EU enlargement is dead. Long live EU enlargement.

The EU’s new accession methodology won’t be able to stop the downhill political spiral in the Western Balkans. But there might be a silver lining to all of this.

The European Union faces so many challenges that you can’t find many people in Brussels nowadays who care so much about EU enlargement, or the fate of the Western Balkans. The region’s remaining EU friends, though, seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief last week as the EU Commissioner for Enlargement Oliver Vàrenhyi unveiled the new EU accession methodology.

France’s veto on opening accession talks for Albania and North Macedonia last October signaled that the EU’s enlargement policy might be dead. But now that the new methodology has accommodated French concerns, the thinking in Brussels seems mildly optimistic that Macron would remove the roadblock.

The most frequently overheard phrases in Brussels last week were that enlargement policy has been rescued; that it has become more realistic and; that as a result, there is now more serious and genuine interest among member states.

In moments like these it’s hard to blame political cities like Brussels for having an unjustified sense of optimism and hope. They thrive on solving problems that they often create themselves.

Having no direct feel for the situation on the ground, the metric of success in a political bubble is often the very act of a backroom political deal, regardless of its impact. If something allows the political machinery to keep daily work moving from point A to B, then it should be good, right?

But the new methodology feels like a success (more than it actually is one) simply because it satisfies a few key immediate interests. The EU Commission gets to continue the bureaucratic game; France gets to be taken more seriously in its bid to reform the EU and have more sway in the Balkans; and Albania and North Macedonia get to move on to the next stage.

But in the medium-term the obstacles to enlargement are bigger than what a simple change in methodology can resolve. Moreover, the new methodology itself fails to address the main damage done to the process the last two years – namely, the loss of the EU’s credibility as a party that does not stick to its side of the bargain.

The new methodology is formally right on many points, especially on the issue of reversibility for countries that backslide on reforms (“Where were you earlier?”). It might also make the process more realistic by involving member states earlier and in many more evaluation stages, so as to avoid unrealistic expectations and surprises.

But by making the accession process more political, it also dramatically increases the risks of abuse by any single member state for issues that have nothing to do with criteria. “More political” means more vulnerable to xenophobic electoral whims and political crisis in any member state, and these never seem to be absent in Europe.

Filling the path ahead with such landmines fuels the already deep sense of mistrust in the intentions of some of the big member states. Aware of some of the xenophobic trends and severe prejudices that make enlargement unpopular, Muslim-majority countries in the Balkans especially have reasons to worry. Despite the stated promise of accession being the end goal, the new methodology might very in reality turn out to be an introduction into getting “the Turkey treatment”.

This might sound like an exaggerated perception to the well-wishers in the EU who still believe in the project’s normative foundations. But it’s the kind of perception that in the Balkans creates space for new narratives and shapes political behavior on the ground.

Kosovo’s failure to get any political attention in the EU Council for something as basic visa liberalization (granted to Colombia!) is a clear sign of how everything might look like going forward in a more political accession process.

While Albania and North Macedonia might end up opening talks soon so that the rescued enlargement policy can be celebrated, ultimately that might not mean much going forward. As some have noted, the new set of obstacles have set the bar so high that even existing EU member states would have a hard time joining over the next decade.

The EU’s medium-term policy towards the Balkans thus seems to be moving away from enlargement towards something akin to containment. Macron might be strategically right about what needs to be done to save the EU in the long-run, and the Balkans might have been simply caught up on the receiving end of a shake-up with unfortunate timing.  

But there should be no doubt that the perception of accession as an unreachable target will have immediate destabilizing effects in the region. The Western Balkans might starting moving away from current state of illiberal equilibrium towards a real downhill political spiral.

The situation is somewhat of a Catch-22. The fact that the EU perspective was put into question has already brought to surface security concerns and the revival of national projects, because EU membership was supposed to make borders irrelevant. It also made the region vulnerable to destabilization by malign actors.

These security concerns have rightfully made the NATO agenda and the security architecture (especially the resolution of bilateral disputes) the top priority for western partners, especially the U.S. This is in turn further empowering authoritarians willing to play realist power games in the name of stability. The result of all of this will be further democratic backsliding and countries even less qualified to join the EU.

All of this will be happening at a time when the EU has lost its political weight and leverage to shape developments in European territory. It is shocking to experience the shrugs with which visits and statements by EU officials are met with these days in Western Balkan societies.

Looking ahead, the doomsday scenarios about the EU itself falling apart are far-fetched. The EU will most likely continue to be there and might evolve into something different than it is today. It will also continue to be a key partner to the Western Balkans in terms of economy and trade for the simple reasons of geography, population movements and culture.

But politically speaking, with the new enlargement methodology having no real and credible pull, the trajectories of the EU and the Western Balkans will during the foreseeable future not be synchronized and converged as they have been. They will move in different, possibly contradictory, paths.

These paths might cross again, but for the foreseeable future the Balkans will be primarily shaped by the new geopolitical reality of security competition – namely, great power rivalry over spheres of influence and realist power games between nation states.

The key lesson that democratic forces in the region should finally let sink in is that in terms of the battle for democracy and human rights, we are on our own. We should stop relying on the EU accession as an external anchor that will turn us into liberal democracies by exporting values and institutional practices.

Hungary and Poland should have already been warning signs that, by focusing so much only on institutional reforms and negotiation chapters, you might fix laws and regulations that allow you to become part of the EU, but you don’t really address the key problem of societies with illiberal mindsets.

The energy of democratic forces in the region should from now on go exclusively towards building democratic resilience. This can only be done by expanding the grassroots domestic constituencies of people who care about things like independent institutions and human rights. In the long-run, a more organic process of democratic development might be a more painful path, but also more beneficial than the current top-down and mostly farcical technical negotiations.

If the French approach of “tough love” for the sacrificial Balkan lamb does not kill us, it might end up making us stronger and even readier to join the EU at some point, whatever it will be and look like. Europe is after all our geographic destiny, but the values that will dominate here are a matter of individual and collective choices.”, writes Agon Maliqi for Sbunker portal.