THE HAGUE, December 28, 2016 — Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák is an odd choice for champion of European enlargement. His government has been one of the most unabashedly nationalistic in responding to the refugee crisis; his prime minister casts refugees as a danger and claims that Islam has no place in his country.
But it was Lajčák who came out of the Visegrad Group meetings last month saying he favored the speedy integration of the Western Balkan states aspiring to join the European Union, including Muslim-majority Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was also Lajčák who led the EU’s Accession Conference meetings with another one of those Balkan states, Montenegro, in Brussels on December 13.
It is an interesting time to be negotiating European accession with Montenegro, considering that the country’s domestic politics have descended into chaos over the past two months. Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic resigned in October after more than two decades in power, but not before alleging that Russia was behind a coup attempt on election day and accusing the opposition of collaborating with Moscow. Though Djukanovic ran on a pro-European platform, he has also worked diligently since the 1990s to intimidate journalists and destroy his political opponents.
The European Commission itself listed myriad issues littering Montenegro’s road to membership in a memo last month, ranging from lackluster results in the fight against corruption and organized crime to increasing public debt. Djukanovic’s own extensive links to criminal elements in Montenegro have long been seen as a hindrance to good governance efforts, and though he might have left his premiership to a hand-picked successor, he remains the head of the Party of Socialists of Montenegro and is considered likely to run for the presidency in 2017.
Nor is Montenegro the only candidate country that should be giving EU officials pause. Transparency International’s November report on national integrity systems in the Western Balkans, which was funded by the European Union, says that the fight against corruption is failing.
This puts European accession at risk. The reforms these countries have made to meet EU standards have mostly been on paper, failing to break the dominance of charismatic leaders like Djukanovic and their entrenched parties over state institutions. As such, judicial systems and the rule of law remain fragile across the region, preserving a breeding ground for corruption.
In Albania, for instance, the main institutions charged with preventing corruption are subject to and do not have the willpower to pursue corrupt officials. Asked about his country’s endemic corruption and organized crime issues by Euronews in May, Prime Minister Edi Rama chose to issue denials. Albania’s leader insisted that the idea of pervasive corruption in Albania was an outdated “stereotype” and flatly rejected the idea that his country has a role in European arms and drug trafficking.
That response failed to account for the fact that Albania is one of the conduits of illicit weapons currently on the European black market. In the aftermath of the 2015 terror attacks in France, the underground weapons market in the Balkans is a problem Bosnia’s security minister laid out in a conference last year.
There is a broader political calculus to be made that goes beyond lackluster reforms on the part of the Balkan candidates. It is practically a given that further expansion, at this particular moment, runs smack into the prevailing zeitgeist in Europe. Brussels has been putting out fires to the left and to the right for the past six years. The populist wave sweeping the continent and the blatant deficiencies of the candidate states themselves are sufficient reason to put the brakes on any further European integration for now.
Instead of expansion, correcting Europe’s inability to address thorny transnational issues needs to be the priority. As European Central Bank president Mario Draghi summed matters up, the spread of populist movements has been threatening European integration and efforts to find joint responses to immigration, security, and other shared concerns.
Draghi told Spain’s El Pais that EU citizens’ biggest concerns were “now immigration, counter-terrorist security measures, defense, and border protection.” He added, “All of these are supranational affairs that require a common response. European integration is the appropriate response but this has become weaker in recent times, partly because of populist movements.”
Indeed, the Union may have already moved too quickly in allowing newer members to join. Romania and Bulgaria still do not meet EU standards in areas such as corruption, and the V4 countries advocating more rapid expansion are themselves the Union’s most problematic contrarians.
Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orban, has repeatedly clashed with EU authorities over issues ranging from asylum of refugees to politically motivated changes in media law. Putting together unified European responses to existential threats like the financial crisis and now the refugee crisis is already proving hard enough. Adding yet more discordant voices will do nothing to improve Europe’s future prospects.