Sofia view: Where is enlargement heading?


Where is EU enlargement heading?  How is the Balkans faring in the current crisis and what role does as ambitious a power as Turkey, a country that is part of the region, impact on the politics of this corner of Europe. On 18 June ECFR Sofia co-hosted a one-day conference together with the Centre for Strategic Research, the in-house think tank of Turkey’s MFA.  We also had the pleasure to have the Balkan Studies Institute at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and the Diplomatic Institute at the Bulgarian MFA amongst the organisers.

The crisis is a welcome moment to take stock of the achievements and prospects of regional cooperation in the Balkans. Not least because greater integration is often cast as the path for boosting growth and development. One key point raised was the need to adopt a more inclusive definition of South East Europe, beyond the Western Balkans which comes in the spotlight of international strategies, is in order. Bulent Aras, head of SAM, wearing his academic garb, talked extensively about the dangers of ghettoisation in the construction of regional units on the periphery of the EU. And this is not just the Balkans: the Euro-Mediterranean partnership and then the Union for the Mediterranean was established, according to critics, as a barrier to fend off threats from the global South – not as an inclusive structure. But Ekaterina Nikova of the Balkan Studies Institute offered a more upbeat assessment: to her, Europeanisation (distinctive from EU-isation) has historically been a force for good in the Balkans. The best piece of evidence is the remarkable progress achieved since the end of the Kosovo war.

How does Turkey fit in, now that it has become a power centre in its own right and the accession talks with the EU have been blocked? Turkish neighbourhood policy, as Saban Kardas of TOBB University argued, is seeking to advance integration – drawing inspiration from EU’s own neo-functionalist toolbox. The downside, according to him, was the still insufficient regional expertise with regards to the Balkans, but also the Caucasus and, crucially, the Middle East. Ognyan Minchev, of Sofia University, was much more pessimistic. For him Turkey’s involvement in the region, as good intentioned and economically beneficial as it could be, was a risky affair. The problem is the over-reliance on references to a glorious Ottoman past which leads to a nationalist backlash amongst non-Muslims in South East Europe – and might open the gates to Russia and set off rivalries reminiscent of times past (the head of the Balkan Studies Institute Alexander Kostov gave a good overview of how great power politics put a brake on tentative efforts for regional cooperation in the interwar period and during the Cold War).  

A panel on enlargement looked at the dynamics, prospects and sticky points in EU’s rapport with the Western Balkans and Turkey at a time the Union itself is confronted with existential challenge. Vessela Tcherneva, spokesperson at the Bulgarian MFA and member of the ECFR Council, called for a change of narrative. The Western Balkans are not a security issue anymore but are confronted, for better or worse, with the same issues as societies in Western Europe. In other words, what enlargement policy needs is a zooming in on growth and development. Such ideas shaped the key message of the recent Sofia Forum for the Balkans, a high-profile conference convened by the MFA. In the final analysis, EU expansion works through incentives, not punishments. That was one of the punchlines offered by Antoinette Primatarova, Programme Director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies who was also a deputy chief negotiator for Bulgaria. Both panelists and the audience shared the view that enlargement should not stop once Croatia moves in next year. Montenegro could be the next one, they thought.  But few of them had any doubt that the road ahead will be rocky and uneven.


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