EU’s transformative power and the impact of bilateral disputes between EU and non-EU members on EU integration

imageBalkans by Iliyan Gochev

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ermalby Ermal Ndini

The very subject of this article is to draw attention to the stagnant process of the EU’s enlargement commitment towards aspiring countries of South Eastern Europe (SEE), or to follow already established conventions, the Western Balkans, while the so called “enlargement fatigue” bears the risk of endangering the integration process that has the potential to invoke unknown outcomes in these countries. I will first focus on the transformative power of the EU on the Western Balkans, and how this often seem to be undermined by the asymmetrical power of Member States inclined to pushing through national interests against the will of non-EU member states playing their “veto card of integration”. In this regard, the difficult relationship  between Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and its neighbour country Albania seems to be a case in point demonstrating the asymmetric power of a Member State (i.e. Greece) vis-à-vis the weak negotiation position of aspiring candidates (i.e. FYROM and Albania).

The enlargement policy of the European Union can be considered as an important foreign policy instrument capable to induce reforms in post-communist countries of South Eastern Europe that are undergoing a painful transformation process towards democracy, free market and the rule of law. One crucial aspect of the EU’s transformative power is the conditionality which has had positive impacts on the democracies, economies and political systems of central and eastern European countries that are now members of the European Union.

European integration helps to overcome frozen bilateral disputes in general. EU’s transformative power lies, among others, in the membership conditionality that shapes the behaviour of the party striving to become full member of the European Union. Thus, conditionality is closely related to a credible prospect of an EU membership if, for instance, reforms with regard to the rule of law, judiciary and the fight against corruption are implemented. The fulfilment of these conditions are key to the opening of negotiations with EU member states.

However, in light of bilateral disputes between aspiring EU candidates and EU members the prospects for transformative power in SEE are much dimmer than they would be without countries using their “veto card of integration”. As a result, it becomes more difficult to address bilateral disputes between the “ins” and the “outs”. Those disputes can often lead to stalemates and intensify frozen conflicts as the relationship between Greece and FYROM over the long-lasting name dispute demonstrates.

At the heart of the dispute between FYROM and Greece lies the Macedonia’s declaration of independence in 1994 under the name “Republic of Macedonia”. After the name was sealed in the constitution Greece protested referring to its national and historical heritage being undermined by Skopje. According to Greece’s official narrative, FYROM bases its existence on the artificial and spurious notion of the “Macedonian nation” by pursuing territorial ambitions and irredentist aspirations. Greece expect Macedonia to amend the constitution and to use another name – by adding a geographical qualifier before “Macedonia”, such as ‘Vardar Macedonia’ which corresponds to the northern geographical region of Macedonia – in their international relations. For many ethnic Macedonians the name is the backbone of their identity which is linked to the survival of the country. As a result, Greece has since been blocking FYROM’s membership to NATO and the EU. In 2008, FYROM brought the dispute with Greece before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for blocking its membership to NATO. In its judgment of 2011 the ICJ found that Greece had breached its obligations under Art.11, paragraph 1, of the Interim Accord of 1995. This decision was pronounced in favour of FYROM that might help persuade Greece refrain from blocking FYROM’s EU membership.

As a candidate to the European Union, Albania has experienced, albeit no direct blockade over its negotiations but clear threats to block its negotiations on the EU membership if the Cham issue gains international attention. Greece considers the Cham issue as a matter of internal affairs or as a “dead issue” that simply doesn’t exist for Athens. The Chams are the ethnic Albanian population of the region of north eastern Greece, known to Albanians as Çameria. In 1994, the Greek government initiated a pogrom in the region that forced some 35,000 Chams to leave their properties behind and flee to Turkey and Albania, with no prospect of ever returning again to their lands. The Greek government sanctioned their properties arguing that they have been involved in the collaboration with the occupying German forces. This narrative continues across the argumentation line to justify the forced displacement of the entire Cham population in Çameria. Still today, some of the have the keys to their property. Again, as for the Greek government, this issue does not exist, whereas according to polls conducted in 2011 about six out of ten (58%) of the Greek population has some degree of awareness of the Cham issue.

Greece knows how to play the EU integration veto card to influence Albanian domestic politics related to the Cham issue. This strong negotiation position of an EU member state vis-à-vis an aspiring country, which in turn is not based on the reform progress but rather on bilateral disputes, does fuel mistrust towards the entire European Union.  This kind of policies collide with the collective interest of the EU and serve solely the national interest of the member state.

In consequence, the accession process and the credibility and integrity of the EU’s enlargement policy can be disrupted and lead to a stalemate with unpredictable fluctuations with regard to the stability of the applicant country. The European Parliament, for instance, has once more stressed in its Resolution on the country report of FYROM that “issues should not be used to obstruct the EU accession process but should be addressed in a constructive spirit as early as possible in the accession process.” The European Parliament has repeatedly reminded Member States that membership should not be used as a mean to threaten aspirant countries to step back from policies that are inconsistent with those of the national interest of a Member State. When Greece blocks or threatens to block the negotiation process of candidate country such as FYROM, Albania or Turkey, it is obviously not acting as an agent for the entire Union, but rather as a veto player.

The Commission, on the other hand, has the legitimacy to act as agent of the member states and the applicant country, and it should proactively use its influence to mediate when the negotiation process has been taken hostage by a member state. But we see in the case of FYROM that EU institutions are restrained or passive when an EU membership candidate is involved in a bilateral issue with a member state.

The process of integration is a painful process that eastern and Southeastern member states, have gone and have to go through on the path to EU membership. Enlargement is closely linked to EU membership defined by norms and values. This is probably the recipe and the success of the transformative power of the European Union. However, the enlargement process can only satisfy both parties, the body of EU member states and aspirant countries if member states consider the fulfilment of EU’s criteria as collectivity, not national criteria.

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