On November 17, 2020, Bulgaria blocked the opening of EU-accession talks with North Macedonia. Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva was quoted as saying that her country could not support the opening of talks with its next-door neighbor. This is the third roadblock that the Balkan country has faced following those previously put up by Greece and France. The latest veto is over Bulgarian views on the Macedonian language.
However disconcerting, the Bulgarian veto is no outlier. In fact, it follows in the tradition of recent EU member states actively blocking accessions talks with their non-EU neighbors. In 2009, Slovenia had blocked Croatia’s negotiations with the EU. The reason was the disagreements between these two former Yugoslav republics over how to set the border over the Piran Bay. In 2016, this time Serbia accused Croatia of blocking its accession talks. Media reports indicated that Croatia had blocked the opening of a new chapter due to the status of the Croat minority in Serbia.
The once seemingly plausible notion that EU enlargement leads to Europeanization of new member states and a spillover effect in their neighborhood has been safely put to rest. The illiberal turn in many member states that have joined the EU since 2004 shows that Europeanization is a reversible process. Obstructionist policies pursued by new EU members against their neighbors have undermined the idea of a Europeanization spill-over that was in vogue as recently as a decade ago.
The ‘block-your-neighbor-now-that-you-can’ approach lays out in the open not only the false promise of regional Europeanization spillover effect but also the increasingly unfair treatment of the rest of the Balkan countries. In essence, new EU member states leverage their membership in the club to extract concessions from their next-door neighbors. This is not an exception but a pattern set to be repeated.
Bosnia is a case in point even before the country was granted the EU-candidate status. Soon after joining the EU in 2013, Croatia’s political leaders began to pursue a completely unwarranted and unfounded paternalistic approach to Bosnia. The outright meddling in Bosnia’s internal politics ranges from electoral favoritism to attempts to interfere in Bosnia’s legislation. The case of Croatia-Bosnia relations since 2013 shows that the latest EU member state packages its national and nationalistic interests, and also seeks to impose them, as “European values”. By taking upon themselves the role of custodians of “European values” – however unconvincing they may be – Croatia’s political leaders have sought to leverage their EU membership. This approach has been pursued by both nationalists and social democrats.
This attempt to play the European in Bosnia was briefly taken up even by the dominant Croat nationalist party HDZ. The HDZ briefly attempted to cast itself as a custodian of “European values”, taking a cue from the next-door politicians in Croatia, but quickly found its own spin unconvincing and soon did away with it.
Now that Croatia is an EU member and that Serbia is far ahead of Bosnia with 18 negotiating chapters opened, the working assumption is that Serbia will join the EU before Bosnia. If Serbia were to join the EU before Bosnia, it could and would use its new leverage against Bosnia just as Slovenia has used its against Croatia. With both Croatia and Serbia in the EU, Bosnia would then be stuck with two neighbors leveraging two potential vetoes.
Furthermore, Bosnian Croats are already entitled to a Croatian passport (Croatia being an EU member) and also to a variety of other benefits. Bosnian Serbs are equally likely to enjoy similar benefits should Serbia be accepted into the club as well. In Bosnia, it is the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat nationalist politicians who have turned into major stumbling blocks on the country’s path to EU membership. The underlying implication is simple: the greatest impact of Bosnia lagging behind in EU integration process would be felt only by Bosniaks. This is not merely a theoretical scenario but an increasingly likely one we are heading towards.
This pattern of roadblocks may very well apply beyond Bosnia. Serbia, which began its EU accession talks in 2014, is far ahead of Kosovo on the road to EU membership. If the Belgrade-Pristina normalization is not fully finalized before Serbia’s accession, this means that — following the logic of blockage so far — Serbia will use its membership in the EU to put up roadblocks in Kosovo’s way. These roadblocks, as in all the other cases cited so far, would be framed and presented as “European standards” that Kosovo needs to adhere to.
If Serbia and Albania were to join the EU simultaneously, then Albania could offset Serbia’s roadblocks to Kosovo with its counter-vetoes. However, Kosovo’s ally Albania has lagged behind Serbia in EU negotiations. Albania is a candidate country with which the EU decided to open accession negotiations as recently as 2020. This means that with Serbia’s accession to EU before Albania, Serbia would be in a position to play the veto game.
What an overview of blockages so far indicates is that the vetoes are not an aberration but an established practice. EU membership has served as a lever to get your neighbor to do things they would otherwise not do and, on top of that, to portray your nationalistic interests as “European values”. Combined with the rise of far-right politics and the illiberal turn in the latest EU members, the vetoes applied to EU aspirants do not inspire any confidence. The policy implication of this trend is that, instead of working solely to improve good neighborly relations, aspirants to EU membership would be well-advised to build stronger bonds with key national capitals, particularly Berlin, with a view to offsetting the expected barriers ahead.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of EurAsian Times.
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