[Archived Post] Enlargement from Within – Fragmenting Europe or Integrating Europe?

[Archived Post] Enlargement from Within – Fragmenting Europe or Integrating Europe?
This blog post has been archived here for reference and was originally published on the 28th September 2014 via Assessing Accession: http://grou.ps/assessingaccession/blogs/item/enlargement-from-within-fragmenting-europe-or-integrating-europe.  It was published in the aftermath of the original 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum.

What happens when part of the EU secedes from an existing member state, but wants to stay in the EU as a new independent member state? What would the implications of accepting new members from within mean for those candidate, potential candidate and aspiring associate states currently without EU membership? This blog post examines these questions in relation to recent events in Scotland and elsewhere.

The Scottish Independence Referendum of the 18th September 2014 is over and for many in Europe there was no doubt a collective sigh of relief when the no vote was declared the following morning. The former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta tweeted (in Italian):

Translating as “Scotland has decided. Good for us and for Europe. Now let’s not ignore the intolerance and fears which encourage separatists.” The BBC claimed that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, when asked if she was pleased at the outcome, apparently stated: ” I will not comment on this but just smile” – certainly more dignified than a purr allegedly given by the Queen, but every bit as damning of the pro-independence goal and indicative of the lack of support that Scottish independence appeared to have among senior European political elite.
That relief though may be short lived, with the ‘Scottish No’ proving little more than a stay of execution. Scottish independence voices have not been silenced in defeat and the ‘movement’ appears to be regrouping as evidenced by the mass demonstration held outside the Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh on Saturday 27th September, and the fact that numerous other mass rallies are planned in Edinburgh and around the country, including one called by the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) for the centre of Glasgow at George Square – the scene of both shocking violence perpetrated by loyalist supporters of the winning ‘no’ camp the day after the referendum and subsequently an example of human generosity by the vast donations of bags of food for Glasgow’s many ‘food bank’ projects. These projects featured heavily in the debate during the independence referendum campaign as an example of the failure of the existing UK state to provide even basic living standards for many of its citizens [it’s worth remembering that in the UK’s complex devolved government system, social welfare policy and economic policy remain the reserved power of the London based Westminster government].
Furthermore, most strikingly, the Scottish National Party (SNP) which led the defeated ‘yes’ campaign has witnessed a surge in party membership, rising from 23000 before the referendum to over 70000 within just over a week of the result, making it the third largest political party in the UK. While it remains to be seen if these numbers are sustained throughout the coming year/s, it does give the SNP a potentially strong position going into the 2015 UK general election. This is important because if the SNP and other pro-yes parties are successful in winning a substantial number of parliamentary seats in the 2015 election and follow this up with success in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election then it keeps alive the potential for for another #indyref vote at some stage.
The SNP have not ruled another referendum out, but have stated that it would only happen if triggered by either mass public support, the failure of the UK government to deliver on promised new powers for Scotland, or if an event of significant political importance, such as the withdrawal or threat of withdrawal of the UK from the EU, were to happen.  And of course, independence for Scotland remains the long-term goal of the SNP, the Scottish Greens and a whole range of new Scottish civil society organisations that were born in the fires of the recent referendum campaign. Any belief that the ‘Scottish No’ represents the demise of the idea of Scottish independence is very much mistaken.
Screen Shot 2017-03-22 at 23.55.18
Picture Source: naomiself on instagram – Glasgow George Square Food Parcel donations
Elsewhere in Europe, the flames of secession are being fanned by others. Catalonia is by far the most significant and its leader Artur Mas plans to move ahead with holding its own independence referendum.  Of course Catalonia is not Scotland and there are important differences in how that referendum process will play not, not least the fact that the Spanish Government refuses to accept the legality of the proposed referendum [a fundamental difference between the attitude of the Spanish and UK governments]. Independence movements exist across the EU territory, few are of any real threat, but some, like Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders are significant enough and have enough momentum to possibly succeed in the future.
Regardless of the implications for the member state they would be breaking away from, secession raises a fundamentally important question for the EU. It is a question that to date the EU has refused to adequately address [at least publicly] – how do you absorb newly independent states that emerge from existing EU member states and who wish to remain within the EU? There are a range of possibilities and a large number of academic papers theorise about how this might be done. The short and most quoted answer has been that because the EU is a treaty based organisation, any new states breaking away from a treaty signatory would no long be party to the treaty and therefore have to reapply for membership in its own right. Seems simple enough, but what few people seem to recognise or choose to ignore is that the treaties on which the EU is based fail to provide clear direction on how this would be achieved.
Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty does allow for a member state to withdraw from the EU but it says nothing about part of a member state. Any withdrawing state would have to undergo upwards of two years of negotiations to disentangle itself from the existing web of obligations its membership includes. We would assume that if the ‘withdraw and reapply’ position set out in Article 50 is the only policy position for Brussels for such newly independent states which have emerged from within the EU territory that it would need to undertake a similar period of negotiation to disentangle the seceding territory and that this would need to be done in parallel with any negotiations between the seceding state and central government of the territory it secedes from. This parallel negotiation would be necessary because the issue of combined sovereignty between the EU and its member states where exclusive and shared competencies exist. It would be highly impractical not to do the two things at the same time, although it would also require a seceding territory to be given the legal competency to undertake negotiations with the EU otherwise the central government of the member state (as in the case of the UK where Europe remains a reserved power for London) would need to negotiate on behalf of the seceding territory – putting it is a difficult position due to a potential conflict of interest.
If the EU were to wait until the new state was formally independent then this would require a tacit acceptance of EU membership of the newly independent state while it undertakes the withdrawal negotiations.  This is where things get complicated, this position assumes that the new state would accept to voluntarily withdraw from the EU, thus triggering the negotiation period. If the position of the new state is to remain in the EU, it could claim that the negotiations are null and void. The EU could accept the implied membership of the new state, but then suspend its treaty rights, such as voting privileges (which technically it never really had), until such time as the withdrawal negotiations were complete. The EU is unable to expel a member outright. But if the intention of the newly independent state is to reapply for EU membership then, why would the EU bother to go through the process of negotiating withdrawal only to renegotiate membership. It would be a cumbersome and time consuming process and it would make much more sense for the EU to simply undertake a renegotiation of membership obligations within the existing treaty system and ensure that there was a continuity of membership thus minimising disruption (which could be detrimental not only to the political functioning, but also the economic well-being of all parties involved) as much as possible. This same logic applies to any negotiations that might take place in parallel with the independence negotiations within the member state.
It is highly unlikely that the EU would seek to expel (legally impossible), or claim that the treaties no longer applied (technically possible) because it would not only create a sense of uncertainty and disruption but it would go against the spirit of the union (legally not an issue but a powerful moral argument could be made) and therefore it is likely that a solution to a new state forming within the EU would be found and that the solution would seek to make the process as straightforward as possible. This of course would mean that the EU would continue to enlarge, not geographically but in terms of members. This is turn would have implications for the various institutions all of which would need to accommodate the new member state.
What about those states currently without EU membership but who have expressed a desire to join? While there is very little they can do to stop the EU enlarging from within and accepting new members in light of fragmenting member states, it does create a bit of a conundrum, especially if the EU has explicitly slowed down the accession process for these states, as seems will be the case under the Juncker Commission where a “pause for enlargement” has been put forward.
Commission President Jean-Claude Junker has instructed his commissioner on neighbourhood policy and enlargement, Johannes Hahn, in a mission letter, that “following the extensive enlargement of the Union in the last decade, the next five years will be a period of consolidation, with no further enlargement taking place during our mandate”.

Would such a pause also apply to a newly independent state from within the EU’s existing territory? The important word here is ‘consolidation’ and if that is key to the direction of Junker’s mandate, then he will not wish to see the EU plunged into a potential political crisis by having part of its existing membership forced to leave or be locked out of the Union. Rather than spend months or years negotiating an exit from and re-entry to the EU, Juncker and the EU will more likely negotiate to find a way to retain Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders or any other seceding territory within the EU. That would be a more sensible and practical thing to do. The quote on ‘no further expansion’ therefore must be read as one that is aimed at those existing and potential candidate states in the east and southeast of Europe, including Turkey.

Is this a case of double standards? If we look at this as a moral question, then yes it could be argued as a double standard, but from a practical point of view then probably not when you consider the complexities of independence within the EU and the need for the EU to keep its own house in order. But, what is clear is that any enlargement of the EU from within while it maintains an explicit policy of ‘pausing enlargement’ for those states beyond the union will not boost the morale of those Southeast European and Eastern partnership states currently seeking or hoping for membership. This could lead to an ‘even’ more complex relationship between the EU and these states and reduce the EU’s influence within them. This would be a disaster for the EU’s foreign policy.  Likewise, it could also see the end of the EU’s geographical expansion altogether if these states decide that membership of a ‘club’ that treats them not as equals in the family of European nations is not a club worth joining.

So what does all of these mean? The bottom line is that the Scottish independence question did not stop being an issue on the 19th September when the ‘no’ vote was declared. It is compounded by some additional and very real secessionist challenges that are rapidly moving up the political agenda for key EU member states.  The question of how to deal with such situations and address the serious implications it would have for the EU must be addressed head on and the EU cannot continue to claim that this is an issue for member states to address internally. To do so will mean that the smile of a German Chancellor could quickly become grimace. Therefore, any revision of the EU’s Treaty of Union must include clear, practical guidance on how to address this issue. Even if it is not in its interest to see a member state fragment, the need for a clear route to membership from within must be set forth. This would clearly create an internalised enlargement perspective separate from the external enlargement policy, thus allowing the EU to have two distinct enlargement processes.
Fears that this might lead pro-independence regions to seek to further their interest have to be set aside and the EU would need to accept that it is a stakeholder in the independence debates that would emerge. If it does this then it could legitimately work in partnership with the member state government to oppose independence. This would be a much more honest and transparent approach.  In the event of a successful independence campaign all parties, the seceding territory, the member state and the EU will be required to work together in good faith to quickly resolve the issues of membership continuity.
It will also require the EU to consider its commitment to expansion beyond its existing borders. As a foreign policy priority enlargement to existing independent states may be considered separate to any internal enlargement process, but a deliberate attempt to obstruct or slow the process of a state’s ability to work towards meeting all the necessary membership criteria will not be viewed well by that state. Internal expansion will merely highlight that the EU does still have capacity to absorb new states and therefore a feeling that these states are being discriminated against could emerge. This would undoubtedly weaken the EU’s foreign policy by curtailing the power that membership options currently afford it.
It is argued that the Scottish independence referendum even in light of the ‘no vote’ will lead to change within the UK system of government. The EU should also take note and use this as an opportunity to reform its own position on enlargement as a policy matter. Failure to do so and continuation of the status quo will only lead to a more complex set of problems to deal with in the longer term as it seeks to balance a fragmenting Europe with an integrating Europe.

The “In Defense of National Identity” Argument: Comparing the UK and Hungarian Referendums of 2016

The “In Defense of National Identity” Argument: Comparing the UK and Hungarian Referendums of 2016

In 2000, the Hungarian academic Laszlo J. Kiss wrote, “By the end of the twentieth century, ‘nationalism’ had become a loaded term, generally associated with xenophobic ethno-nationalism and smacking of genocide and ethno-territorialism.” It is for this reason, he continued, that “there is a tendency to avoid discussing nationalism, national identity and the power of ethnicity in shaping policy” (Kiss 2000). Recent events, however, show us that nationalism and national identity are no longer taboo. The 2016 presidential election in the United States saw the Trump campaign extensively use national identity to frame its arguments on issues including trade, immigration, education, and security, among others. Likewise, in the UK’s June 2016 referendum on whether to remain a member of the European Union, and the October 2016 Hungarian referendum on whether to accept or reject an EU policy on quotas for the resettlement of refugees, the issue of national identity was front and center of public, political, and even judicial debate. These are only some of the growing number of examples of political events where nationalism and national identity have become important defining concepts.

National identity and its cultural, ethnic, and constitutional components are now regularly used to justify and shape policy and political decision-making. For some, this is an acceptable development, evidenced by the increased use in political rhetoric of the “in defense of national identity” argument. For others, it represents a return to the xenophobia and ethno-nationalism that underpinned the horrors of twentieth century Europe, and in doing so further reinforces what they see as an “illiberal turn” driven by the growth of right-wing populism. As such, we are witnessing the emergence of a deep illiberal-liberal cleavage in politics, which in the context of Europe has the potential to create significant challenges for the direction of European integration. This essay presents a brief interpretation of why this is the case.

The UK and Hungarian cases mentioned above are particularly interesting because although they share many similar traits in terms of how the “in defense of national identity” argument informed debate during and after their respective referenda, there are also several important differences. The most relevant similarity is the fact that immigration, refugee, and asylum issues dominated debate in both countries. Differences include the outcomes and attitudes toward European integration and how each country sees their place and role in the EU following their respective referendums.

In the UK, the referendum debate reflected its recent experience of large-scale immigration from other EU countries, predominately the central and east European member states, and the belief that that it had lost the ability to control immigration and its borders, with detrimental effects for national cohesion and identity. Although it was not the only argument made during the UK’s in-out referendum, the decision to leave the EU has subsequently consolidated around the matter of immigration. As such it has become the key issue through which Theresa May’s Conservative government frames Brexit, justifying the move towards the so-called “hard Brexit” represented by leaving the Single European Market, as well as the EU’s political institutions (May 2017). The UK’s decision to leave also represents a fundamental assumption in terms of the relationship between its national identity and the UK’s place in Europe, or rather the European Union–the assumption that no natural relationship exists and that the EU is an excessive intrusion into UK affairs. While this is a broad-brush statement, it does go some way to explaining the dogged insistence of the May government to comply with the referendum result and extract the UK from all aspects of the European integration process, despite strong economic and political arguments against doing so.

In Hungary, the referendum directly reflected migration and the movement of people by the fact that it questioned proposed quotas for the redistribution of refugees among EU member states. Debate, particularly that pushed by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government, reflected a strong anti-immigration message. The referendum built on the difficulties faced by the Hungarian state at the height of the refugee crisis in late 2015, which saw Hungary receive nearly 1800 asylum applications per 100,000 residents, compared with Germany’s 587, or the UK’s 60 per 100,000 residents. This reinforced a national identity sentiment within the country that the government sought to frame as a societal as well as a state security issue. As Orbán declared in a speech to the Hungarian National Assembly in February 2016: “The most important task for 2016 is to preserve the security of the Hungarian people, Hungarian families and Hungarian settlements” (Hungarian Government 2016). In a bid to sell this and gain public backing, the Hungarian government undertook a National Consultation survey in the spring of 2015, which saw immigration and asylum issues crudely conflated with terrorism and the “illegal” movement of people for economic gain. The letter, signed by Orbán, that accompanied the National Consultation survey sent to all Hungarian households stated:

I am sure you will remember that at the beginning of the year Europe was shaken by an unprecedented act of terror. In Paris the lives of innocent people were extinguished, in cold blood and with terrifying brutality. We were all shocked by what happened. At the same time, this incomprehensible act of horror also demonstrated that Brussels and the European Union are unable to adequately deal with the issue of immigration.

Economic migrants cross our borders illegally, and while they present themselves as asylum-seekers, in fact they are coming to enjoy our welfare systems and the employment opportunities our countries have to offer. In the last few months alone, in Hungary the number of economic migrants has increased approximately twentyfold. This represents a new type of threat – a threat which we must stop in its tracks.

As Brussels has failed to address immigration appropriately, Hungary must follow its own path. We shall not allow economic migrants to jeopardise the jobs and livelihoods of Hungarians. (Hungarian Government 2015)

The suggestion that the EU had failed to deal with the problem of immigration and the fact that Hungary now “must follow its own path” to safeguard the jobs and livelihoods of Hungarians speaks directly to the “in defense of national identity” argument. The inability of the EU to deal with the problem of immigration also included the proposed quota policy solution, which the Hungarian government viewed as unwarranted intrusion of the EU into Hungarian affairs. In this matter, there appears to be similarities with the UK’s position on the impact of the EU on national politics. However, these similarities are limited because for Orbán, challenging the EU over such intrusions has never been about extracting special opt-out deals and concessions, or leaving the EU–which the isolationist UK pushes for. Rather, it is about fundamentally changing the nature of the game for Hungary as a European country, which can use its membership to reform the EU in such a way that national identity reasserts its position.

This is important to recognize because it reflects a long-standing attitude toward the relationship between European integration and national identity amongst post-communist states. Following the end of the Cold War, central and east European states sought to determine their ethnic or national security by reasserting national sovereignty.

This took place with both a state context where most the ethnic nation was located within a defined territory, as was the case with the Baltic Countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; and in a national context, where the ethnic nation extended across numerous state boundaries, as exemplified by Hungary, and to a lesser extent, Romania. There was a genuine concern amongst western governments at the time that the re-emergence of national sentiments in the region could lead to the outbreak of violent conflict. This was sadly the case in Yugoslavia, were the collapse into civil war demonstrated the serious repercussions of ethnic divisions.

Western policy makers and scholars raised the possibility of tying the central and east European states into the European integration process as a means to prevent conflict spreading. This, it was believed, would require the countries of the region to adopt western-based democratic principles and practices, which in turn, would hopefully subdue national tendencies and possibly “render nationalism obsolete” (Csergő and Goldgeier, 2004: 271).

While most of the central and east European states would agree with the western-based principle that the promotion of democratic practices through European integration can prevent violent conflict, they never accepted European integration as a means to reduce nationalist sentiment or identity. This stands in contrast to how the EU’s founding fathers viewed the end goal of integration. In the case of Hungary, for example, EU eastern enlargement was incorporated into the development and promotion of its nationalist policy positions as a means of strengthening national identity throughout the Carpathian Basin. As the Hungarian Government stated just prior to its membership of the EU in 2004:

The reunification of the Hungarian nation within the framework of Europe is an important objective for the government of the Republic, so that Hungarians can prosper in a wider community, notably the European Union. This is necessary so that Hungarians can preserve their identity and can enrich Europe through its language and culture and become a successful nation. (Hungarian Government 2004)

The Hungarian state’s guardianship of security is clearly framed in a national context. There is a duality in protecting the state and the nation. The idea that as a member of the European Union national identity would be threated was not assumed. The promotion of Hungarian national identity would always take precedence but benefit from being part of Europe and would co-exist alongside a European identity.

This co-existential relationship was seemingly reflected in the Hungarian referendum campaign, with crude arguments portrayed on government sponsored billboards and in the press about the threat of mass immigration from outside of Europe and the need to defend the cultural heritage of Hungary, and by extension Central Europe and the wider Europe. This reinforced the idea that Hungarian identity and European identity were simultaneously facing a non-European and non-Christian threat.

The government-sponsored xenophobia of these arguments was heavily criticized by the international community, and it would be easy to assume that this should be viewed as main issue for liberal commentators to hold the Hungarian government accountable for and be concerned about. However, it may be that there is another issue to take into account and that, according to Orbán, poses a more fundamental and literal threat to Hungarian national identity. This second threat took political precedence, informed the 2016 referendum and continues to inform Hungarian government attitudes towards the EU. That threat, according to Orbán, stems directly from the EU itself and the idea that EU political elites embolden by European integration pose a real existential challenge to Hungarian sovereignty.

Accepting an award in September 2016 for “Man of the Year” at the 26th Economic Forum in Krynica, Poland, Orbán inferred that EU elites had deliberately sought to challenge the integrity of Hungarian national identity:

Believe me … our whole continent is undergoing a process of transformation. The communities which will be successful, survive and be strong are those with strong identities: religious, historical and national identities. This is what I stand for, and this is what I am trying to protect. I regret to say that we must do so from time to time not only against the faithless and our anti-national rivals, but also from time to time we must do so against Europe’s various leading intellectual and political circles. But we have no choice: we must protect our identities… (Orban 2016a)

It would be easy to assume that Hungary’s critical stance towards the EU brings it closer to the UK’s attitude towards Europe. The reality is more complex, because as Orbán has repeatedly said, Hungary does not wish to leave the European Union (Orban 2016b). The problem as Budapest sees it is that EU political elites have no respect for the sanctity of self-determined national culture and identity. This, Budapest claims is evidenced by the EU’s willingness and insistence to impose rules, regulations and policy that goes against its assumed national security, and subverts national identity by denying the right to make decisions pertinent to the country’s historic constitutional identity.

What exactly this means for Europe in the longer term is not yet fully clear. Considering Hungary’s commitment to remain a member, the assumption is that it will continue to challenge the EU by either directly defying it or actively seeking to reform it from inside. Furthermore, unlike the UK which by withdrawing from the EU has defaulted on any attempt to balance national identity with a European one, Hungary is attempting to reassert the place of national identity within Europe and within the European Union. This speaks to the post-Cold War central and eastern Europe assumption that a European identity is desirable but does not have to be at the expense of the national identity. Duality of identity is therefore also hierarchical and national identity has precedence. The danger is that Hungary’s arguments become more acceptable and that we might start to see more of this positioning from other countries in the EU as populist politics becomes more mainstream. What is clear is that nationalism, national identity, and the power of ethnicity have re-emerged into the political stage in Europe, and we no longer live in an age of taboo.


Photo: Hungarian referendum on migrant quota, Elekes Andor


Csergő and Goldgeier (2004) ‘Nationalist Strategies and European Integration’, in Z. Kantor et al. (eds) Hungarian Status Law: nation Building and/or Minority Protection. Sapporo: Slavic Research Centre, Hokkaido University, pp.270-303.

Kiss, L.J. (2000) ‘Nation and Integration at the Turn of Millennium: Duality of Hungary’s Foreign Policy’, Foreign Policy Review, Volume 6. pp.82-102.

May, T. (2017) ‘The government’s negotiating objectives for exiting the EU: PM speech’, Lancaster House, 17 January 2017. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech

Hungarian Government (2016) ‘Action against the compulsory resettlement quota should be a national issue’. Available at: http://www.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/news/action-against-the-compulsory-resettlement-quota-should-be-a-national-issue

Hungarian Government (2004) New Dynamism for Hungary! The Programme of the Government of the Republic for a Free and Equitable Hungary (2004-2006). Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Hungarian Government (2015) ‘The National Consultation’. Available at: http://www.kormany.hu/download/9/a3/50000/Nemzetikonzultacio_mmkorrnel.docx

Orbán, V. (2016a) ‘Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s acceptance speech after receiving the “Person of the Year” award’. Krynica, 7 September 2016. Available at: http://www.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/the-prime-minister-s-speeches/prime-minister-viktor-orban-s-acceptance-speech-after-receiving-the-person-of-the-year-award

Orbán, V. (2016b) ‘Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s address in Parliament before the start of daily business’. Budapest, National Assembly, 12 September 2017. Available at: http://www.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/the-prime-minister-s-speeches/prime-minister-viktor-orban-s-address-in-parliament-before-the-start-of-daily-business20160912

This post was first published by EuropeNow in February 2017 and can be accessed at: http://www.europenowjournal.org/2017/01/31/the-defence-of-national-identity-comparing-the-uk-and-hungarian-referendums-of-2016/



Brexit and the Balkans: Implications for Future EU Enlargement

Brexit and the Balkans: Implications for Future EU Enlargement


The third annual Balkans Summit between the Heads of Government and senior politicians from the EU’s Western Balkan Candidate and Potential Candidate states (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia), some EU Member States (France, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy) and EU institutions (European Commission, European External Action Service and EU Council) took place at the start of July 2016. The summit is part of what has become known as the Berlin Process, a five-year diplomatic initiative intended to reaffirm the Western Balkan region’s European integration and bring new impetus to the EU’s enlargement project.

This year’s summit, in Paris, was overshadowed by the UK electorate’s shock decision a week earlier to leave the EU. In response to the referendum, the French and German leadership, along with the EU’s own senior officials, were keen to stress that Brexit would have no bearing on the ongoing accession process and that the EU remained committed to the Balkans.

It is not surprising that such a stance was taken. The need for reassurance about future expansion of the union in the wake of the UK’s decision to withdraw was intended as much for the international audience as it was for the governments of the six Balkan states. The EU had to emphasise that it remains relevant, that membership is still valuable and that, despite Brexit and the challenges that it will undoubtedly bring, it will be business as usual for its policy programmes, including enlargement – often referred to as the EU’s greatest policy success.

Despite the positive affirmations that came out of Paris about the EU’s commitment to the Balkans, the weeks following the Brexit decision and the summit have seen concern about future EU-Balkan relations increase. Questions surround the potential impact on the speed of future enlargement, the prospect for a fall in public support for the EU among Western Balkan states, the likely loss of the UK as a key strategic player in the region and the possible increased influence of Russia.

With regard to the speed of the EU enlargement project, although the EU has stated that Brexit will have no bearing on ongoing processes, concern about a possible slowing of the pace of enlargement has been raised. Petros Fassoulas, Secretary General of European Movement International, was quick to speak of the current enlargement project slowing down to the point where not much may happen in the foreseeable future.

This is what he has called an effective ‘freezing’ of the policy, brought about by a protracted set of Brexit negotiations. In a post-Brexit era, the priority will be to consolidate the smaller EU and limit damage, rather than plan for a larger union, with the associated challenges and costs that would bring.

Brexit Negotiations and Enlargement

It has been suggested that a rapid British withdrawal would be best for the Balkan states, but hopes of a quick solution and the beginning of negotiations with a swift triggering of Article 50 have rapidly faded. Theresa May, the UK’s new Brexit-era prime minister, has stated that her government will not be rushed into initiating Article 50 and it is unlikely to do so before the end of 2016. It could actually be much later into 2017, with the potential for negotiations to drag well beyond 2019.

Such a scenario would not bode well for current candidate or potential candidate states. They are already faced with a decelerated enlargement process following Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s 2015 announcement that he would enact a pause on all new accessions until after his (first) term ends in 2019. This was intended to respond to arguments of enlargement fatigue and allow the EU to focus its attention on solidifying the wider European Neighbourhood Policy, an area that has weakened considerably since the outbreak of the Ukraine-Russia crisis in 2014.

There are a number of reasons why the EU is likely to find itself preoccupied with Brexit rather than advancing its enlargement. Firstly, the scale of unknowns with Brexit and the fact that the EU has never faced such a situation before are likely to require careful management. It would be very surprising if we did not see DG NEAR (Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations) play a significant role in the Brexit negotiations. DG NEAR not only oversees the current enlargement process and neighbourhood policy, but crucially is also responsible for coordination of relations with EEA-EFTA states.

Even if the UK were not to re-join EFTA, it will still seek, as part of the Brexit negotiations, some form of relationship with the EU. This means that, parallel to negotiating the UK’s extraction from the EU, negotiations will also focus on how future EU-UK relations will look. DG NEAR is best placed to support such talks. With a staff of just over 1600, any reallocation of resources to deal with Brexit would likely reduce the number of staff available to support Western Balkan enlargement. The potential outcome is that it would push any accession date well into the late 2020s at the earliest.

Euroscepticism and Brexit Contagion

The longer it takes for Balkans states to join the EU, or at the very least to see clear progression on the road to accession, the greater the risks to the value of the enlargement project and to ensuring regional public and political support for the EU. This of course is not a new revelation – it is one of the reasons why the Berlin Process was established. However, any Brexit-related impediment to the speed of enlargement will certainly have implications, particularly in terms of the potential for the growth of Euroscepticism.

All current governments and the majority of mainstream political parties across the Western Balkan region support EU membership and intend to continue with governance and economic reforms in line with EU requirements. This doesn’t always fall in line with public opinion. The biggest fear is that Brexit will lead to a growth of Eurosceptic, populist, right-wing or extremist party politics and sentiment across the region, in line with what has happened in Central Europe.

At present, it is not fully clear how Brexit has impacted public perceptions of the EU, and much will depend on the fulfilment of the promises that the EU has made to the region following the UK’s decision. What is clear, however, is that the Balkans still suffer from ongoing corruption problems, economic development and investment continues to lag and societal and political fallout from years of conflict remain unresolved.

While EU membership conditionality goals promote reform across these issues, for some, the reforms are not fast or far-reaching enough. If they slow further because the EU has ‘taken its eye off the ball’ due to Brexit, then that could lead public support for the union to fall. In some countries, such as Serbia, support for the EU has already been waning. Brexit may simply compound that.

The suggestion that speeding up the enlargement process and bringing in new members as a way to consolidate the reforms that the region needs to make, while at the same time counteracting the loss of the UK, is unlikely to hold any sway among observers. As Romania and Bulgaria have shown, EU membership does not necessarily guarantee a swift end to the challenges of transition. At the same time, replacing the UK, a net contributor to the EU budget, with a group of countries that would place further strain on EU finances, is unlikely to be welcomed.

Losing the UK as an Insider Ally

Brexit also creates a dilemma for the Balkans, because it removes a strong ‘insider’ ally. The UK has played an important strategic role as a champion for reform of the region and integration into Europe. Much of this influence and the associated financial development aid provided by the UK have been directed through or in coordination with EU channels.

Despite a more cautious position from the Cameron government towards future enlargement and the somewhat xenophobic rhetoric that emerged during the referendum campaign, the UK is generally regarded as an honest, fair and measured voice of support for the Balkans inside the EU. It is also considered a stalwart advocate of the values and norms that represent the EU. In this sense, an EU without the UK may appear less attractive and lead to questions about what a future EU will represent or whether its normative values are really that aspirational.

Removing the UK from the EU leaves Germany, and to some extent, the less influential Central European EU members, as the primary advocates for the region. However, this does not necessarily mean that the UK’s interest or engagement with the Balkans will permanently end. The UK’s concerns about regional stability and the need for improved political governance and economic growth will undoubtedly continue. The Balkans will also remain a key issue for UK security, regardless of whether it is a member of the EU or not.

The question will be how effective it can be in supporting the region from a position outside of the EU. The assumption might be that the UK will be less influential. However, depending on how the UK frames its foreign policy, we could actually see its renewed engagement with the region via the Council of Europe, OSCE, the United Nations or even NATO. These organisations have generally operated in the region in coordination with the EU rather than independently of it, so it would be interesting to see if the UK would seek to use its position within these bodies as a way to retain some degree of direction over EU policy towards the Balkans.

External influence within the Balkan region is something that is constantly raised by commentators and speculation of the influence of Russia is a favourite topic. Brexit has provided renewed impetus for discussion about whether a declining or less relevant EU and the possible removal of the UK as a significant player in the region provides greater opportunities for Russia.

Pro-Russian parties, particularly those in Serbia, such as the Serbian Radical Party and the Dveri Movement, were quick to announce the death of the EU following the UK vote and that this justified greater engagement with Russia. Such rhetoric was always to be expected from these parties, but doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. Beyond the moves by Russia in the late 2000s to diversify and strengthen its energy portfolio in the Balkan region, it has become more preoccupied with its own economic woes, the Ukrainian crisis and its involvement in Syria to seriously seek to widen its influence in the Balkans.

Furthermore, regardless of the predictions of the EU’s demise with Brexit, the economic ties are simply too strong for the region to take any courtship from Russia seriously. In 2015, 76 per cent of the Western Balkans’ total trade was with the EU28, compared with only 5.2 per cent with Russia, its second biggest trading partner. Within the EU28, the UK is a minor export market compared with Italy, Germany and Central Europe. These markets are unlikely to change because of Brexit.

The UK’s Uncertain Constitutional Future

One of the biggest challenges that Brexit could create for the Western Balkan states and their accession to the EU might still emerge in a different way. The very real potential for constitutional crisis in the UK, with the possibility of another Scottish independence referendum and the breakup of the UK, could have longer-term implications for EU enlargement to the Western Balkans.

A UK outside the EU still has scope to play a role in the region, but the dissolution of the UK would certainly be more impactful on the Balkans by removing the UK from the equation altogether. This would be a more permanent removal of the UK as an ally and supporter of the Western Balkans in Europe.

An independent Scotland and England/rUK would also have much less influence on the international stage. Furthermore, Scotland’s recent vote to remain in the EU was a resounding rejection of Brexit. While it is still not clear what the future of Scotland may be, and although circumstances guiding its engagement with the EU would be different from that of the current Candidate and Potential Candidate states, any scenario where an independent Scotland leapfrogs the Western Balkans to become a full EU member could be seen as a lack of confidence in the Balkans’ ability to meet the EU’s membership conditions.

At present, the real impact that Brexit has for the Balkans is in creating uncertainty and amplifying the unknown. So far, the EU has made the correct noises and the Paris Balkans summit was the first of the many necessary steps that will be needed to support the region in the wake of Brexit. The EU needs to follow through on its rhetoric and ensure that any attempt to deal with Brexit does not lessen the support needed for the Balkans to continue to make the reforms necessary for their European integration ambitions.

If it can do this, then the EU may be able to overcome or limit the challenges Brexit could create. Regardless of recent events, the UK will likely continue to support the integration of the region into European structures and institutions, so the impetus is squarely placed on the remaining EU to ensure that the implications of Brexit for the Western Balkans are few and far between.

Featured Image Source: Paris Balkans Summit 2016, Nicolas Kovarik (European Commission)
Note: This commentary was first published by European Futures at the University of Edinburgh on the 5th September 2016. http://www.europeanfutures.ed.ac.uk/article-3981
Published: 5 September 2016