Germany has made itself a reputation for being both an active supporter and a severe critic of the Western Balkans’ EU integration. German policymakers recognise the strategic importance of enlargement toward the region and firmly hold on to it. After the Brexit referendum of June 2016 Chancellor Merkel was quick to stress that Brexit did not change the accession prospects of (potential) candidates in Southeast Europe. Germany’s aspiration to give new momentum to the region’s EU integration has also found its expression in the so-called “Berlin process,” which the Federal Chancellery launched in 2014. The subsequent proposals for a series of economic cooperation initiatives in the frame of a “Berlin process reloaded,” put forward in May 2017 by then minister of foreign affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, illustrate a high awareness that symbolic commitment needs to be reflected in concrete action. Furthermore, high-ranking officials from Berlin pay rather frequent visits to the region; most recently, Chancellor Merkel travelled to Skopje in September 2018 to voice her support for the referendum on the name deal.
This principled support for the region’s EU path, however, did not prevent Germany from drawing red lines for accession candidates more than once. It was the German chancellor who explicitly linked the EU accession process to bilateral Serbia-Kosovo relations in 2011, which until then were on two separate tracks – a move that sparked controversy among Member States, but was finally adopted as the EU’s policy line. Similarly, Germany has been instrumental in crafting the “new approach” on the rule of law, thus considerably raising the bar for the remaining candidates. Also, in practical terms, Berlin tends to favour a stricter interpretation of accession conditionality than the European Commission. As a consequence, Germany has repeatedly not aligned with the Commission’s assessments and ensuing recommendations, for instance in the cases of Serbia’s and Albania’s membership bids.
While this line of action might seem contradictory or ill-conceived at first glance, for German decision-makers the high support and the high demands are two sides of the same coin. From their point of view, strict conditionality is indispensable precisely because enlargement matters. Concretely, there are two main reasons why Germany makes rigorous conditionality the pivotal point of its policy toward the region. Firstly, it is key to make formal progress go hand in hand with real transformation. In line with this idea, Chancellor Merkel stated at the May 2018 Sofia summit that she did not adhere to the date of 2025, circulated by the Commission as earliest possible accession date, given that an EU membership would need to rely on real progress, such as the rule of law and the fight against corruption. Based on the experience that domestic reforms as well as the resolution of bilateral conflicts need time, Berlin favours the approach of “political frontloading,” according to which thorny issues should be addressed as early as possible in the integration process. With this approach, Germany does not only aim at encouraging domestic reforms, but also at facilitating a solution to bilateral conflicts. Most prominently, Berlin took the lead in placing the “normalisation of relations with Kosovo” at the centre of accession conditionality for Belgrade, thus using the accession perspective as a foreign policy tool.
Secondly and less obviously, Germany’s insistence to see accession criteria implemented bears an important domestic dimension. Strict conditionality, German officials argue, is the only reasonable way to address enlargement fatigue or even outright scepticism felt not only in other EU capitals, but also at home. Roughly two thirds of German citizens pronounce themselves against taking in new members, while only around one third are in favour, according to the latest Eurobarometer poll from spring 2018. Growing scepticism of enlargement toward the Western Balkans is also discernible among policymakers, especially in the legislative branch. This merits particular attention, having in mind that the Bundestag’s say on enlargement-related decisions is by no means limited to the ratification of an accession treaty. As a result of legal amendments that became necessary upon the Lisbon treaty’s entry into force in 2009, the Federal Government is to reach agreement with the Bundestag on the opening of accession negotiations with aspiring countries.
Debates preceding the adoption of the opinion on opening accession negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia (in 2011 and 2013 respectively) revealed a high level of doubts within the CDU/CSU parliamentary group as to whether the time was ripe to open accession talks. In the case of Serbia, this directly affected the decision-making in the Council, as the German government had to take into account the Bundestag’s opinion stipulating that negotiations could be launched in January 2014 at the earliest – and only if a series of conditions regarding Serbia-Kosovo relations were met prior to that. Against this background, the next opinions of the Bundestag on opening accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia can be expected with suspense. In the case of Albania, members of the CDU/CSU group have already expressed their doubts whether the efforts to curb corruption are sufficient (thus challenging the German government‘s conclusion from June 2018 that both countries are prepared to open accession talks). While the law leaves room for the government to sideline the Bundestag’s opinion and “take divergent decisions for good reasons of foreign or integration policy,” politically, this is hard to imagine.
For Germany, the insistence on strict conditionality is thus both a strategic choice in order to foster transformation within the region, but is also (perceived as) a necessity with regard to its domestic audience. For their balancing act to succeed, however, decision-makers – both in the executive and the Bundestag – will need to make sure that strict conditionality be focused on the actual accession criteria, and not succumb to the temptation to arbitrarily strengthen it for domestic purposes. Clearly, German policymakers recognise EU enlargement policy as a means to transform and stabilise the region. They are also aware of the dire need to create a new impetus for societies and economies in the Western Balkans that goes beyond the symbolic. It remains to be seen, however, if this can translate into concrete action.
* Theresia Töglhofer is an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)