I Europeanization travels to the Western Balkans

Europeanization travels to the Western Balkans. Enlargement strategy, domestic obstacles and diverging reforms

Arolda Elbasani


During the 1990s, the Western Balkans1 have dominated academic attention as a region of violent conflicts and delayed transitions when compared to the smooth and peaceful transformations elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). However, the region’s reputation as Europe’s ‘trouble-making periphery’ promised to change at the turn of the 2000s, when the European Union (EU) expanded its concept of enlargement to include all Balkan countries left out of the previous wave of enlargement. The EU’s ‘unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans’ (European Council 2003), coupled with a region- tailored enlargement policy — the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP) — (Elbasani 2008; Noutcheva 2012) were widely promoted as the anchor of future reforms. By that time, EU enlargement was held as a success story that contributed to creating peace and stability, inspiring reforms, and consolidating common principles of liberty, democracy as well as market economies, in the previous candidate countries in the East. Meanwhile, the Western Balkans, for their part, had moved away from the open conflicts and exclusionary nationalist politics that kept hostage their first decade of post-communist transformations (Vachudova 2003). More mature politicians, reformists and committed Europeanists in particular, have gained strength in government and society, creating a friendlier environment for the EU-led reform agenda (Pond 2006). The EU policy shift towards the region, on the one hand, and increasing domestic demand for integration, on the other, have generated high expectations that enlargement strategy will work to discipline democratic institution-building and foster post-communist reforms in the same way that it did in the previous candidates in CEE.

By 2013, European membership had emerged as the cornerstone of the region’s future, all target countries having advanced up the institutional ladder envisaged by the SAP (see Table 1.1). Stabilization and Association Agreements (SAAs, the equivalent of European Agreements) are now signed with all Western Balkan countries except Kosovo. All countries, except Bosnia and Kosovo, have applied for membership, which opens the path to the final stage of negotiating accession terms. Macedonia and Serbia are granted full candidate status and are now waiting to start accession negotiations. Montenegro started negotiations in June 2012. Croatia

Opening/conclusion of SAA negotiations

Entering into force of SAA

Application for membership

Opening/conclusion of accession negotiations




  • 02/2003
  • 04/2004 positive avis 06/2004 candidate status

03/2005-06/2011 2005 blocked 2009 blocked




  • 03/2004
  • 12/2005 positive avis 12/2005 candidate status

10/2009 Council recommends opening of negotiations




  • 12/2008
  • 11/2010 positive avis 11/2010 candidate status





  • 04/2009
  • 11/2010 negative avis 11/2011 negative avis


Bosnia Herzegovina Kosovo3

  • 10/2005-04/2008
  • 11/2005-06/2008
  • 11/2002 signing STMb 01/2010 SAPDC
  • 06/2010
  • 06/2008
  • 12/2009
  • 11/2011 positive avis 03/2012 candidate status

Source: European Commission (201 la).


a The contractual relations between the EU and Kosovo are based on different instruments designed by the Commission in the context of non-recognition of Kosovo, b The Stabilization and Association Process Tracking Mechanism (STM) is a mirror mechanism of SAP to monitor and keep under control reform processes, c Signing of Stabilization and Association Process Dialogue (SAPD), which is a custom-made mechanism for Kosovo that mirrors SAAs in terms of sectors included and negotiating dialogue.

meanwhile is held as the exemplary model that has made the big jump to conclude accession negotiations in 2011, and can look forward to assuming full membership in 2013. The EU has also advanced trade relations with all Western Balkan countries via the adoption of autonomous trade measures and the early implementation of SAA trade provisions. Aid has continued to flow under the new Instrument for Preaccession Assistance (IPA), which is explicitly geared towards bringing institutional reforms into line with the EU standards. Even Kosovo, which is not recognized by all the EU members, is accommodated in the enlargement process through custom-made mechanisms and procedures.

The enlargement strategy is centred on the principle of conditionality — the rewards offered by the EU (most importantly financial assistance and membership) are conditional on the Western Balkan states meeting demands set by the EU. The basis of the EU demands, which reflect general democratic norms and more specific standards developed at the EU level, is outlined in the initial Copenhagen Criteria, different regional approaches, and SAP conditionality (Pippan 2004). Moreover, each consecutive stage of SAP comes with an increasing load of conditions that the countries need to comply with in order to advance to the next stages and towards the goal of membership. More recent rules on the accession process have enhanced the strategy of conditionality to the extent they suggest application of ‘strict conditionality at all stages of negotiation’ (Council of Europe 2007).

Given the embedment of the Western Balkans in the EU enlargement processes, Europeanization (a short-hand for the domestic influence of the EU) has emerged as the dominant approach to the study of EU-led reforms across the region. Similar to the previous wave of enlargement in CEE, research on the Western Balkans has made enlargement conditionality the central focus of analyzing the role of the EU (Schimmelfennig and Sedelmeier 2006: 88). After all, both regions share the main features that have arguably animated the celebrated success of the EU conditionality in CEE, most importantly the substantial rewards underpinning the EU demands and the strategy of reinforcement by reward (ibid.). However, in contrast to the previous CEE candidates, most Western Balkan countries consist of borderline cases of transformation or ‘deficient democratizers’ that face unfavourable domestic conditions and share a poor record of reforms. Yet, very little research is done on whether and how the challenging factors on the domestic side might undermine the transformative power of the EU in the same way they have delayed and refracted region’s trajectory of post-communist transformation. Europeanization studies looking at the domestic side of the equation are still at an early stage, lacking conceptual detail and comparative evidence on the array of domestic factors that challenge the role of the EU in difficult cases of democratization (Sedelmeier 2011: 30; Brusis 2005a: 23). Empirical research on Europeanization in the Western Balkans, on the other hand, remains largely within the realm of expectations and has yet to consider the domestic factors that set those countries apart and their implications for the presumed impact of Europe (Pond 2006).

This volume brings domestic factors back in, and analyze the transformative power of the EU against challenging domestic factors in the Western Balkans. Conceptually, we differentiate the array of domestic factors that characterize deficient democratizers across agency- and structural-based categories. In the Balkan context particularly, we distinguish limited stateness as ‘deep structures’ that constrain the capacity of human action to take on and execute the EU rules, and thus limit the scope of elite-led Europeanization. We suggest that stateness is the missing link between the transformative power of the EU and the scant willingness and capacities to fully adopt the EU rules across the Balkans. Yet, we maintain that structural constraints, including problems of stateness, are parameters, which the domestic agency will have to confront and cope with, rather than insurmountable obstacles, in the course of difficult Europeanization.

We use controlled comparisons among different national cases and issue areas to investigate the EU and domestic triggers of the Europeanization outcomes. The empirical chapters take into account the categories of domestic factors outlined in this introductory chapter, but necessarily approach these factors from various angles, depending on the particulars of the country and issue being analyzed. In this way, the empirical chapters can speak to a common research agenda, but also bring in more case-based idiosyncratic factors and contextualise the path of Europeanization taken in different countries. The task of the empirical chapters is to identify the appropriate blend and the intensity of the EU strategy, domestic choices and state constraints that render intelligible the process of Europeanization in a given country and area of reform.

Our approach has both intellectual advantages and limitations. In-depth case studies necessarily bring in various issues that do not always permit neat comparisons and straightforward explanations. Unpacking the box of domestic politics in difficult cases of democratization in the Western Balkans is also a complex venture into different layers of post-communist, post-authoritarian and post-conflict challenges. The value of our enterprise is to conceptualize and assess the ‘weight’ of domestic conditions that might inhibit Europeanization at the receiving end of enlargement. Our framework bridges Europeanization studies, comparative democratization as well as post-communist and Balkans area studies, which have so far largely developed as separate areas of research and rarely speak to each other. In addition, it provides a theoretically informed comparative assessment of similarities and differences of paths of Europeanization across different countries and areas of reform in the Western Balkan region.

The remainder of this chapter is divided into four parts. First, we sketch a Europeanization approach to the post-communist transformations and distinguish between different strands of explanations. Second, we unpack the domestic factors that might challenge the role of the EU at the receiving end of enlargement in the Western Balkans. The third part discusses the book’s approach towards assessing the role of EU enlargement. The fourth part provides an overview of the chapters and findings.

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