Serbia and Montenegro have been named as the front-runners in the pack of Balkan nations aiming to join the EU. Last week, the European Commission announced that by 2025, they hope to welcome Belgrade and Podgorica as the bloc’s newest members. In an interview with Reuters, European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn said that when it comes to the EU’s expansion into the Balkans “either we export stability to the region or we import instability.” His thinking clearly being that the EU accession process provides the best political guardrails to usher the Balkans from its war-torn past to into a peaceful and prosperous future in Europe’s embrace.
However, an honest appraisal of the results of the EU’s last expansion teaches us that things don’t necessarily turn out that way. Fully a decade after joining, both Bulgaria and Romania are still clinging to the guardrails that were only supposed to support them until they became fully fledged members. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened. Instead, twice annually Bucharest and Sofia have to submit progress reports on their battle with corruption and organised crime. And although there has been a marked improvement in both countries, recent proposals for judicial reform in Romania, have been seen as a significant step backwards. Last Saturday around 100,000 people marched against the reforms that critics argue will weaken the courts’ ability to prosecute corruption cases. This came just days after Mihai Tudose became the second prime minister to lose his job in a year, after losing the support of his party who refused to back his call for the interior minister to resign amidst a police child abuse scandal. All the while, the country’s most powerful politician, Liviu Dragnea, who is seen as pulling the strings behind the scenes, is barred from holding the office of Prime Minister due to a conviction for vote rigging. Looking at the experience of Romania ten years after joining the bloc it’s hard to see how it can be characterised as anything other than the EU importing instability.
Meanwhile, Serbia and Montenegro are playing their own games that fly in the face of the EU. And Montenegro’s Milo Djukanovic has perfected his ability to twist Brussels around his little finger. Having stepped down from his sixth term of prime minister in October 2016, he has recently hinted that he may run for a third term of president in April’s elections. During nearly three decades in power Djukanovic’s rule was made infamous by rampant graft and a tendency to treat the country like his private property which he turned into a safe house for internationally wanted criminals. He was alleged to be involved in a billion dollar cigarette smuggling operation with the Italian mafia – an allegation he doesn’t even deny. He and his family also took over Montenegro’s oldest bank, which went bankrupt amid allegations of extensive money laundering and use as a personal ATM, the cost of which was borne by the Montenegrin taxpayer. Drug lords suspected of being given a free pass by Djukanovic conduct their gang wars on the streets of busy tourist resorts.
Given the evidence provided by Romania and Bulgaria that it is possible for an underprepared country to bring its problems with it into the bloc, Brussels would want to think long and hard before it allows Djukanovic’s Montenegro to join.