With the European Union struck by a number of issues, from increased Russian aggression to an ongoing migrant crisis to lingering economic woes, it seeks to expand membership in the Balkans and beyond. Michal Bokša argues that the same tactic which brought Central Europe into the EU in the 1990s will not have the same appeal in the Southeast.

The European Union (EU) should start rethinking its key instruments and strategies for approaching countries in its Eastern and West Balkan neighborhood. Analyzing the most recent events it becomes obvious that within these regions pro-EU sentiment has its limits and can be significantly diminished or reversed. In other words, mere Association Agreements or long term prospects for potential membership simply do not seem to constitute an unshakable appeal for local reforms and a pro-European course as they once did for Central European countries during the 1990s.

The recent presidential elections in Moldova, won by Igor Dodon, leader of the Party of Socialists, could be regarded as a harbinger of the EU’s diminished attractiveness and declining ability to trigger and sustain reforms in its neighboring regions. Moldova’s pro-European course has been set since local parliamentary elections in July 2009 when pro-Western parties formed a coalition and pushed the Communist party into opposition. Aside from several setbacks, this course has been followed ever since. Nonetheless, the election of Igor Dodon, a candidate who vowed to re-establish friendly relations with the Russian Federation and who made Moldova’s re-orientation on the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union conceivable, could indicate that Moldova’s pro-European direction could be questioned or reversed. Furthermore, the International Republican Institute and Moldovan Institutul de Politici Publice, in March and April 2016, respectively, presented surveys which indicated that entering the Eurasian Economic Union currently has greater public support than joining the European Union. Despite the fact that Moldova’s president has only limited powers and is in no position to rapidly overturn the country’s orientation and foreign policy, the recent election is certainly not a positive sign for local, pro-Western, liberal minded reformists ahead of parliamentary elections in November 2018.

What is more troubling is that Moldova is far from being the only country in EU’s Eastern and Balkan neighborhood where the EU’s appeal seems to have diminished significantly. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s long-term path toward the European Union is currently, although less noticeably, being undermined by increased ethno-nationalistic sentiments within its autonomous entities, namely, Republika Srpska and Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The appeal of the EU and the prospect of becoming a full member have played a critical role in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political reforms and state cohesion. Nonetheless, in recent years it appears that the EU’s local appeal has diminished and is in the process of being replaced by desires for greater independence along ethnic lines. In fact, Bosnia and Herzegovina is currently undergoing a process of regression and further division rather than progressing toward greater unity. This was most recently demonstrated by the latest municipal elections in October 2016 when parties with ethno-nationalist agendas claimed major victories in communities where their constituencies dominate. The EU itself cannot be blamed for current trends within Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the decreased desire of the local population to become a member of the bloc has certainly diminished the appeal of a central government which otherwise offers prospects of both greater cohesion and EU membership. Consequently, a space has opened for politicians to run on nationalist agendas and stir ethno-nationalistic sentiments. Indeed, we could hardly imagine nationalist politicians such as Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska from the Party of Independent Social Democrats, to have such a success in municipal elections if local populations were attracted to EU membership.

In recent years Ukraine has become the main focal point for the EU’s Neighborhood Policy, demonstrated most dramatically by the events in February 2014 which saw the fall of Kremlin-supported government of President Viktor Yanukovych and the establishment of a pro-EU government. This has opened up doors for new chapter in EU-Ukrainian relations while providing an opportunity for Brussels to repeat Europeanization and transformation successes it experienced with Central European countries, namely the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, during the 1990s. Nevertheless, the approach so far of Brussels’ elites toward Ukraine has been lukewarm. Any pro-EU and pro-reform momentum harnessed in 2014 has been gradually diminished. The post-Yanukovych coalition which was approved in December 2014 and which initially included the Petro Poroschenko Bloc, People’s Front, Self-Reliance Party, Radical Party, and Fatherland party has largely disintegrated. This has left only the Poroschenko Bloc and the People’s Front in the ruling coalition; which is consequently short of a majority in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament). In turn, the minority government’s ability— and to some extent appetite— to pass essential structural reforms has waned. Although, the EU is not responsible for Ukrainian internal politics it certainly should in its capacity seek out a pro-active role and provide Ukraine with more incentives to undergo a successful transformation. Unfortunately, as in the other examples, the EU has in practical terms merely implemented a very similar approach and used similar instruments it once applied towards Central European countries during the 1990s hoping it will suffice. It will not.

The systemic fall in EU’s appeal to its Eastern and Balkan neighbors indicates that this issue is not a coincidence but rather a structural problem. The EU’s essential fault is its inability to recognize that the current political landscape is vastly different from the one which existed at the turn of the millennium. Inciting reforms and the entire Europeanization process in Central Europe occurred without virtually any Russian hindrances during a period of general post-Cold war optimism, with EU being seen by Central European citizens as a “dream union” of wealth and high living standards. Moreover, the EU itself was open to the prospects of admitting new member states. However, such period has long passed. Post-Cold War optimism evaporated quite a while ago; the Russian Federation is increasingly asserting itself as an international powerbroker and aims to again become an unquestionable authority in its Near Abroad. Finally, EU itself has lost its prestige of being seen as a “dream union” in light of its numerous internal challenges, like the financial crises, refugee crises, Brexit, and the overall rise of nationalist sentiments within its own member states. Moreover, its appeal has also been undermined by the fact that any prospects of a further increase in membership seem illusory at the present.

In light of this changed context, Brussels should realize that merely applying the same old instruments, such as association agreements, financial assistance or membership prospects, toward its neighbors and expecting similar results is naive. Even without facing any significant external challenges, it took Central Europe roughly 14 years to undergo the successful transformation. Any reform process this long is intrinsically difficult to sustain. Adding that countries in EU’s Eastern and Balkan neighborhood often face worse economic conditions than Central European countries in the 1990s, the significant presence of Russian influence opposing any Western reforms, and the EU’s relative coldness almost ensures that any integration processes that are currently occurring or planned in this region have little chance of success. Instead they are more likely to lose their momentum halfway through these processes, leaving countries hanging in the vacuum between two orbits, one of the EU and the other of Russian Federation and its Eurasian Economic Union. To a large extent countries such as Moldova or Bosnia and Herzegovina show numerous signs which indicate that this is already the case. Ukraine, given its difficult economic and international position, is highly likely to follow a similar path.  

Certainly the EU and its policies are in itself no panacea to struggle in these countries; nevertheless, Brussels should still strive to provide them with more incentives and opportunities for advancing their transformation. For its part, the EU should strive to avoid being overly reserved in its approach toward societies under transformation. Recent delays of visa-free travel for Ukrainian citizens perfectly exemplify this reservation. Similarly, other ills such as Dutch ‘No’ in its, albeit non-binding, referendum on a free-trade area between EU and Ukraine have the effect of undermining any pro-reform sentiments.

The ability to spark reforms and transformation processes in its neighborhood has always been one of Brussels’ strongest qualities, practically unmatched by any other country or international body. The structural decline in the EU’s capacity to trigger and sustain such reforms, however, indicates that EU needs a fresh approach. Association Agreements and financial aid will simply not do the job itself anymore. Having stable, democratic and economically well developed countries in its neighborhood is one of the pre-requisites for the success of the Union itself. However, to achieve that, the EU desperately needs to recognize that in today’s world it must start playing a more active role in aiding the transformation of countries which surround it. The almost laissez-fair transformation and Europeanization processes which successfully occurred in Central Europe during 1990s are hardly to be ever seen again.

Michal Bokša is a graduate of the University of Cambridge (MPhil in International Relations and Politics). He is specializing in international security with research and analytical experience from NATO Defense College, NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of an institution he is affiliated with.