EU Member State Building in the Western Balkans

The UACES Network |

The European Union’s (EU) current enlargement policy is framed within the Stabilization and Association Process. This was designed to prepare the countries of the former Yugoslavia (and Albania) for membership of the EU. However, unlike other enlargement rounds before, what we can observe in the post-Yugoslav states is a more active involvement of the EU in proper state- (and nation-) building exercises. From reforming the police in Bosnia to establishing the rule of law in Kosovo, the EU is an active state-builder in countries that remain internally and externally contested.

Having said this, the EU could be considered as a ‘state-builder in denial’ as its representatives in the post-Yugoslav countries continue to treat highly political issues such as constitutional reforms, censuses or security sector reforms as technical, rather than political issues. This leads to misconception from both sides, the EU does not understand why important reforms and decisions are not achieved and/or implemented, and the elites in the post-Yugoslav countries remain skeptical about their country’s EU prospects and about further engagement with EU elites. Above all, citizens in the Western Balkans remain alienated, disappointed by their national leaders who fail to implement reforms and disappointed by the EU, which fails to offer viable political alternatives.


The EU perspective

At its 2003 Thessaloniki Summit the leaders of the EU Member States made a promise to the countries of the former Yugoslavia and Albania: It was pointed out that their future lies in Europe, as full Member States of the EU. Hence, they were characterized as ‘potential candidate countries’ and a clear promise towards EU enlargement to include Southeastern Europe was given. This commitment came as a result of European failure during the Yugoslav Wars, first in Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s and again at the end of the century during the conflict in Kosovo. Instead of symbolizing the ‘Hour of Europe’ as demanded by leading European elites, these conflicts became an example of the EU’s weaknesses: Slow decision-making processes, no military capacity and a lack of support for any military intervention. These conflicts were solved by the intervention of NATO, mainly through US leadership. The new political agenda that emerged after the Kosovo conflict in 1999 therefore focused on highlighting the EU’s transformative power in the post-war societies that have emerged in Southeastern Europe. State weakness, organized crime, contentious bilateral relations and a lack of democratic governance remained important issues in many countries of the region even after the peaceful revolutions in Croatia and Serbia in 2000.

The new Stabilization and Association Process focused on addressing some of the legacies of these conflicts, while at the same time preparing the countries for membership of the EU. In contrast to previous enlargement rounds, there is a greater focus on conditionality and on the direct involvement of the EU in specific reforms. Numerous EU missions, including a military mission in Bosnia and the rule of law mission (EULEX) in Kosovo, were also designed to help these countries overcome some of the legacies of the past and focus on political and economic integration. However, while the political commitment was very important, what became more and more obvious in the years after 2003 was that the integration of the region would be more long-term and would require deep-rooted change in all countries.

Hence, the EU became directly involved in individual reform processes. Sometimes this happened through direct intervention as in the cases of Bosnia and Kosovo, sometimes it happened through indirect pressure as was the case in Croatia and Macedonia. The use of conditionality remains a key component of EU foreign policy towards the post-Yugoslav states.


EU Member State Building

The reason for the EU’s more active role in the post-Yugoslav states is on the one side the need for more deep-rooted democracy-enhancing reforms that help stabilize and consolidate the states, and on the other side the recognition by EU representatives that the reform process in the region will be long-term and needs to focus on stabilization as well as progress in EU integration. This in itself is not a problem, in fact it could be argued that a stronger EU engagement in the region is a good thing and helps political elites and populations in Southeastern Europe to become aware of the massive challenges connected to EU accession.

EU engagement in the region focuses on technical issues. In fact, the European Commission, but also the Member States treat enlargement and connected political reforms as technical issues, following the logic of “Here is the acquis communautaire, this is what you have to do, now deal with it!” Yet, EU integration and political reforms as such are political issues, and they remain highly contested. In some countries elites have no interest in reforms, because it would upset the current status-quo, which profits these elites. The lack of progress on constitutional reform in Bosnia can be explained with this argument, so can the lack of internal democratization in Kosovo. Milo Djukanovic’s half-hearted commitment to the fight against corruption and his negative rhetoric against critical media outlets in Montenegro can also be explained by focusing on the protection of the status-quo.

As a consequence of treating reforms in the context of enlargement as technical issues, there are a number of negative developments observable. First, the citizens of the countries in Southeastern Europe become more and more frustrated with the EU. They often strongly support EU integration, but political elites fail to implement required reforms, and the EU fails to take citizen and civil society perceptions into account. Second, political elites in the region are strengthened through the current framework and remain key veto-players. This can have some dramatic consequences, as the recent discussions about a cut of funding for Bosnia demonstrates. Finally, the EU is getting more and more tired of enlargement and engagement with the Western Balkans region. The Eurocrisis and immigration are new priorities on the agenda, and the EU’s approach towards Southeastern Europe continues to favor stability over democracy.

A new approach

What is needed is a radical change in the EU’s approach. A new enlargement policy needs to focus on engaging with citizens and civil society organizations and needs to punish parties and elites which act as spoilers. To do this, the EU needs to clearly define its framework for enlargement and its criteria for membership of the EU. The Copenhagen Criteria were a good start, but they need to be specified and applied to each country’s context.


At a UACES Arena seminar on 18 December 2013, Soeren Keil (Canterbury Christ Church University), presented research in progress to ~30 representatives from EU Institutions, think tanks and pressure groups. This article arose from Soeren’s presentation.

The next deadline for Arena applications is Wednesday 12 February 2013


Lifelong LearningThis article reflects the views only of the author and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.