Perspectives | EU

The EU commissioner nominations indicate enlargement is on hold

By - 19.09.2019

Is Western Balkan accession a partnership or pipe dream?

Last week, the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyden, announced the 26 commissioners she would prefer to constitute the executive body of the EU starting in November 2019. 

Almost immediately, the major focus of her roster became centered around three of the commissioner nominations — the first, tasked with being in charge of “Neighbourhood and Enlargement,” László Trócsányi from Hungary, Dubravka Šuica, the commissioner-designate for “Democracy and Demography,” from Croatia, and Margaritis Schinas, the Greek nomination for the commissioner-designate for “Protecting our European Way of Life.”

While both Hungary and Croatia have historic ties and a demonstrated predisposition toward promoting a way forward for the Western Balkans within and as part of the EU historically, both of the former two choices seem to indicate the EU will be a skeptical and reluctant partner in the region in the years to come, rather than nudging local actors toward implementing necessary changes toward integration.

There are three major implications for the Western Balkans once the new Commission is approved — EU enlargement, demography (including migration), and integration and asylum policy. 

Concerns regarding the choices by van der Leyden have centered around a combination of factors relevant to the Western Balkans.

Securitizing one way of life vs. another immediately signals that there are “outsiders” and “enemies” to that way of life.

For example, can a choice like László Trócsányi, who served as the justice minister in Viktor Orbán’s government between 2014 and 2018, during which the Central European University was forced out of Hungary, motivate candidate countries to support independent judiciaries, freedom of expression and civil society? 

The normative implications of a commissioner tasked with “Protecting our European Way of Life” have also rightly dominated news outlets and social media in the region and beyond over the last week. 

The rhetoric implied by such wording has been perceived by leftist groups as exclusionary, particularly as all of the nominated commissioners are white. Securitizing one way of life vs. another immediately signals that there are “outsiders” and “enemies” to that way of life, that threaten it and are likely interested in creating havoc. 

The fact that this is spelled out further in von der Leyden’s mission letter to the commissioner-designate with responsibility for coordinating a “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” leans in many ways too much on the traditionalist, right political agendas that have moved ever more centrist parties, who are the majority in EU institutions, ever closer to protectionist, nationalist policies. 

This choices seems to indicate a lackluster movement forward in terms of enlargement on the part of the EU in the region, or worse yet, a tacit understanding that similar actions as those undertaken by Trócsányi in Hungary will be tolerated. If this is the case, the next EU Commission will not easily allay concerns that EU policy has been co-opted by some of the most conservative political outlooks and perspectives of its member countries. 

At the same time, it will play into the agenda of propagators of Euroscepticism in the region that are not reflective of the beliefs of large numbers of the populations, including, most prominently, its youth.

In Croatia, where a journalist was recently arrested for tweeting satirically, commentators including political science professor Dejan Jovic have wondered about the message the choice of “Democracy and Demography” commissioner sends in the current political climate in Croatia. 

“It is deeply worrying to see that a journalist has been arrested in Croatia for his tweets,” Jovic wrote on Twitter. “In an EU member-state, whose EU Commissioner-nominated, Dubravka Šuica should soon be in charge of Democracy promotion. Solidarity with @Prajdizan.”

“Brain drain” is mentioned only briefly even though this issue is arguably one that will play the largest role in how demographic changes across Europe are perceived in the coming years.

It will be interesting to see how this role is understood in the EU Parliament during upcoming hearings and whether amendments will be made to the portfolios themselves.

“Democracy and Demography” are both defined in rather limited fashion in van der Leyden’s mission letter to her nominee, which helps to outline the envisioned role, amounting on one hand to increasing participation in EU institutions and voting, and addressing demographic changes in terms of, primarily, rural and urban divides. 

“Brain drain,” perhaps one of Croatia’s most pressing issues in terms of demography, is mentioned only briefly even though this issue is arguably one that will play the largest role in how demographic changes across Europe are perceived in the coming years. 

Emigration continues to increase toward countries in the EU and elsewhere from Croatia and the region, demonstrating how intricately linked demography is between the EU and the Western Balkans. Serious innovative public policy on the national level(s) and at the EU level is needed to ensure that young people and families can build prospective futures within their own countries without feeling economic, political or social pressure to leave. 

One can only hope that the commissioner in this position will take seriously this role and balance current trends and inclusive, sustainable policies that demonstrate an understanding of the needs of local communities to also continue to thrive. 

The three positions are closely interlinked and highly relevant for the Western Balkans. 

As a result of conflict-generated migrations in the 1990s and ongoing economic migration, candidate countries’ populations have been and will continue to constitute a way of life reflective of the best aspirations of the European Union. The regional trends supporting prospective EU membership and continued steps in this direction, albeit slow, demonstrate that a proactive approach by the EU is sorely needed in order not to backtrack.

The current selection of commissioners indicates that the region has not been considered a site of proactive engagement over the next five years.

An article published by colleagues a couple of years ago stirred up a lot of controversy on this very topic. They developed a forecasting model of compliance levels for candidate countries between 2017 – 2050 in order to predict whether they would be able to comply with accession criteria. 

The model predicted that only one would be compliant by 2023 — (North) Macedonia. 

The situation, according to their predictions, looked most dire for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania, who would, if the data and willingness of the countries to comply remained static, still be struggling to comply, even by 2050. 

While the article alarmed many in the region whose expectations were high that membership was near, it also signaled that ongoing fears that continue to be stoked around enlargement in the EU are overblown. 

The current selection of commissioners seems to indicate that the region has not been considered as a site of proactive engagement over the next five years. It also opens up the question about what is happening on the other side of the enlargement debate, in the countries themselves, and how committed they will remain to pursuing accession criteria in light of limited EU engagement. 

The European Parliament will vote on the Commission in late October and it’s possible that some of the commissioner-delegates will be replaced by others in the meantime to ensure that there is a positive vote. Whatever ultimately happens, whether candidate countries come closer to becoming member states or not, the European agenda needs to be pushed forward on both fronts. 

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.