Spain’s 6-month presidency of the Council of the EU has been upended by a snap election in July. Yet regardless of who wins that vote, prospects for progress on the issue of EU enlargement are poor.
From July 1, Spain took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, following Sweden’s six months’ stint in the role. In the current political, economic and social context, Spain is being tasked with leading the bloc in navigating the ongoing war in Ukraine, taming inflation and the rising cost of living, and laying the groundwork for the European elections in June 2024 – all of which represent potential turning points for years to come.

However, this task has been complicated by a hastily announced snap election on July 23, the tightness of the race for which could mean Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party loses power.

In truth, regardless of which party wins the election – the centre-right Popular Party is ahead in the polls – the prospects for progress on EU enlargement are not bright. As things currently stand, there are not many factors conducive to an outcome where the Western Balkans’ position, or that of enlargement policy in general for that matter, would come out stronger.

Spanish agenda: low expectations, low disappointments
As per the presidency’s announced priorities, Spain will put a special focus on the social, green and geostrategic pillars of EU policymaking. An enhancement of the EU’s strategic autonomy, featuring issues of reindustrialisation and diversification of raw resource providers, will go hand in hand with a boost in trade relations with Latin America and the Caribbean – the only geographical region mentioned explicitly in Spain’s programme.

While mention of EU enlargement does appear once in the 18-month programme of the current presidential ‘trio’– consisting of Spain, Belgium and Hungary – where it is claimed it will be “taken forward in accordance with the new [2020] methodology”, it is not mentioned as part of the Spanish task list per se. This should not be interpreted as disdain, let alone aversion, to the issue, but rather as adherence to Madrid’s long-established foreign policy orientations.

Spain’s approach towards enlargement – and towards the Western Balkans in particular – traditionally follows that of the EU and its major member states, and has rarely distanced itself from the overall straightforward line dictated by Brussels. As a geographically distant country with a rather low strategic interest in the region, Spain has kept a modest profile vis-à-vis the Western Balkans. It is, therefore, not surprising that Madrid shows a higher predilection for Latin America, for obvious historical, linguistic and cultural reasons, and also towards its neighbouring South Mediterranean region.

Kosovo is, notably, the sole issue where Madrid has proactively diverged from mainstream EU policy, alongside four other EU non-recognisers. Despite some (arguably) reticent progress in its rapprochement towards Pristina, Spain has made its solid non-recognition policy clear on several occasions over recent months.

Spain’s secretary of state for the EU, Pascual Navarro, announced in late 2022 that his government would vote against any decision favourable to awarding Kosovo EU candidate status, be it of a procedural or of a substantial kind, following Pristina’s application. Spain also refused to enforce the scrapping of visa regulations for Kosovo passport holders during its presidency, pushing the enactment out to January 2024. This measure will, after all, not apply to Spanish territory, where Kosovo-issued passports will still not be accepted.

Against such a backdrop, little should be expected (or, being honest, even requested) from Madrid in regard to enlargement – even less so at such a critical domestic junction.

Stoking fear and insecurity
In an unexpected move, following substantive losses at regional and local polls at the end of May for his party, Prime Minister Sanchez called snap parliamentary elections to be held on July 23. Many observers interpreted the sudden move as a last resort to circumvent a potentially substantive loss of votes that could help curtail the possible effects of a right-wing victory.

The call for elections set off alarm bells in Brussels, where it was feared that the risk of dealing with an interim executive, let alone a potential change of government in the fourth most populated EU country, would negatively impact the stability and credibility of the rotating EU presidency – a concern which Sanchez has downplayed.

As election day fast approaches, it is unclear whether Sanchez will be able to extend his mandate in office – not least given an aggressive revisionist campaign at home run by the right-wing opposition and rather concerning prospects for his party in the polls.

What is clear, however, is that the Western Balkans will be doomed with a sluggish enlargement partner regardless of who will eventually hold power in Madrid.

Ever since taking office in 2018, Sanchez has progressively shown signs of proactiveness towards the region – recently, for instance, through an official Western Balkan tour in 2022 and, shortly thereafter, that of his foreign minister earlier this year. His tough stance towards Kosovo, however, has seen a notorious involution, which went from sharing a summit table with Pristina authorities to a lack of follow-up even after reports of a diplomatic thaw.

The alternative to a Sanchez-led centre-left coalition government – and currently the likelier scenario – would be a much more damaging conservative coalition between the right-wing Partido Popular (People’s Party, or PP) and the far-right Vox party. The latter in particular has campaigned on a populist narrative of stoking fear and insecurity against mass migration and refugees, which the PP has on several occasions bought into and even backed.

Should this coalition prosper, topics such as migration and security would be placed much higher on the agenda, rendering the EU’s enlargement to the Western Balkans (and, by extension, probably also to the newer EU hopefuls Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia) a no-go in terms of border management and security policy.

This would most likely apply to countries in the region with a higher Muslim population such as Albania, but not only. The gloomiest prospects would most likely be borne by Kosovo, whose independence Spain already does not recognise, but against which a potential PP-Vox government – supportive of territorial integrity at any cost – would apply in an even more hardline way.

A window of opportunity opens in Granada
Following two prior summits in the Czech Republic and in Moldova, the third gathering of the European Political Community (EPC), an intergovernmental forum for political and strategic discussions about the future of Europe unveiled and sponsored by French President Emmanuel Macron, is set to be held in the southern Spanish city of Granada in October this year.

In the framework of Spain’s overall lines of action, it would be expected for the authorities in Madrid to address issues of connectivity – on which it chairs a ‘work stream’ with Moldova – and possibly also energy and the green transition.

However, one big question is whether Spain will use its discretion from hosting the event to embed the enlargement element into the discussions. Yet this is a distant prospect in light of the already clarified nature of the EPC that it is not a replacement for EU enlargement, but also given Spain’s modest outlook eastwards and rather poor contribution to the wider enlargement debate.

Taking advantage of the 27 member states’ presence in Granada, an informal leaders’ meeting is planned for the day after the EPC Summit. Here, Spain could use this opportunity to upscale its proactiveness towards the Western Balkans through the hosting of a new EU-Western Balkans summit – an already traditional yearly platform.

This would, first, avoid a duplication of efforts and costs by another EU or Western Balkan country, enhance Granada’s hosting efficiency to the maximum, and help Spain convey its open support towards the countries of the Balkan region. It would furthermore contribute to enhancing the ownership of EU-Western Balkans summits by member states – a much-needed gesture that was jeopardised by hosting last year’s summit in Albania.

Even though few factors exist for a hopeful outcome and the enlargement agenda is unlikely to be excessively promoted for the rest of 2023, it is worth pushing Madrid to be mindful of the Western Balkans and to snatch any opportunity to integrate them into the discussion.

Yet without a major breakthrough on the horizon, it seems the region will have to sit in the waiting room for a while longer until a more enthusiastic partner, like Hungary in the second half of 2024, takes its turn at the EU presidency.

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