Illusory Enlargement of the European Union

This is part of our special feature, Imagining, Thinking, and Teaching Europe.
This is part of our roundtable on European Integration.


The future enlargement of the European Union (EU) has become a critical question for debate among its members. Whether the EU maintains its existing boundaries or expands to the East is a concern that divides many. The Western Balkan countries are still on the waiting list for membership. Could inclusion bring stability and prosperity to both the EU and the Western Balkans? Since the 1990s and the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the Western Balkan countries (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Albania) have seen themselves as part of the European Union, as EU membership represents the most desirable future for them.[1] With new post-conflict governments, Western Balkan countries have intensified their strategic efforts to facilitate access to EU membership, a prospect that the European Commission opened up at the Thessaloniki European Council Summit in June 2003: “The EU reiterates its unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries. The future of the Balkans is within the European Union.”[2] According to the EU Commission, its role in the region is to implement the “ultimate conflict prevention strategy,” which is “essential for the stability, reconciliation and the future of the Western Balkans.”[3]

According to EU legislation, any country that requests membership must be a European state and must respect the shared values and principles of the European Union expressly listed in Article 2 of the EU Treaty as human dignity, liberty, democracy, the rule of law, a market economy, and respect for human rights, including those of minorities. The Copenhagen European Council established these criteria in 1993, and maintained equally open doors for new members.

Any European state can become a member by adopting the EU Treaties. Due to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the European Commission established the regional approach to the Western Balkan countries in 1996. Its main goal was to implement the Dayton/Paris and Erdut Peace Agreements while ensuring political stability and economic prosperity by “establishing and maintaining democracy and the rule of law, ensuring respect for minorities and human rights, and reviving economic activity.”[4] However, in 1999, the European Commission changed its criteria and strategy toward the Western Balkans. This change has been understood as the result of the EU involvement in the Yugoslav conflicts in the 1990s (Maire Braniff). The turning point of the new EU strategy towards Serbia was the crisis in Kosovo that escalated in 1999. As a result, the Security Council of the United Nations adopted UN Resolution 1244 on June 10, 1999. The enactment of this Resolution ensured “conditions for a peaceful and normal life for all inhabitants in Kosovo” (Annex 1, May 6, 1999).[5] The document states that the people of Kosovo can “enjoy substantial autonomy within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,” today known as Serbia (Annex 2).[6] The new EU approach placed emphasis on stability and security of borders.

As a result of this new approach, the EU offered “new contractual relations” with Western Balkan countries in the form of Stabilization and Association Agreements. The process of the Stabilization and Association Agreements includes the development of economic and trade relations, financial aid, aid for democratization, the development of political dialogue, as well as accession to the European Union once the Copenhagen criteria are fulfilled.

The Stabilization and Association process, or “new contractual relations” that Serbia signed in 2008, includes completing the political requirements to continue the EU path: full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and the normalization of the relationship with Kosovo. The EU Commission concluded that fulfillment of these requirements was key for Serbia to move forward towards EU membership.

The EU often uses a “bargaining game” by offering external incentives to a government to conform to its conditions. If a government does not comply, the EU Commission can reduce its assistance and financial support and suspend association and the prospect of EU membership. In 2011, the Serbian government surrendered General Ratko Mladic to the Hague Tribunal. Mladic had been accused of genocide and war crimes in the Bosnian war of 1992-1995. The European Commission noted Serbia’s good-faith efforts: “Serbia maintained its full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).”[7] During the transfer, Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs of the EU, said that this was “an important moment for reconciliation in the region and for international justice” (May 31, 2011).[8] Acceptance of the EU conditions depends on “the size and speed of rewards.”[9] What kind of reward did Serbia get from its full cooperation with the ICTY? Did Serbia become a more “prosperous,” “democratic,” and “stable” country? Why has Serbia not had a chance to put on trial those accused of war crimes in its judiciary system with help and support from the EU? Wouldn’t such an EU approach have been more supportive of Serbia’s stated objectives? Likewise, would it not have been more beneficial to Serbia to build up its democracy? Therefore, one might conclude that there is an unethical aspect of EU insistence on cooperation with the ICTY. After the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the vast majority of people accused of war crimes by the ICTY were Serbs. By accusing one side for the civil war, it had created a “nation of collective guilt in Serbia…[the] nation is being held guilty for those same crimes.”[10] While other participants in the Yugoslav conflict were not so pressed by the ICTY, the cooperation with the ICTY was not a priority for them.

Prevailing opinion among Serbian parliamentary parties holds that political and economic “stabilization” of Serbia is possible only if Serbia keeps the path to the EU open. Serbian parliamentary parties’ political perspective is “preserving Kosovo and an open road to the EU” or “the EU without any other alternative.” According to Vojislav Kostunica, former President of Yugoslavia and Prime Minister of Serbia, after 2000, political parties in Serbia agreed that the country should move towards European Union membership. However, in 2008, the EU changed its stance on Serbia when most EU countries recognized the independence of Kosovo. For Kostunica, the EU broke its promise that Kosovo as a constitutive part of Serbia will be integrated into the EU.[11]

The subsequent inconsistencies of the EU’s membership requirements have sparked confusion and resentment among various candidates. Kosovo became a turning point in Serbian integration towards the EU. What is not clear is why Serbia “must” recognize Kosovo if it wants to be a member of the EU. Spain, also a member, has not recognized and normalized relations with Catalonia. Or member-state Greece, which also remains unfettered by requirements to recognize/normalize relations in its territorial dispute over Cyprus. On the other hand, Turkey has faced a series of barriers based on Copenhagen criteria, which are related to recognition of Cyprus. In 2004, the island of Cyprus was granted EU membership as the whole, even though it is separated on two parts: Greek and Turkish. These parallel membership tracks imposing higher standards for Turkey and the Western Balkans than for Greece, Bulgaria, or Romania have caused the whole prospect of membership to appear like something of a sleight-of-hand game.  In this context, historian Milorad Ekmecic says: “Our [Serbian] entrance to the EU looks like a punishment, but not the achievement of rights on honest negotiations.”[12]

The framework of Serbia’s existing relationship with the EU is one of political and military neutrality. Serbia has continued to develop political, economic, military, cultural, scientific, and educational cooperation with the EU, NATO, and other countries and associations. For instance, Norway is not a member of the EU, yet it has successfully maintained a relationship. Political neutrality can create Serbia’s developing identity, culture, and traditions free from substantial political interference. In this context, the Serbian state and culture can nurture its own, what Heidegger has termed “authentic existence” in the “post-modern” Europe. From Heidegger’s standpoint, “authentic existence” means that kind of existence when individuals realize who they are and when they realize that each individual has a distinctive entity. “Authenticity” means that individuals can fulfill their potential in the world without concerns to do as masses do. In other words, “authenticity” is to be oneself, and “theyness” is a repudiation of “authenticity.” In Heidegger’s context, every decision pro or counter the EU is a Serbian and European decision: “To be at all is to be worldly.”[13]

The Western Balkan countries have since intensified their efforts to promote an EU-friendly mindset. They began harmonizing domestic and foreign policies and entered accession negotiations with the European Union. It has been a lengthy arbitration process–the aftermath of a stick and carrot strategy has been changed the requirements for each Western Balkan country for almost two decades. For instance, throughout the process of negotiation, the EU’s inconsistent policies toward Serbia have repeatedly changed its stand on the Kosovo case. Additionally, the EU has failed to offer a clear strategy about enlargement. Three years ago, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Union Commission, said that there would be no new EU members during his tenure, or until the end of 2019. In the EU Commission’s new White Paper on its future, there is no plan or consideration of enlargement until 2025.[14] The Eurozone financial crisis in 2008 and BREXIT in 2020 suggested undesirable aspects of membership to the Western Balkan countries, causing several to reconsider their attempts to join such as Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The migrant crisis challenges Serbia and North Macedonia because they are situated on a crowded migrant transit route. The EU’s requirement that each country accepts a quota of migrants with “promising financial EU support’ caused alarm in the Western Balkans, which were already struggling to provide for a large number of migrants at a time when citizens still faced mass unemployment and poverty. These reasons, as well as the lack of confidence in Brussel’s bureaucracy and its decisions, led to Euroscepticism among political and intellectual elites, leaving the door wide open for Russia’s attempts to take advantage of the EU’s inconsistencies towards the Balkans. For example, Serbia signed a trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union in October 2019, which does not correspond to EU aspirations and requirements for membership. Moreover, as a primary energy provider in Europe, Russia has a clear strategy towards the Western Balkans. The “Turkish Stream” project, would include the Western Balkan countries as part of a transit gas route (through the Black Sea to Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Hungary) to the other European countries. In the region “Today, Europe is far more being perceived as a guide or a model, as it was in the early 2000s” (Enza Roberta Petrillo).

Certain decision-makers within the EU believe that the EU enlargement policy offering membership to the Western Balkan countries in 2000 created a “membership puzzle,” and that it was in fact illusory in the sense that the EU merely wanted to appear to offer membership without the expectation of any actual acceptance.[15] For others, it is unclear whether offering EU membership to the Western Balkans is “actually suited to the needs and capacities of the region.”[16]If EU enlargement does not meet the needs of the region, are there alternate solutions for the Western Balkans? The EU promoted regional cooperation with the CARDS program 2000-2006 (Community Assistance for Reconstruction, Development, and Stabilization). In 2019, “Little Schengen” was initiated by Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro in order to establish the free movement of goods, people, capital, and services among themselves. If the EU continues to support and encourage regional cooperation such as “Little Schengen,” could it initiate a new regional union—a Balkan confederation as an alternative to the EU? Regional cooperation is the cornerstone of the EU framework. Building a regional union, the “membership puzzle” would be “solved” for the EU. Or rather, a regional Balkan union would be an alternative solution to the EU membership for those countries. On the other hand, the Western Balkans countries could better satisfy their own needs and expand capacities, thereby cultivating stronger economic, political, and cultural relations in such a regional union.

The Balkans are on the periphery of both Eastern and Western powers’ priorities. Whenever it comes to the Balkans, Russia, the European Union, and the West in general show their rivalry by increasing their powers and influences. Russia wants to keep Serbia within her zone of influence, or at least as a “buffer zone” in order to advocate its interest in the European Union. The European Union and the United States need Serbia to complete their sphere of influence and confirm their policies in the Balkans—likewise making a buffer against Russia. However, in the historical context from Ancient Greece to today, it has always been challenging to keep the Balkans under one hat.

Darko Tanaskovic, former Serbian ambassador to the UNESCO, said that it is not very easy to give an advice to any Balkan country. However, there are two folk proverbs that may help, one comes from the Balkans, and the other is American: “Near is my coat, but nearer is my shirt!” and “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket!”[17]


Milos Rastovic is a Scholar-in-Residence at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA. He is a contributor to Politics(Politika), and has written for OxPol, World Policy Journal, and others. He presented his works at Columbia University, Cambridge University, Harvard University, and other universities.



[1] Orlovic, Slavisa. “Parties and the Party System of Serbia and European Integrations.” Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans 10, no. 2 (2008): 206.

[2] European Commission. “EU-Western Balkans Summit, Thessaloniki. Declaration.” June 21, 2003,

[3] European Commission. Western Balkans: Prospect of EU Membership Incites Peace in the Western Balkans, 2006, pg. 8: ; European Council, June 2008, Presidency Conclusions, Commission of the European Communities, Brussels, February 3, 2009, Sec (2009) 128 final.

[4] Summaries of EU legislation. “The Stabilisation and Association Process.” June 7, 2010,

[5] The United Nations Resolution 1244, June 10, 1999:

[6] The United Nations Resolution 1244, June 10, 1999:

[7] European Commission. “Conclusions on Serbia, European Commission: Commission Staff Working Document Serbia 2012 Progress Report.” Brussels, 10.10.2012,

[8] Gregg Benzow, and  Matt Zuvela. “EU Welcomes Transfer of Mladic to UN War Crimes Court.” DW, June 1, 2011,

[9] Schimmelfenning, F and Sedelmeier, U. (eds.). The Europeanization of Central and Eastern Europe. Ithaca NY, Cornel University Press, 2005: 1-28, 210-228.

[10] Simeunovic, Dragan. Serbian Collective Guilt. Nolit, Belgrade, 2007: 15.

[11] Kostunica, Vojislav. Zasto Srbija a ne Evropska Unija. Fond Slobodan Jovanovic. Belgrade, Serbia, 2012.

[12] Milorad Ekmecic. „Milorad Ekmecic: Evropa nije cokolada vec vojni blok.“ Vecernje Novosti, August 28, 2010, Belgrade, Serbia.

[13] Warnock. M. Existentialism. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1970.

[14] European Commission. “Commission Presents White Paper on the Future of Europe: Avenues for Unity for the EU at 27,” March 1, 2017:

[15] Braniff, Maire. Library of European Studies: Integrating the Balkans: Conflict Resolution and the Impact of  EU Expansion. London, GBR: I.B. Tauris, 2011: 77-78.

[16] Friis, L. and Murphy, A. “Turbo-Changed Negotiations: the EU and the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe.” Journal of European Public Policy. 7 (5): 778.

[17] Tanaskovic, Darko. “New Balkans between Globalization and Regionalization.” New Balkans and Europe – Peace Development Integration. European Center for Peace and Development, University for Peace Est. by the UN, 2013, 28.



Photo: Crack between European union and Serbia flags | Shutterstock
Published on June 3, 2020.


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