If there is one thing you could say about 2019 and the European Union, then it is that it has been an interesting year to say the least. The issue of Brexit has been dominating the European agenda for the first half of the year (and will continue to do so as we draw closer to the new deadline), and the elections for the European Parliament have marked the beginning of a new five-year period in the political arena of Brussels. The established political groups in the Parliament, who have historically held the majority of the power, have lost ground to Eurosceptic groups and the Liberal and Green groups. An election for the European Parliament also means that a new European Commission has to be formed, with a new President of the European Commission to be chosen by the member states and new Commissioners who will be put on a range of positions within the Commission. It was a surprise for everybody that the new President of the Commission will be the German Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen, as this bypassed the unofficial ‘Spitzenkandidaten‘-process. The expectation is that the new Commission will be fully formed somewhere in the Autumn of 2019.
The Western Balkans and EU accession
Most of the countries in the Western Balkans, with exception to Slovenia and Croatia (who joined in 2004 and 2013 respectively), are not members of the European Union yet. Some countries are further in the process of becoming member states than others as countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are now at the stage of being potential candidates for membership, while Serbia, Montenegro, North-Macedonia and Albania have already received candidate statuses. The processes for EU accession of all these countries falls under the umbrella of the EU Enlargement Policy which is responsible for guiding the process of accession and integration of potential new member states. This policy area falls under the Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations which has been led by Commissioner Johannes Hahn for the last Commission’s term.
The EU accession process is arguably one of the most important policy areas for the Western Balkan countries who are not member states of the European Union yet. The benefits of being a member are numerous, most notably the economic opportunities which membership of the European single market offers and the fact that investing in the Western Balkan region becomes even more appealing with the framework that the European Union offers. It is no surprise then that joining the EU is high on the priority lists of all the Western Balkan countries, and that the different countries are committing to this process to the best of their abilities. The recent and long-contested name change of Macedonia to North-Macedonia is a good example of the lengths to which some countries are willing to go in order to make steps in the EU accession process.
Vice-versa, the incorporation of the Western Balkan countries into the European Union is also of importance to the EU itself for economic and geopolitical reasons. It is in the interest of the single market that low-costs markets are added to the common market to keep the market competitive with the availability of a more affordable workforce and lower prices for land, commodities and services. It also opens up more opportunities for investments, as stated in the previous paragraph. Next to the economic interests, one must not underestimate the geopolitical importance of the region for the EU. The region has historically been a crossroads for different cultures and spheres of influence, with Russia and Turkey being historical players of importance in the region. Now China is also making its entrance in the region by investing in large projects, both public and private. It is in the interest of the EU to have a strong influence in the region because of the geographic proximity, and to make sure that their sphere of influence is still strong in the region.
The new Commission will be shaping the future process
However, the EU accession of new countries is not as self-evident as it has been in the past. During the last Commission term from 2014 to 2019, further enlargement has not been high on the agenda for most of the term. It was only in the Spring of 2018 that then-President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker stated that there would be a renewed focus on enlargement for the Western Balkan region. Since then, steps have been made under Commissioner Hahn, but further enlargement is one of the areas that is strongly being opposed by the eurosceptics in the EU.
As the new Commission is being formed under the leadership of von der Leyen, the future accession of the Western Balkans region is at a crossroads. The choice of Commissioner will be instrumental in deciding the future course of accession for the Western Balkan countries, and will likely also play an influential role in shaping the agenda of von der Leyen with regards to enlargement as von der Leyen’s lack of experience in Brussels will make her rely more on the input of the new Commissioners. Currently, rumours are that the new Commissioner will either be from Slovenia or from Hungary. A Commissioner with a pro-enlargement agenda would be a lot more beneficial for the Western Balkan countries when looking to make significant steps towards accession in the future. Considering this, the candidate from Slovenia would be the logical choice. Having a Commissioner from a country that has strong historical ties with the rest of the Western Balkan region, that understands the culture and what is necessary in order to make accession possible, would be the best move for bringing the Western Balkans closer to the rest of the European Union.
As I explained before, it does not only serve the interests of the Western Balkan countries that they would become member states, but it also serves the interests of the EU as a whole. A pro-enlargement Commissioner would be able to underline the importance of accession being sooner instead of later. Conversely, having a Commissioner who is reluctant to push the enlargement agenda forward would be detrimental to the perspective on accession of the Western Balkan countries. It is no secret that the Hungarian candidate would have a more negative impact on the process. Not just because of the eurosceptic policies which are currently dominant in Hungary, but also because of the current status of Hungary within the EU. To put it mildly, the country has not had the most pro-EU stances the past few years, and when a Hungarian Commissioner would put forward any proposals, it will naturally be faced with more resistance and skepticism than i.e. a Slovenian Commissioner. Because of this risk, it would be in the best interest of the Western Balkan countries to have a pro-enlargement Commissioner from a country like Slovenia.
All in all, we can expect to know who the next Commissioner will be somewhere in the coming few months. It will be interesting to keep an eye on what Von der Leyen will have to say with regards to enlargement, and what the future Commissioner will say on the topic. Future enlargement is still a hotly-debated topic in Brussels, and whoever becomes Commissioner will have to navigate the waters while trying to keep the Western Balkans close to the European Union.
Picture: Olivier Hoslet / EPA