Has the EU reached its high water mark?

By Pete North

One of the great claims of the EU is the number of countries queuing up to join. Amongst those being the states in the Western Balkans. Yet, even here, the process of enlargement has stalled. I found a synopsis of “local experts” assessment on the state of EU influence. It doesn’t look good.

“Local experts” argued that the EU is basically acting on policy autopilot, with an overwhelming focus on process (e.g. benchmark decision-making) and less on substance (e.g. actual progress on deep democratisation and good governance).

The EU’s own internal struggles and negative politics with its Grexit and Brexits, together with the political chill resulting from the enlargement fatigue, have contributed to its losing leverage in the Western Balkans.

In turn, elites are often not keen on passing reforms which are threatening their power interests or remain comfortable in spoiler politics. In these circumstances, the costs and benefits of a distant EU prospect are reassessed when set against the more tangible benefits offered by other strategic actors.

You don’t have to be a “local expert” for that to ring true. We see the same dynamic repeated in spades in Ukraine. We see token face saving efforts that stop short of any real reform in order to avoid upsetting the applecart, knowing that any serious and invasive reform may unsettle a fragile equilibrium. Consequently, the Ukrainian parliament is still in hoc to the Russian oligarchs and politically the EU has reached a stalemate.

In Ukraine the EU will still take advantage of what it can where it can, moving in to grab whatever is still available but having reached a state of diplomatic and political paralysis, Russia is now free to act as it chooses, and further EU integration seems implausible now.

The situation in the Balkans seems eerily familiar. The EU is adept at managing perceptions, so the recent agreement in the Balkans will be held aloft as a great EU victory, and the self-congratulatory bubble will take that point home with them, but underneath how it works in practice is very different. Where the outer rim of the EU is concerned, agreements are merely words on a page.

Across the Balkans the feeling is that the EU has made many promises but has failed to deliver, leaving them to look elsewhere. Certainly while the EU diplomats congratulate themselves, the military exercises between Russia and Serbia send the precise opposite signal. Having had Ukraine snatched out of Russia’s sphere of influence, Russia will be keen to erode the EU’s influence where it can. Thus the race is on for the soul of the Balkans.

There are two ways this can go. Either they will learn from the Ukraine experience or they won’t. We have seen no upper limit to the hubristic indulgences of the EU, and even though it has a full plate of woes within, and its diplomatic timetable is fully booked, that may not prove an insufficient obstacle for the EU not to make yet another pigs ear.

The EU must have its empire, and that is that.

The EU is keen to close the bridge to Greece, bringing Macedonia and Albania further into the fold somehow. Serbia and the region is slipping out of the EU’s sphere, and any expansion of the neighbourhood policy will prove to be little more than an empty gesture. It is limited in what it can do and the EU promises in the region are a weakened currency.

While all eyes are fixed on Brexit and the possible emergence of a two tier Europe, there is that third tier limbo to consider. It could be that while Britain is moved out to “associate” status, the same will be extended to candidate states and all point in between.

It will be the EU’s managed retreat. In terms of the authority it can exercise, it will be a paper empire and as reality intrudes the illusion will wear off. It will show the world that the EU has reached its high water mark – and now the tide is receding. The dream is fading.

Pete North is political blogger and a campaigner for Brexit. Follow him on Twitter:@PeterNorth303