Can the European Public Block the Enlargement to the Western Balkans?
The EU enlargement has been questioned since the first enlargement round. Also, since the start of the global economic crisis, public support to further enlargement decreased significantly. Whether a turnaround in this trend will occur depends on whether there will be changes in several main dimensions. The EU and its member states, as well as the candidate and potential candidate states, need to improve their economic performances and provide opportunities and perspective to their younger generations. The political and economic performance of the newest member states, Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia, is a significant indicator that can shape the public opinion on further enlargement. The candidate and potential candidate states should be further encouraged and supported in their fulfilling of the accession criteria. The EU institutions and national governments should develop policies to explain to citizens the implications of further enlargement.
Although the European perspective was granted to the Western Balkan states during the European Council summit in Thessaloniki in 2003, the majority of European citizens, according to the Eurobarometer opinion poll, did not support further EU enlargement in 2013. This was a significant decline compared to the findings of the same poll in 2006. European enlargement is considered to be the most successful foreign policy tool of the EU. The argument is that EU enlargement brings respect for human rights and better living standards to new member states, and peace and stability to Europe as such. However, in response to the change in the basic European constellations, the newly elected President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker declared on 15 July 2014 in his Political Guidelines for the next European Commission that “the EU needs to take a break from enlargement so that we can consolidate what has been achieved among the 28. This is why, under my Presidency of the Commission, ongoing negotiations will continue, and notably the Western Balkans will need to keep a European perspective, but no further enlargement will take place over the next five years.” As the next section will show, the new policy of the Commission corresponds with the change in the EU public opinion. However, from a pro-enlargement position, we cautiously ask, “Is there a danger that the ‘pressure’ of public opinion will help to postpone a further enlargement for much longer than ‘only’ a five year period, or even block it forever?"