The result of the British referendum on EU membership sent powerful shockwaves across the EU and beyond, throwing the Union into ‘an existential crisis’ and causing a period of unprecedented uncertainty over its future. How will the British decision to leave the EU affect the prospects of countries that still seek to join the Union?
Most commentators argued that Brexit will significantly slow down enlargement or even that ‘EU enlargement process is dead’. Conversely, EU and member state officials rushed to re-assure concerned Western Balkan candidates that ‘nothing has changed with Britain’s decision’. Regional leaders also pledged to continue with their efforts to join the Union. However, they also acknowledged that ‘this new era will be unpleasant’, bringing delays in EU integration process and boosting the, dormant yet ever-present, Eurosceptic sentiments in the region.
Thus far, there have been no major implications of Brexit for EU enlargement. Although the UK did not grant its consent for Serbia to open negotiation chapters in June due to ‘technical reasons’, it quickly reversed its decision, allowing the country to open two chapters in July. Montenegro also opened two chapters in June and in September, and the Council accepted the Bosnian membership application. Other candidates made no tangible progress, being held back by long-term internal political crises rather than Brexit. At first glance, it seems it is business as usual in Brussels.
However, Brexit is a significant event whose long term ramifications are potentially far-reaching. It will inevitably have a negative bearing on the enlargement process that hinges on two equally important factors: the willingness of member states and EU institutions to genuinely support, encourage or, at least, not to block the candidates on this arduous journey; as well as the resolve of regional elites to carry out reforms. The EU and member states are now likely to become even less enthusiastic about expanding the weakened Union, while the candidates will grow more ‘frustrated and annoyed’ with the pace of the process.
Yet, most political elites in the candidate states have not had EU-required reforms at the top of their agendas for quite some time now, regardless of Brexit. In other words, internal political and economic problems coupled with the negative regional dynamics – not the fallout from Brexit – will remain to be the key reason for the delay or absence of the candidates’ progress towards EU membership. The aspiring states will not be ready to join the Union for a long time to come, somewhat limiting the damaging effects of the British decision. Overall, it is unlikely that Brexit itself will halt the enlargement process, not least because all other alternatives – such as staying indefinitely in limbo outside of the EU or forging strong links with Russia – are neither viable nor adequate responses to the regional needs for political stability and democratic consolidation.
The EU after Brexit: No more magic power
Although no member state has officially opposed enlargement to the Western Balkans, most of them have been reluctant to support any expansion of the Union. Brexit will further exacerbate such sentiments. Despite the July 2016 Paris summit, which confirmed that ‘the enlargement perspective of the Western Balkans is alive and as valid as ever’, an even lower level of commitment to enlargement has been already evident. In his annual address to MEPs, the Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker did not even mention EU enlargement and while the Bratislava Declaration did refer to the Western Balkans, it did so only in the context of migration and securing external borders. The Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, has gone as far as to call for end to EU expansion, putting it rather bluntly ‘let’s just say for once- this is it’.
The Commission’s plan to publish its next annual reports on candidates’ progress in spring 2018, instead of autumn 2017, may also be a cause for concern for those aspiring countries that are yet to begin negotiations. These reports are a crucial mechanism for not only monitoring, but also directing, reforms in the potential candidates which will now find themselves in a grey area for a relatively long period. It is yet to be seen if this is also a consequence of a more significant involvement of DG NEAR in negotiating future EU-UK relations, which is likely to put EU expansion off its radar. Overall, the bloc’s interest in the region seems to be waning along with a simultaneous loss of its ‘magic’ for the candidates that came to realise that ‘the EU is no longer the big dream it was in the past’.
However, a complete halt to enlargement is not likely to happen either. Indeed, it is a critical time for the Union faced with the complex challenges on its Southern and Eastern flanks. Yet, the EU has no other alternative but to continue with this policy. Severing relations with the Western Balkan candidates would have extremely negative consequences, not least given the more assertive Russian presence in the region. This would create a dangerous security and political vacuum, triggering a new cycle of regional tensions and dashing hopes for political stability and economic recovery.
Many pundits argued that the candidates will now lose an important ally in Brussels since the UK has been a promoter of enlargement. However, Britain has ceased to be a champion of enlargement in recent years. British enthusiasm for enlargement has eroded primarily as a consequence of the domestic political impact of mass migration from Central and Eastern Europe. The referendum campaign further revealed that British political elites – both in the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ camps – have deep reservations about the Western Balkan candidates ‘with poor populations and serious problems with organised crime, corruption, and sometimes even terrorism’. Post-Brexit Britain is thus more likely to block the aspirant countries. In October 2016, it was the only state blocking Montenegro from opening two chapters, doubting that this country (of only 620,000 people) was ready to make concessions on the free movement of labour. Britain apparently also blocked Serbia from opening three more chapters. According to an undisclosed EU diplomatic source, ‘London was preoccupied with its own problems’ and did not have a stance on this issue.
Moreover, given that the UK is the second biggest economy and a net contributor to EU budget, it may be reasonable to expect a decrease in EU funds available to the candidates. However, some analysts argued that the negative impact on the EU budget will be rather small. Likewise, the UK has never been a significant investor in the Western Balkans; British investments accounted for only 3% of the total FDIs in 2014. The potential economic decline of the UK as a fallout from Brexit may have thus a very limited impact on these economies.
The Western Balkans after Brexit: Shaken, but determined to ‘progress’
The bearing of Brexit on the candidates resolve to progress towards membership seems to be somewhat less significant. Although concerned about the EU prospects of their countries, regional leaders reiterated their determination to progress towards membership. However, they have been progressing very slowly and the reforms have been predominantly held back by internal and regional factors. Serbian EU accession remains a hostage to the ruling elites that have rhetorically supported EU membership (and relatively successfully implemented EU-required economic reforms). At the same time, they have demonstrated a misunderstanding of the key principles of modern democracies – the freedom of speech and the rule of law – best exemplified in the suspension of the latter in the Sava Mala case. In other countries, progress has been stalled by: an agonizing internal political crisis (Macedonia), unsettled constitutional arrangements coupled with deep mistrust among nationalist political elites (Bosnia and Herzegovina), weak state institutions and political polarization (Albania) or an unresolved status rendering EU membership de facto unattainable (Kosovo). Moreover, unresolved bilateral issues – such as a continued Greek opposition to Macedonian membership – are more likely to affect the Balkan candidates than Brexit.
A post-Brexit upsurge in party and public Euroscepticism, however, appears unlikely. The region has not witnessed the surge in populist Euroscepticism driven by anti-immigration ideology. Eurosceptic parties are politically irrelevant in Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Albania. Anti-EU parties returned to the Serbian parliament following the April 2016 election, but they are unable to present a serious alternative to the government. On the other hand, public support for EU membership has been high across the region: 71% in Macedonia, 74% in Montenegro, and 76% in Bosnia. Serbian public has been the only exception since support for EU membership hit a record low level in June 2016 with only 41% of respondents in favour. However, 53% of respondents still felt that even if the UK leaves the EU, Serbia should continue its EU accession process.
Brexit will, therefore, represent more than just temporary turmoil for the Balkan candidates. Nonetheless, it is unlikely to be the final nail in the coffin of enlargement. This is certainly not due to the resolve of EU and Balkan elites to work on overcoming the crisis or seizing an opportunity to invigorate this policy, but because all the other alternatives look less comforting. Despite enormous challenges ahead, the process that has widely lost its key purpose – to consolidate and transform the Western Balkan societies into liberal democracies – is thus likely to keep going, but will protracted and beset by domestic and regional problems, rather than the British decision to take back its sovereignty.
Marko Stojić (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lecturer at Metropolitan University in Prague. His research interests focus on the study of European integration, political parties and party systems in the Western Balkans. This post was first published on EUROPEUM blog.