EU enlargement in the Balkans: a necessary step or a playground for illiberals? – The Weekly 61
The European Union has long been haunted by the issue of the enlargement to the Balkans, and the community so far seems to have bitten off more than they can chew. The principle is beyond question: the goal of European integration has always been to reach out to every nation of our continent, right from the beginning. However, the enlargements of the 2000s also showed that many of the Central European states, despite their legal readiness for EU membership, were still lagging behind in terms of political culture. This particularly applies to the Western Balkans. Hearing the illiberal Janez Janša talking about giving priority to the Balkans enlargement under Slovenia’s EU presidency may give rise to serious concerns. Especially if the enlargement commissioner is Orbán’s man…
Our public discourse has recently been dominated by COVID-19, the lockdowns and economic problems, so we may have forgotten how long the European Union has been putting off answering an important question: what are the EU’s intentions with the Western Balkans? Of course, the EU, which often speaks in 27 different voices, is hardly known for its clear, assertive and rapid foreign policy decisions. However, the Western Balkans are not a remote region where our hesitation wouldn’t cause much more than a loss of some face. On the contrary: they are our immediate neighbours and the next target area for the EU’s enlargement. If there was an enlargement, that is…
We all know this has long been a highly polarizing issue for European nations. Nobody questions the principle, but several western states have serious concerns that are justifiable from many aspects.
Firstly, the countries admitted in 2004 and after have caused a lot of headaches for the EU. Secondly, many western member states believe that we should be focusing on strengthening the cohesion among the existing members after such events as a major wave of enlargement, the Brexit and the latest controversies. Furthermore, the cause of the Western Balkans is hardly helped in these Western European countries by the fact that the greatest champions of the expansion are (unless you consider the recent statements of Angela Merkel who is to step down soon) such illiberal leaders as Viktor Orbán, who has developed a highly influential political and media network with the region’s like-minded politicians.
However, we can’t put off answering the question much longer: the Western Balkans have simply been waiting too long and have only been offered minimal prospects, which plays into the hands of the region’s populist and nationalist politicians who are less and less reluctant to turn towards Russia and China, too.
Although I have long been a supporter of the Western Balkans’ EU integration in principle, I wasn’t particularly thrilled to listen to Slovenian PM Janez Janša talking about the Balkans enlargement as a priority for Slovenia’s EU presidency in his speech to the EP plenary session this week. My reservations are rooted in my in-depth knowledge of this circle and their hidden agenda. As a Hungarian, I have an insight into the reasons why they now argue so vehemently for accelerating the accession process of primarily Serbia and then North Macedonia, too.
It is a widely known fact in Hungary that Viktor Orbán and Fidesz have long been yearning for adding such Balkan politicians to the ranks of EU leaders who are almost completely identical with Viktor Orbán in terms of their character, methods and ideology, because Orbán has very few supporters left within the EU by now.
Apart from the Polish government that is willing to defend Fidesz on certain issues, Slovenia’s Janša has recently remained as Orbán’s last unwavering partner. As a result, Orbán’s circle (with some forward thinking) bought significant chunks of Slovenia’s and North Macedonia’s media cake, while the amicable relationship between Orbán and Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić has been widely known for a long time.
This group has created such an atmosphere in most Balkan countries that pushed them even deeper into political chaos instead of bringing them closer to the EU’s expected norms. Meanwhile, Orbán and his allies do not shy away from Mafia-like methods, either. To illustrate this point, let me mention former Macedonian prime minister and Orbán ally Nikola Gruevski, who was sentenced to prison in his homeland, but Orbán had him smuggled across three countries in diplomatic cars, so this fallen politician can now live a life of luxury in Budapest in complete safety.
Perhaps I’m not the only one to be worried that this group will do whatever it takes during Slovenia’s EU presidency to make the most corrupt and dishonest political maneuvers a part of the EU’s operation under the disguise of the expansion to the Balkans.
They will likely find an avid supporter in enlargement commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, whose actions so far have hardly concealed that he is a fervent Orbán- and Fidesz soldier rather than a commissioner whose loyalty lies with the EU’s institutions.
Of course, I don’t want to make the mistake of overestimating what Slovenia’s EU presidency and Orbán’s group can do: although they may be able to significantly boost the acceptance of such politicians as Vučić, who has almost completely eliminated the opposition in his country, the French presidency coming up in the first half of 2022 will likely be much less enthusiastic about the Balkans integration…
I am not in the least suggesting that the enlargement to the Balkans should be stopped.
On the contrary, the European Union mustn’t abandon the Balkans.
In the meantime however, the EU must make it clear that accession is subject to certain values. It’s high time they made this message clear for Orbán or Janša, too. The clearer the better…