Europe revives its power of attraction

After years of internal woes, the EU looks to expand its values into the troublesome Balkans with a renewed offer of membership. Its positive narrative can counter competition for influence from Russia and China.

Austria's President Alexander Van der Bellen (L) and Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic review the honor guard in Vienna, Austria Feb. 2.

Many countries still compete for influence but these days they rely less on threats and more on the power of attraction, such as trade, cultural exports, or models of governance. A fine exemplar has been the European Union and its project to integrate the Continent. For the past decade, however, internal crises over the eurozone, migrants, and wayward EU members have stalled its outward reach. That changed Feb. 6 when the EU revived its welcome for six countries in the Balkans to join the bloc.

The southeast corner of Europe has twice been a powder keg for modern wars – in World War I and again in the post-communist 1990s. To prevent another outbreak of violent ethnic nationalism, the EU wants the six aspirants for membership – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia – to firmly commit to its “fundamental values” of liberal democracy. In return they can expect to win trade access, investment, and visa-free travel. 

The new EU strategy clearly states that the lure of potential membership serves as a “powerful tool to promote democracy, the rule of law and the respect for fundamental rights” in the Balkans. It calls on the six to make a “generational choice,” even at the level of how they teach their children. 

The EU’s offer is designed to counter two troublesome trends. One is the rising influence of Russia, China, and Turkey in the region – all countries that lack the EU’s democratic credentials. The other is pervasive corruption and some autocratic tendencies in the Balkans’ young democracies. 

The EU effort is being led by Bulgaria, whose proximity to the six compels it to seek a friendly neighborhood. But plenty of people within the Balkans still seek to join Europe. Among the post-communist countries of the former Yugoslavia as well as Albania, “EU membership remains the ultimate destination...,” writes expert Dimitar Bechev in a new book, “Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe.” 

The EU hopes to have some of the Balkan nations join by 2025, an ambitious goal given the “fatigue” within the bloc over absorbing current members in Eastern and Central Europe. 

And the six aspirants have much work to do yet in reforming their policies. Yet their eagerness to join shows how much the world has shifted toward a type of competition where it is better to be liked than feared. Despite its many woes, the EU still has a positive narrative that proves the power of attraction.

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