The EU’s Approach Towards Enlargement is Bad PR
The European Union’s way of dealing with the question of enlargement both with the Western Balkans and in a different way also with Turkey contributes to how the EU is perceived as a global actor. It contributes to our image in the world. Many factors that are relevant for the EU’s performance and ability to effectively act on a global stage can be observed when looking at how the EU is dealing with the Balkans and Turkey. The issue of enlargement rips the mask off much deeper underlying problems the European Union has.
For instance, it showcases the EU’s lacking ability to build consensus among the member states swiftly when needed. Decision making on controversial topics in the Union takes long and sometimes it does not happen at all. It seems to be rather easy to divide the member state along the lines of their individual geopolitical interests.
Furthermore, the EU’s actions within the enlargement process is an indicator of how committed the European Union is to defend its values abroad. The answer is: Probably not very committed. Otherwise European leaders would make a visit to Aleksandar Vućić in Serbia to tell him to stop screwing us over, stop harassing the opposition and the media and to stop undermining the Serbian parliament and other institutions. We would make it clear to the Serbian people that Vućić is not a symbol of a pro-European policy and we would stop supporting his type of politician in the Western Balkans. Instead, many EU leaders seem to believe in persuasion through somewhat dishonest friendliness with Vućić and many other leaders. If we were serious about our values we would tell Edi Rama more confidently that he is supposed to respect media freedom even though we might like that he is artist and a basketball player. We would have told Nikola Gruevski to stop pretty much all of what he was doing in North Macedonia and we would have our eye on the corruption and state capture in most of the Balkans and call it out when it happens. We would make sure our message is clear and our voice is being heard. Not because we want to punish someone, but because it is vital to the European Union that we stand by our values and defend them, because otherwise there might not be a Union to join in the future.
There were several occasions related to enlargement or relationships with aspiring members that showed that the European Union is a bit of a pushover, even if some of the individual member states are not. The European Union as an actor seems to be easy to confuse and irritate. Ursula Von der Leyen’s reaction to not being provided with a chair at a highly level meeting with President Erdogan is an example that comes to mind. Instead of reacting quickly and ask for a chair, or make Charles Michel move out of his, or leaving, the most high-ranking person in the European Union said: „ehm“. It could be perceived as a display of weakness or at least a lack of grace on the international stage.
The list of indicators of weakness and strengths that show up in the enlargement process is long. One could look at how much money the Union spends on pursuing its interest abroad, at diplomatic abilities, ability to deal with crisis, how the Union deals with competition via other big geopolitical stakeholders, how much respect we have towards other nations, religions and the history that weighs on third-state citizens’ shoulders.
Soft power is crucial to reaching one’s goals as a geopolitical stakeholder. However, to be able to apply soft power, it is vital to have power – military, economic and political power and strong alliances with other powerful players.
Even though enlargement might not be the EU’s biggest headache right now, there is definitely a reason for the Union to get its act together on this issue, because others are watching and our weakness and confusion is not going unnoticed internationally.
The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).