At a scenic castle in Slovenia last week, all 27 heads of state from European Union member nations and counterparts from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia again discussed the six western Balkan countries joining the EU, but due to a range of challenges there is little likelihood of that any time soon – and some wonder if ever.
A few days later Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that parts of EU law are incompatible with the Polish constitution, undermining the legal pillar on which the EU stands and increasing fears that Poland could eventually leave the bloc.
At the same time, the EU is smarting from its impotence in influencing the withdrawal timeline of the multinational force in Afghanistan.
Such existential quandaries come as the EU takes a victory lap of sorts following its historic rollout of a massive vaccination programme and economic recovery package. It seems a time to bask in a moment of success, so much so some are saying with greater volume and frequency that the time has come for the EU to become a truly global power player.
Facing additional challenges in its once rock-solid transatlantic partnership with the United States, the EU might want to fill some of the vacuum left as the Biden doctrine emphasises diplomacy over boots on the ground. But before the EU can do that, it should first take care of its own backyard and become a cohesive regional force.
Can it grow further to better embrace all of the region, then find the organisational will to become a credible worldwide broker and influencer?
On paper, the EU sure has a lot going for it. It is the largest economy in the world, generating a per capita GDP of 25,000 euros for its 450 million consumers. It is also the world’s largest trader of manufactured goods and services. It is the wealthiest region in the world and home to truly historic manufacturers, innovators, creative minds and artisans.
It is also the font of historic conflicts, an ancient land brimming with cultural diversity and divisiveness. A truly workable union between them all is a noble goal – and perhaps a bridge too far. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, could have wondered just that as she officiated the recent opening of the Svilaj Bridge linking Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Flanked by leaders of the two countries, she hailed the opening of the bridge. “All the western Balkans belong in the European Union,” said von der Leyen. “It’s in our common interest, but I also believe it’s our destiny.”
Yet just a week later and not far away in Slovenia, the six western Balkan countries emerged from a summit with the only proof of EU fraternity — a pledge to cut cellphone roaming fees.
After all the verbal bonhomie settles, the truth is that the enlargement to the western Balkans is completely stalled. North Macedonia jumped through many hoops to begin membership talks, including changing its name to settle a conflict with Greece, yet a dispute over the origins of the Macedonian language led Bulgaria to veto the start of its accession negotiations. The prime minister of Albania has compared its relationship with the EU to a failed marriage, though one presumes to fit the criterion the two should have at least been married to begin with.
In her very last days in office, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany is open to eventual membership for the western Balkan nations, but at this point, it doesn’t even support creating a firm timeline to open talks on the subject.
“When the conditions are met, accession can take place,” said the outgoing chancellor. “But so far, no accession could take place because the conditions haven’t yet been met by any of the countries.”
Another irritant, and one that could grow into a crisis, is Poland. Leaders across Europe voiced dismay at a ruling by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal last week that says parts of EU law are incompatible with the Polish constitution.
Von der Leyen said she was “deeply concerned”, noting in a statement that EU citizens and businesses need legal certainty, so the commission would make a swift analysis to decide its next steps.
Luxembourg’s Foreign Affairs Minister Jean Asselborn said “we have to state clearly that this government in Poland is playing with fire”.
“The primacy of European law is essential for the integration of Europe and living together in Europe. If this principle is broken, Europe as we know it will cease to exist,” he added.
Part of the influence the EU wields regionally is the prospect of membership for additional countries – and with that access to the wealthy market as well as the benefits of direct aid. If there is no realistic chance of joining, those on the outside of the club are far less interested in its rules and aspirations.
In addition to its renowned refinement, Europe is also famed for its complexity – its multitude of cultures, histories and even languages, all interacting in a dynamic whirlwind that is hard to channel.
Can the union take on even more complexity, growing bigger and more powerful? The answer, for now, seems to be no.
And in the future? As idealistic as it might be, continued expansion could be a case of sharply diminishing returns.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are veteran international journalists based in Milan
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