The European Union’s lack of political commitment to integration of the Western Balkans has a direct influence on the region’s democratic backsliding, writes Srdjan Cvijic.
Srdjan Cvijic is a senior policy analyst on EU external relations for the Open Society European Policy Institute.
In 1998, in the darkest days of Milosevic’s rule in Serbia, my father placed a small EU flag on his Belgrade balcony. For him, the EU banner was a beacon of hope and a remedy against the madness Yugoslavia had descended into. He told me that one day he hoped to see his continent, torn apart by authoritarian ideologies of the twentieth century, free and fully united.
The 2007 Berlin Declaration, issued at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome, stated that “the unnatural division of Europe [is] something consigned to the past” – to my father, Europe will remain divided until the Western Balkans are an integral part of the EU. Thirteen years after the countries were promised EU membership in Thessaloniki – there is a running joke in the region: “by the time it’s our turn to join, the EU will no longer exist”. After the results of the UK referendum on the European Union last week, the joke makes very few people laugh.
While the 27 member states discuss a new start for Europe as a result of the UK referendum, they should not forget that EU integration of the Western Balkans is an essential part of that project.
The Western Balkans Summit in Paris, part of the Berlin Process, is a first opportunity to seriously re-engage with the region. It is in a paradoxical situation: on the technical criteria they are slowly progressing in the EU accession process; on the political side, they are stagnating or backsliding. Lack of media freedom, absence of free and fair elections, and state capture, continue to present serious hurdles to the process of democratic transformation of the region. And the EU is not blameless when it comes to the democratic backsliding in the Western Balkans.
First of all, the lack of political commitment to the EU integration of the Western Balkans has direct influence on the region’s democratic backsliding. The 2014 ‘moratorium’ on further EU enlargement for the duration of the mandate of this EU Commission only confirmed that the EU is favoring the status quo. Facing too many pressing issues, the political leadership of the Union believes the moment is not ripe for a meaningful political action on EU enlargement. Brexit only reinforces this attitude. As a result, the political stagnation of the Western Balkans and the reluctance of the EU to accelerate the enlargement process feed each other. The EU has decided to play the stability card rather than the democracy card. The EU is now relying on regional strongmen to assure the stability of the region – which may work in the short run but is a source of instability for its future.
In order to invert this negative trend, the EU must stop courting the authoritarian-leaning leaders in the region, reconnect with the citizens of the Western Balkans countries, strongly reconfirm its political commitment for EU accession of the region, and revitalize its transformative power. This means improving the conditionality mechanisms and providing more incentives for reform.
On the ‘stick’ side, the EU must be able to enforce compliance of candidate countries with the political criteria for accession through its own mechanisms. The absence of acquis communautaire on elections and press freedom can no longer be used as an excuse for inaction. For the ‘carrot’, the EU needs to connect directly with the citizens of the Western Balkans. This could be achieved by deploying the EU policies normally reserved to the member states to the region, and by including more sectoral integration within EU policies, following the example of the Energy Union or Horizon 2020. It can also be achieved by making the structural funds available to the candidate countries and opening the EU labor market for Western Balkan workers. This would create an additional incentive to reform while waiting for EU accession.
The EU flag is still waving on the Belgrade balcony. But, after almost 20 years, it has faded in the same way popular support for the EU in the Western Balkans is slowly waning. Many people in the region share my father’s dream. For them, the EU is not only about economic prosperity but about an open and decent society that respects individual freedom and takes care of its citizens. It is about a state free from corrupt oligarchies. They have experienced war relatively recently and are struggling for their countries to come out of authoritarianism. They know by experience that freedom, peace and democracy are not given away – they need to be protected and promoted. They know that dramatic progressive overhauls are possible, in the region but also in older democracies in the EU. This is why the EU matters for them, and this is why the region matters for the EU.