In order to preserve its influence in the region, the EU announced a political change of course. In December of last year, Bosnia and Herzegovina was officially granted candidate-country status, despite the fact that it had not made any noteworthy progress toward implementing EU norms or laws by that point. Accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia had begun a few months before that. That meant that every country in the region except Kosovo had EU candidate status. Nonetheless, no expansion of the Union is to be expected in the foreseeable future.

The EU strategy of linking itself to the Western Balkan states without any prospect of accession is doomed to fail, because the central problem — the region’s lack of political and economic development prospects — remains unresolved and, moreover, no serious diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflicts are underway.

Developments in Eastern Europe and the Balkans were not on the European Left’s radar for years. Nonetheless, events in the region have become matters of direct concern to the EU at least since Croatia joined the Union in 2013, Bosnia and Herzegovina became a candidate, and relations between Serbia and Kosovo have gone steadily downhill. This is a situation that demands a left foreign policy that can address the problems outlined here and offer an alternative to the EU strategy and its potential for escalation.

The Dead-End of Western Integration: EU Economic Dominance

The Western Balkan states exhibit the classical characteristics of economies on the capitalist periphery: broad sections of the population are impoverished while a group of business owners with ties to the state is emerging, primarily in trade, real estate, and sometimes tourism. What little industrial value they create is dominated by foreign capital, particularly from the EU. A total of 45 billion euro in direct foreign investments flowed into the region between 2010 and 2019. Among the ten largest investors, only Russia (fourth place) and Turkey (eighth place) are not in the EU.

A look at foreign trade illustrates these states’ economic dependency on the European Union: about 60 percent of it went to the EU in 2021, Montenegro and Kosovo were the only exceptions. Most products are duty free as a result of the Stabilization and Association Agreement that the EU signed with all the states in the region. The portion of foreign trade with Russia (3 percent) and China (8 percent) are significantly lower. Regional trade is also weak.

Exports are even more dependent on the European Single Market. The frontrunner by far is North Macedonia, where 77 percent of all exports go to the EU. The Western Balkan states primarily export agricultural products and industrial intermediate goods, while they import high technology — cars and machinery — as well as consumer products. Their one-sided trade orientation toward the EU and dependence on imported technology solidify their position on the periphery of the international economy. That also applies in comparison with the Eastern European EU member states. Unlike Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, and Slovenia, the countries in the Western Balkans are generally not integrated into transnational production processes as suppliers for Western European corporations. Instead, they primarily serve as a sales market for industrial goods and services and as a (cheap) labour pool.

Neoliberal Ethnonationalism as a Driver of Conflict

The one-sided alignment of state policy with direct foreign investment is leading to an aggressive regional race to the bottom. Regardless of their political orientation, every government in the region is turning to economic and financial policy deregulation, curtailment of workers’ rights, and restrictive wage policies in an effort to strengthen their competitive edge. Yet not every country can benefit equally from the investments. In 2021, more than half went to Serbia (23 billion euro), followed by Albania (9 billion) and Montenegro (4.3 billion). Investments in Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Kosovo were significantly lower (between 2.7 and 3.5 billion euro).

These neoliberal policies have further exacerbated the technological, social, and economic differences both within the region and in comparison with EU member states. This is one major reason for the high emigration rate from the Western Balkan states. The loss in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been particularly dramatic: in 1990, the population was 4.4 million, but in 2021, it was only 3.3 million. During the same period, the population of Albania went from 3.3 million to 2.8 million.

A change in economic relations between the EU and the Western Balkan states is becoming apparent.

Nonetheless, regional elites are proceeding undaunted with neoliberal policies by adopting the EU framework. The promise of salvation through EU membership, postponed until an indeterminate point in the future, is combined with aggressive nationalist politics that have dominated most of the Western Balkan countries since the early 1990s.

The violent collapse of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia left ethnically defined nation-states in its place. Yet they have been deeply divided due to the sustained economic decline, social inequality, and various ethnic conflicts. In this context, ethno-nationalist mobilization has proven to be an effective means for preserving internal social tensions. NATO and the EU function to preserve the status quo. Their military presence prevents any further escalation of the frozen conflicts, yet they also inhibit autonomous development in the region, which is described below using developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in Kosovo as examples.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: The EU Is Part of the Problem

The 1995 Dayton Agreement ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1991–1995). However, it created a fragile federal state consisting of two constituent republics, one Bosnian-Croatian (Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and one Serbian (Republika Srpska). Time and again, institutionalizing the ethnic divide leads to domestic political breakdowns and makes democratic consolidation more difficult. The political elite in the Serbian part of the country exploits the state’s fragility to strengthen its own position by threatening to secede from the larger state. Similarly, the Croatian side continually makes noises about forming its own constituent republic.

The Dayton Agreement not only impedes an independent Bosnian-Herzegovinian path toward a stable post-war order, but also establishes a form of neo-colonial foreign rule. The “High Representative” appointed by the guarantor powers — namely the US, Germany, France, and Russia — has far-reaching powers that include enacting or revoking laws and removing elected officials. The guarantor powers use the inter-ethnic tensions and the resulting intransigence to justify the need for the High Representative.

In doing so, they deliberately overlook the fact that the constitution that was imposed via the Dayton Agreement is an essential element of the persistent tensions, insofar as it institutionalizes ethnic distinctions. According to current officeholder Christian Schmidt, a politician with Germany’s Christian Social Union (CSU) and a former minister under Angela Merkel, the job of the High Representative is to monitor the implementation of the Dayton Agreement, and the objective is a “Euro-Atlantic integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

The post-war order established in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the absence of any prior internal debate defines the country’s future development (EU and NATO membership). Together with the ethno-national elites, the High Representative guarantees this status quo. In 2014, when the whole country was gripped by a wave of protests that consciously disavowed ethnic principles and instead focused on direct democratic organization and social demands, Schmidt’s long-standing predecessor, Austria’s Valentin Inzko, threatened: “If the situation escalates, we may have to consider EU troops.”

Kosovo: A Frozen Conflict

Apart from the domestic political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the unresolved conflict between Serbia and Kosovo is also destabilizing the region. The former Serbian province declared its independence in 2008 in the wake of the attack on Yugoslavia in 1999. The conflict is regarded as having reached a standstill, not least of all due to NATO’s military presence, however no peace settlement is in sight because the Serbian government still does not recognize Kosovo’s independence. The events of May and June 2023 illustrate just how quickly the conflict could flare up again — when an Albanian mayor was sworn into office in majority-Serb North Kosovo, triggering severe unrest, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić put his nation’s army on standby.

Just as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, this unresolved conflict is not only bolstering revanchist forces on both sides. The Yugoslav wars and the establishment of ethnic nation-states initiated a cycle of secessions in the Balkans that continually challenges existing national borders. The violent re-partitioning of the region, which was partly a forced outcome of Western intervention, raises the question of which secession demands are legitimate and where state sovereignty and territorial integrity should be defended.

Above all, Serbian nationalism is recognized as a destabilizing force, but the vast majority of Croatian, Bosniak, Albanian, and North Macedonian elites also pursue nationalist policies, regardless of what party they belong to, and thereby actively contribute to destabilizing the region. These conflicts are particularly heating up in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in Kosovo due to the fact that the contradictions can be interpreted, and therefore utilized, arbitrarily depending on one’s own ethno-nationalist perspective or on the basis of one’s own particular interests.

The EU Accession Lifeline

Thus far, the European Commission and the German government have pursued a strategy of maintaining close political and economic ties with the Western Balkan states without a concrete prospect of EU membership. Extensive trade liberalization under the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and acknowledgement of possible accession both testify to that approach.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there has been growing concern in the EU about a far-reaching loss of influence in the region to the benefit of Russia and China. China in particular has expanded its investments as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

One focal point for Chinese economic activity has been Serbia, a development that has been sharply criticized within the EU. For one example, Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, warned that “China is buying its way into Serbia, despite the possibility that Serbia may be an EU member in the future and therefore may be able to impede foreign policy — China policy — for all of Europe. That must not happen.” In this context, the EU is reinforcing its efforts to ensure its influence in the region, which is evident in the candidate status it granted to Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as the start of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.

By cooperating with existing anti-nationalist forces that are gaining political visibility, the Left can make an important contribution to a future peace dialogue.

However, the forced linkage of the Western Balkan states with the EU does not imply a strategic change of course, given that these countries still have no prospect of joining. In the course of the decision to grant Bosnia and Herzegovina candidate-country status, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung noted that the European Commission regarded the Bosnian government’s implementation of core laws concerning corruption, organized crime, and the judiciary as having, in some cases, failed “disastrously”. At the December 2022 EU-Western Balkans summit in Tirana, EU representatives affirmed that none of the countries would fulfil the Copenhagen criteria in the foreseeable future.

Moreover, the EU itself is unwilling to accept them until they have made substantial reforms to their foreign and security policy. Its connection with the Western Balkan states is primarily based on geopolitical interests. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice President of the European Commission Josep Borrell said that expanding the EU had “gained new geopolitical significance”. The possibility of accession is one of the EU’s most important and powerful foreign policy tools in this respect. By also granting Ukraine and Moldova candidate status after the war started, the EU is pursuing a similar strategy within the post-Soviet region.

However, a change in economic relations between the EU and the Western Balkan states is becoming apparent. The disruptions in global supply chains since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic activated a debate within the EU about shifting production locations out of Asia (particularly out of China) and back to Europe. Due to their geographic proximity, low wage levels, and pool of well-trained workers, the Western Balkan states could play an important part in that. According to Patrick Martens, director of Germany’s foreign chamber of commerce in Skopje, the region is being assigned a key role: “The Western Balkans could be for the European Union what Central America is for the United States: a very important investment and supply location, in terms of geopolitics and economic policy. And right on our doorstep.”

Preprogrammed Political Stalemate

As in the past, the EU’s strategy disregards pivotal social contradictions and conflicts between the countries. It looks for the causes of domestic political breakdowns and multifaceted crises exclusively in national figures in each particular country.

A position paper published in early 2023 by the Social Democratic group in the German parliament falls into precisely this trap. It states that the hold-up in allowing Western Balkan countries to join the EU has created a vacuum that nationalists inside and outside the region are exploiting for purposes of “destabilization and disinformation by exerting economic, ideological, and military influence”. The document identifies Russia as the main culprit that is not only destabilizing the region, but also deliberately stoking ethno-nationalist tensions “in order to weaken democratic forces that are working toward Euro-Atlantic integration”.

This perspective consistently ignores the Euro-Atlantic countries’ own stake in strengthening nationalist forces by supporting ethno-nationalist, secessionist movements to the point of exercising military influence. Institutionalizing the ethno-nationalist Constitution and the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina actually impede democratic consolidation, to say nothing of the region’s economic dependency on the EU.

Yet the possibility of EU membership for the Western Balkan states sends not only an outward signal, but an inward one as well. For quite some time now, there have been attempts to do away with the unanimity principle for foreign and security policy in favour of a system of majority rule. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz emphasized this point in his speech at Charles University in Prague on 29 August 2022, when he made the case that the EU needs to get in shape for future rounds of expansion. He argued that political reforms have always preceded the addition of new member states. Potential EU expansion will therefore also increase pressure for institutional foreign and security policy reforms and strengthen the bloc’s capacity to act on international terrain.

A Progressive Foreign Policy for the Western Balkans

Developments in Eastern Europe and the Balkans were not on the European Left’s radar for years. Events in the region have become matters of direct concern to the EU at least since Croatia joined the EU, Bosnia and Herzegovina was granted candidate status, and the unresolved conflict between Serbia and Kosovo flared up again. Moreover, the Balkans, along with the post-Soviet region, are increasingly becoming sites of intensified competition between imperial states, with the EU, Russia, and China all opposing one another. The militarization of the region is accelerating bloc formation and giving new momentum to local conflicts, such as in Kosovo or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This situation demands a left-wing foreign policy that is decoupled from the imperial demeanour of the EU, the US, and Russia, and instead addresses the causes of the crises and conflicts in the region. A left-wing foreign policy must both provide answers for concrete political decisions (e.g., EU membership) and cultivate a long-term social-ecological development perspective for the Western Balkans that highlights concrete alternatives to nationalism, militarism, and peripheral economic development.

Accession to the EU would enable the Western Balkan states to directly participate in political and economic decisions and have an impact on them in the future.

The European Left should sharply oppose any form of ethno-nationalism and emphasize its impact on the various conflicts in the region. That also means criticizing the EU’s cooperation with nationalist governments that prove to be impediments to the growth of democracy in their countries. Parts of the European (and German) Left continue to harbour sympathies for people with close ties to the Serbian government and connections with President Vučić because they ostensibly have clear positions against the hegemonic claims of the US and the EU in the region. This ignores the fact that those same people support revisionist politics that deliberately utilize the legacy of Yugoslavia in support of nationalist and Greater Serbian positions.

Disassociation from ethno-nationalist perspectives is nonetheless a precondition for taking steps to build trust between individual states that can help de-escalate the conflicts and stabilize the region over the long term. By cooperating with existing anti-nationalist forces that are gaining political visibility, the Left can make an important contribution to a future peace dialogue.

Moreover, de-escalating regional conflicts necessarily means creating a collective security system for the Balkans that includes a concrete plan for withdrawing foreign soldiers and that, apart from the US and the EU, is also supported by additional regional actors like Turkey and Russia. This step is all the more important in light of growing geopolitical tensions as the war in Ukraine progresses. A collective security system can help not only prevent conflicts that have reached a stalemate from escalating, but also rebuild lost trust between the parties to the conflicts and the Great Powers.

Is There an Alternative to Joining the EU?

The critical political debate in the Western Balkan states is about the question of joining the EU. The Left needs concrete answers if it wants to have a distinct and distinguishable role in public discussions. Deciding whether a country can become an EU member state is based on the Copenhagen criteria. Given that none of the Western Balkan states have thus far fulfilled them, joining is not up for debate in the short term. Therefore, clearly naming the geopolitical motives behind the EU’s strategy of linking the Western Balkan states without any prospect of accession and highlighting the destabilizing consequences of that strategy would be vital.

That does not address the question of whether or not to generally support joining the EU. Due to their geographic location and their extreme economic and political dependence on the EU, the individual Western Balkan states have very little leeway for political alternatives.

Accession to the EU would enable the Western Balkan states to directly participate in political and economic decisions and have an impact on them in the future. Those states would therefore have a stronger negotiating position, given that they have thus far been affected by economic policy decisions without being able to influence them. Apart from that, EU membership would also open up access to EU investment and grants that would expand their leeway for taking economic policy steps.

Moreover, the current structure of the EU leaves very little leeway for alternative economic policy. It is specifically the smaller member states that are under intense pressure to implement the European Commission’s austerity guidelines. This demands a political programme that would develop future social-ecological perspectives for the region and the EU and would offer an alternative to the present efforts to integrate the Western Balkan states into the international supply chains as one big low-wage factory.

A left-wing foreign policy toward the Western Balkan states should therefore support making self-determined development a real political option for these countries again. As a first step, that would require an end to foreign neo-colonial rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The European Left has to make it clear that the EU is making a crucial contribution to perpetuating the existing conflicts — be it in the form of the High Representative, the presence of troops, or cooperation with nationalist elites — and is therefore an obstacle to an urgently needed reconciliation process.

One important precondition for strengthening the Western Balkan states’ developmental possibilities would be a restructuring of economic, trade, and financial policy between the EU and the countries in the region on the basis of sustainable and social criteria. In addition, regional integration processes that support cross-national and civil society collaboration within the region and reduce political and economic dependency on the large EU member states should be strengthened.

One consequence of the European Left’s minimal political interest in developments in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is the lack of local contacts and cooperation partners. Nonetheless, a change of course for the EU, both internally and with respect to the Western Balkan countries, can only be achieved jointly. Close collaboration would generally help strengthen anti-nationalist and social-ecological positions within the EU that have come under increasing pressure in the course of the European Union’s general drift to the right.

Translated by Joseph Keady and Michael Dorrity for Gegensatz Translation Collective.