Historically, the process of European Integration has been coupled with the expansion of the EU, with the addition of new Member-States. Indeed, for some the two processes were not parallel, but contradictory: the more the EU expanded, the less integrated it became. Regardless of the veracity of that statement, since the last major enlargement, both processes have effectively stalled. The EU has neither expanded nor deepened. Indeed, it has sustained a rather significant loss in the form of Brexit, without increasing its cohesion with the “annoying” British out of the picture, as was claimed it would be the case by the side that saw Brexit as a blessing in disguise. This has not come to pass. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The reasons for this double failure are manifold and would be a good subject for another presentation. For the purposes of this one, suffice it to say that it has become increasingly apparent in recent years that Europe in general and the EU in particular is finding it increasingly difficult to assert any significant international influence, even in its immediate neighbourhood. In the face of the Russo-Ukrainian war and the emergence of new peripheral and global competitors and challengers to the dominance of the West, this creates obvious problems for the credibility and attractiveness of a bloc that claims to have ambitions to be an important and independent international actor. This is not lost to the current and aspiring Member-States from the Balkans, an area that is at the forefront of these new European challenges, due to historical, political and geographical reasons.
The (new) New World Order
The victory of the West in the Cold War and the fall of the USSR ushered-in the infamous “End of History”. An era in which the planet was supposed to be defined by a combination of a -rather nefarious- version of political liberalism on the one hand and globalised free-market capitalism on the other. The “New World Order”, according to George Bush the Elder -among others. Behind the simplicity of this ideology lay the timeless pursuit of every empire: ideological, political and economic hegemony.
In the end, the End of History turned out to be just a short-lived interregnum of Western unipolarity. It lasted less than previous hegemonies in the course of History -roughly three decades- and it is now well into the process of ending in the same way they all ended: with the emergence of another -or others in the plural- challenging Great Powers competing with it.
If one wished to observe an encompassing snapshot of this emerging new global reality, it would not be a bad start to contrast the “family photo” of the G7 on one side with the BRICS+ on the other. Indeed, one would find that the composition of the latter at the last meeting of the bloc in Johannesburg last August was distinctly enlarged.
The BRICS+ are claiming at least an equal share of global power with that of the West, gradually building an alternative model of economic cooperation beyond the classical triptych of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization and a financial system where the US dollar (and much less the Euro) will not dominate unchallenged. However, while it is true that two coalitions can be broadly distinguished, reading the situation as a new bipolarity akin to that of the Cold War would be a mistake. Other smaller or larger powers, regional or global, will seek to maintain as much autonomy as possible, serving their own strategic interests by pivoting between the two poles.
Indeed, it is far too soon to determine with any degree of certainty that the BRICS+ will be a successful contender in the never-ending race for world dominance, prestige and power, given that there exist significant divergencies, rivalries and disagreements even between its core members. On the other hand, the West and, more the point, the United States are by no means showing any signs of fading into oblivion and will certainly continue to yield enormous political, economic, military and cultural power in the decades to come.
The only certainty is that the West (and Europe in particular) must no longer take for granted that itself constitutes the “international community”, that its own cultural values and political goals are universal and that the rest of the planet will automatically accept its view of things as the only acceptable one. Indeed, it is precisely this condescending approach, combined with the continued exploitation of the rich economic resources of the Global South, that gives rise to extremely unpleasant memories of the colonial era and its “civilizing” work in the countries that were once part of European overseas empires.
The world of the 21st century will not be unipolar. Nor will it be strictly bipolar, as it was during the Cold War. It will be complex and fluid, dynamic rather than static, and therefore unstable and unpredictable. No single superpower or economic and military coalition will occupy the position of the sole and undisputed hegemon. New institutions of international organisation will have to be established, in order to bring all the major players together and create some sort of balance, resolve international conflicts and, perhaps, facilitate peaceful cooperation on a regional and global scale. Could an upgraded G20 be such an institution? It remains to be seen. India certainly seemed to think so during the recent G20 summit in New Delhi.
Europe sailing towards irrelevance
Where is Europe in all this? Unfortunately, our continent finds itself in the margins of this rapidly changing global map. This is in stark contrast to the image that, for inexplicable reasons, some European leaders often have of themselves and of the importance of the institutions and states they represent. An image that seems frozen in the era when the courts of Europe ruled the world, the Indies were the jewel in the British Crown, Spanish galleys carried the gold of the Eldorado, the French, English and Belgians carved up Africa among themselves and the Dutch East India Company controlled the spice trade from Batavia to Amsterdam.
In reality, Europe appears to have abandoned any thought of its supposed strategic autonomy, choosing, or accepting at any rate, to be reduced to a mere component of the Euro-Atlantic security system, itself dominated by the United States. Its role in this scheme of things is that of a junior -or even subordinate- partner. Sporadic rhetorical outbursts to the contrary make its decline and weakness all the more striking. For better or worse, it takes much more than the -sincere, no doubt- ambitions of, say, the French President Emanuel Macron, or the occasional press release of the European Council to forge a respectable and trustworthy Great Power. It takes strategic thinking, cohesion, independence and realism.
The rest of the world understands this and treats Europe accordingly. A prime example is the rather cold shoulder that China gave to Macron and Ursula von der Layen in their joint visit to Beijing last April. This is unfortunate, because a Europe that would show pragmatism and willingness to be an honest interlocutor with partners and adversaries alike, in other words a Europe open to the new global realities, could regain an important place in the international division of labour and provide good services to the cause of international peace. However, this Europe seems to have been definitively and irrevocably banished to the realm of Utopia, at least for now and the foreseeable future.
The Balkans as a case in point
Indeed, on the face of it, our region should have been the ultimate proving ground for the EU regarding its ambitions as an assertive international paragon. Consider, for a moment, the variables that highlight this fact. The Balkans is a region that, in the relatively near past, has spawned disastrous armed conflicts that posed significant threats to European stability. Several of these conflicts have not been resolved, but rather frozen, awaiting a spark, or a resurgence of nationalism, or even an outside-context-problem, such as a seemingly unrelated conflict, say in the Black Sea, to re-ignite. Furthermore, our region directly neighbours the Black Sea and the Caucasus, as well as the Eastern Mediterranean. Ancient trade routes that remain crucial gateways linking Europe to Asia. Securing them would be an obvious priority.
At the same time, there is ample evidence that the prospect of European integration may serve as an incentive for the amicable resolution of long-standing disputes, such as the one between Greece and North Macedonia. Indeed, it could be argued that the Prespa Accord was the greatest -and perhaps the only- European diplomatic breakthrough in the region in recent memory. The power of EU membership status for North Macedonia in achieving this breakthrough cannot be overestimated. However, it did not materialize, or even accelerate, leading to further disillusionment. The lengthy and open process of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania only stared last year, in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
The customary argument presented by Brussels for the effective stalling of the enlargement process is that the region has not delivered significant democratic reforms, thus failing to meet the Copenhagen criteria. Perhaps this is true. However, it could be retorted that it is the lack of progress in the integration of the region into the EU that has caused this and not the inverse. In any case, there is a fine line between the necessary monitoring of the level of integration of the acquis communautaire and dictating ex cathedra how a country will become “more European”. Especially when it is entirely plausible that certain current EU Member-States might fail the Copenhagen criteria test themselves, were they to submit their application today.
It, therefore, seems more likely than not that the real reason is simply enlargement fatigue, coupled with the series of major European crises since the Thessaloniki Summit of 2003, that now seems to have taken place in another Universe altogether. These crises had the effect of putting enlargement at the bottom of the pile of European priorities.
It would not be unreasonable to assume that the Russo-Ukrainian war might serve as a catalyst for a renewed push towards enlargement. Indeed, the granting of candidate status to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia was initially hailed just so. At the same time, however, the danger of further delays to the integration of the Western Balkans has not gone unnoticed. Some see this new development as an excuse to put real enlargement yet again at the bottom of the pile, waiting until the turbulence to the East is resolved until they are granted entry to the bloc. Something that could take an indeterminate amount of time and is directly linked to the far more complex issue of how, when and in what shape Europe will forge its future relationship with such countries as Russia and Türkiye -the latter, interestingly enough, being itself a candidate state, albeit nominally.
It is in this context that the recent emergence of the European Political Community should be examined. The brain-child of Emanuel Macron, it might be considered as a new form of European organisation, more flexible, less bureaucratic, faster and, one hopes, more effective. From another point of view, as an admittance that the current institutional scheme of European integration has hit a wall and is no longer adequate. Apart from that, there is precious little to note about what, exactly, the EPC is supposed to be, what it is supposed to do, by what institutional means and what its relationship to already existing European organisations, such as the EU or the Council of Europe will be.
According to the French President, “this new European forum will allow the democratic European nations that subscribe to our common core values to find a new space for cooperation in the fields of security, energy, transport, investment, infrastructure and the free movement of persons”. Two observations to make here are that, firstly, this is a rather vague and indefinite description and, secondly, that it largely overlaps policies that are already supposedly being pursued by the EU, particularly in the field of enlargement.
Which immediately raises the question whether the EPC might degenerate to a convenient alternative to enlargement, as a form of “special relationship” that would offer perspective members some of the benefits of membership, without granting them full access, thus putting them in a limbo indefinitely. Despite assurances to the contrary, this rather unattractive prospect has not gone unnoticed by several candidate countries, especially in the Western Balkans. On the other hand, if a state can already benefit from participating in these policies, what is the incentive to join the EU by undergoing the lengthy and demanding process of incorporating the acquis communautaire? Therefore, instead of the EPC offering the best of both worlds, there exists the risk of it institutionalising and perpetuating the current stalemate: no serious reform from the part of the candidate states, in exchange of no full membership from the part of the EU. This might be politically expedient for some EU governments faced with enlargement fatigue, as well as for some Balkan governments faced with reform fatigue. Hardly a success, though.
Perhaps, then, the two issues should not be directly linked, but rather decoupled. Instead of rescheduling the integration of the Western Balkans at the same pace as that of its eastern flank, the EU should accelerate their accession with a proper time-schedule and a fixed point for full membership status, say by the end of the decade, thus sending a clear signal that it is committed to expansion. Then, the issue of the integration of its eastern flank could be addressed separately, probably in the context of a comprehensive peace agreement for the resolution of the Ukrainian war and a new post-war European security arrangement. That would be a strong indicator that the EU is a serious international actor.
In closing, perhaps the answer of the question posed by this presentation is not if the EU is serious about the Balkans, but rather if it is serious about itself, its position and role on the international stage, its declared ambition to be a factor of peace and stability first and foremost in its own immediate environment, its own near-abroad. If one chose to be optimistic about things, one would answer that this question remains open. However, the argument that this question has already been answered by reality in the negative is not, unfortunately, without merit. History always finds ways to fill the void and it rarely -if ever- waits for the “convenient” moment before it seeks alternatives. It would be unwise from the part of the EU to assume that the Western Balkans will wait either.
* Dr Ioannis Gounaris, PhD in Law, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, LLM in Public International Law, London School of Economics and Political Science, scientific associate, ENA Institute for Alternative Policies – The article is based on the speech delivered at the International Conference “The Balkans – For Peace, Security, Cooperation and Partnership” (Sofia, Bulgaria – 21 September 2023)