V4 to carry flame for Balkan hopes of EU membership

As the EU suffers ‘enlargement fatigue’, Visegrad Four nations in Central Europe are determined to support Balkan aspirations to join the bloc — but will they make effective advocates?

Illustrative stock photo (Source: AP/TASR)

When the new European Commission begins work, it will grapple with issues threatening the very fabric of the European Union: Brexit, migration, the rule of law.

Safe to say the concerns of wannabe EU members in the Balkans will not top the Commission’s agenda, according to EU diplomats.

But in an increasingly fractious Europe, officials from Visegrad Group countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) say they will champion the cause of EU enlargement within the new Commission.

Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are all EU candidate countries while the European Commission sees Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo as potential candidates.

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“Poland is an advocate of enlargement as one of the most successful policies of the EU,” Magdalena Czubala, head of the Southeast Europe and EU enlargement division at the Polish foreign ministry, told BIRN.

“We will only complete the European project when the Western Balkans joins.”

While officials echo such sentiment in Bratislava, Budapest and Prague, analysts say cheerleading alone will not be enough to overcome a dwindling supply of goodwill for expansion (see box).

“We, even with the Visegrad Four, do not have enough lobbying power to push it through,” said Istvan Szent-Ivanyi, former Secretary of State at the Hungarian foreign ministry and ex-Hungarian ambassador to Slovenia.

“In Western Europe, there is no real economic interest for further enlargement and parallel to that, so-called enlargement fatigue is developing in the Balkans.”

French President Emmanuel Macron set the tone in June as countries clashed over who would get the EU’s top jobs following European Parliament elections.

“I will refuse any kind of enlargement before a deep reform of our institutional functioning,” he said.

Meanwhile, it remains an open question whether V4 states known for Euroscepticism, authoritarianism and democratic backsliding will be effective advocates for Balkan interests in the Commission.

Last year, the European Parliament voted to take unprecedented disciplinary action against Hungary for allegedly breaching core EU values. The European Commission, meanwhile, is pursuing legal action against Poland for flouting democratic rules.

Allies versus vassals

The Czech Republic, which now holds the rotating presidency of the Visegrad Four (V4), has made promoting Western Balkan accession one of the priorities of its term.

And all V4 countries have lobbied for the Commission to set dates for the start of EU accession negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia. They want the dates to be announced in October.

Analysts say much of this support is driven by self-interest.

In the eyes of the V4, EU accession could empower Balkan countries to act as better buffers against migrants from Africa and Asia trying to get into the EU.

It could also counter the growing influence of Russia, China and Turkey, which some fear could exacerbate social, political and ethnic tensions in the Balkans.

And it could help thwart the organised crime rings that the Balkans have been exporting to the rest of Europe for years.

Hungary has lately been the most vociferous V4 nation when it comes to EU enlargement. It is the only V4 country to border the Balkans and it shares a common history with countries that were once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

As several EU officials who spoke to BIRN expected, the Hungarian nominee was appointed to cover the enlargement and neighbourhood portfolio in the next Commission, although it remains to be seen whether the government’s nominee, former Justice Minister László Trocsányi, will pass muster with the European Parliament.

By appointing a Hungarian official for this position, some EU countries such as Germany want to appease Hungary and its nationalist-populist ruling party, Fidesz, while at the same time punishing it by giving it a portfolio that few other countries want, EU sources said.

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Recent statements by Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó leave no question about where Budapest stands on enlargement.

“It is a hypocrisy that at the level of words everyone is frantically committed, but when it comes to making a decision, they dare not act,” he said in Brussels in June as Serbia’s latest chapter of EU negotiations opened.

“Enlargement would be the best response to undoubtedly existing tensions in the region. We in the neighbourhood know exactly how important peace and tranquillity are in the region.”

He added that only a credible enlargement strategy could stem migration through the Western Balkans.

Hungary has backed its rhetoric with greater engagement with the region.

Since 2016, the government has subsidised Wizz Air, Europe’s second-biggest budget airline, in linking several Balkan capitals with Budapest. In March, it established a 30-million-euro fund to support Hungarian investment in the region.

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Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has established close ties with Balkan leaders including Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, whom critics accuse of growing ever more autocratic, and North Macedonia’s former premier, Nikola Gruevski.

Hungary drew international criticism last November when Gruevski fled to Budapest to avoid a two-year jail sentence at home for corruption-related charges.

Hungary’s financial and political support for ethnic Hungarian minorities living in neighbouring countries has also stoked controversy.

“The problem is that the Hungarian government does not really look for allies but for vassals,” said Szent-Ivanyi, the Hungarian former diplomat and official.

“There are attempts to interfere in local domestic politics, which I find highly risky and questionable. A politically neutral stance would be more beneficial for our long-term business interests.”

Words and deeds

Experts say other V4 nations support Balkan accession for reasons ranging from a feeling of solidarity with fellow Slavs who shared a communist past to hopes of greater trade and fear of Russian mischief in the region.

In the Czech Republic and Poland, relations with the Balkans can seem rather abstract. Most links with the region are handled at the V4 level rather than via bilateral relations.

“The V4 provides a particular model of regional cooperation and the V4 continues in promoting this experience in the Western Balkans,” said Tomas Dopita, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague think tank.

Dopita said “the most palpable outcome” of this cooperation was the Visegrad Group’s Western Balkans Fund, which supports regional cooperation.

Poland’s relations with the Balkans came into focus in July when the Polish city of Poznan hosted the latest Western Balkans Summit. It was held as a part of the so-called Berlin Process, launched in 2014 to support Balkan accession to the EU.

“Without the full integration of the Balkans, with their beautiful traditions and cultural mix, Europe won't start to breathe fully,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said during the summit.

The Polish foreign ministry’s Czubala said Poland is a frequent voice for the region’s strategic importance in EU forums.

“We have to support the region’s development and keep it in our family, and not allow external powers to threaten the stability and peace,” she said, adding that Warsaw “will fight” for the opening of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.

Despite a general consensus among both the political class and the general public that the Western Balkans belongs in the EU, analysts note that Polish interests in the region are mainly limited to tourism. Polish investment in the Balkans is tiny.

“The Polish involvement in the Balkans has always been tactical, not strategic: we were there to show the West that we are reliable and predictable partners, ready to do our fair share in the EU and NATO alliances,” said Spasimir Domaradzki, a political scientist at Warsaw's Lazarki University.

“Polish involvement in the Balkans is about what Poland needs, not about what the Balkans need.”

Slovakia keeps close bilateral relations with Balkan countries and nurtures business ties with Serbia in particular since many Serbian workers are employed in Slovak auto factories.

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Experts say Slovak support for Balkan accession comes from a recognition of the potential stabilising effects of EU membership at a time of growing populism and extremism across Europe.

As one of five EU countries that do not recognise Kosovo’s independence, Slovakia is keen to see better relations between Pristina and Belgrade.

“We don’t want Kosovo to become a ‘black hole’ on the map of the Western Balkans,” said Miroslav Lajčák, Slovak foreign minister and former High Representative for Bosnia.

But not everyone in Slovakia — or other V4 countries, for that matter — is convinced that EU boundaries should be expanded.

“When the countries join, they’re going to need help and we’ll all pay for it,” said Petra Pavlíčková, a 35-year-old operations manager in Bratislava. “But it was the same when we entered the EU, so I really don’t know if I would vote pro or against.”

Lukáš Dobranský, a 31-year-old IT administrator from eastern Slovakia who lives in Czech Republic, is less ambivalent.

“I don’t think we should accept more Balkan countries,” he said. “Not until they resolve their own relationships, which will probably never happen.”

This article was produced by Reporting Democracy, a cross-border journalism platform run by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.