Fourteen years have passed since the European Union-Western Balkan summit in Thessaloniki in June 2003 where the process know as the Thessaloniki Agenda was adopted confirming the EU accession perspective for the countries of the region. The language adopted was unequivocal: “The future of the Balkans is within the European Union”.
A lot has happened in the intervening period, with all the countries of the region now at varying stages of their integration into the EU. The EU itself remains by far the most important trading partner for the region, and largest provider of financial assistance. Perhaps the greatest signal of the region’s coming closer to the EU and its impact in terms of tangible benefits for the citizens was the granting of visa free travel to the Schengen area to all the Western Balkan countries with the exception of Kosovo, which is waiting anxiously for that to happen.
A fragile region.
Yet, the region remains fragile. Under a veneer of normality lies a climate of deep mistrust with governing elites and between different ethnic communities. The region has witnessed in the past few years a considerable degradation in democratic standards, with state institutions increasingly under threat. The European Commission’s most recent Communication on the EU Enlargement Policy published last November points to several countries in the region showing “clear symptoms and varying degrees of state capture”. The deterioration of standards has affected all areas of governance, whether it is functioning of the Parliamentary institutions, independence of the judiciary, the electoral process or media freedom. The increased levels of corruption and organised crime in drugs, arms and other illicit trade, representing by themselves a real source of instability, become even more alarming when these activities are protected through state and political institutions.
While the growth rate in some of the countries may seem impressive, it means little in terms of improved employment rates or living standards in the region. Quite the contrary, unemployment remains unacceptably high with youth most affected, reaching over 60% in some countries; social inequalities have deepened with many living below the poverty line,while education standards continue to deteriorate with a huge lack of government investment.
Failure to address these weaknesses in time has only added to the fragile environment. The authoritarian behaviour of ruling parties such as in the case of Macedonia up to the change of government two months ago, further contributed to an increasingly polarised society, with outbreaks of violence and the demonisation of civil society actors and the media.
The EU losing ground.
While the countries of the region are not devoid of blame, it is the EU which bears a lot of the responsibility for allowing this deterioration to happen, despite the fact that in 2011 it placed the rule of law at the heart of the EU’s accession process. This “fundamentals first” approach was a welcome development, with its emphasis on reforms relating to the rule of law, human and fundamental rights, democratic institutions and public administration, as well as economic reforms and competitiveness.
But its failure to follow this up with effective monitoring and implementation mechanisms led to the EU losing a lot of ground in the Western Balkan region. By taking its foot off the pedal and pursuing a ‘business as usual’ technocratic approach with its annual country reports, it failed to grasp the deep malaise undermining the reform process. Even though the warning signs were clearly visible, the EU ignored or downplayed their significance.
Indeed the increasingly critical assessments contained in the country reports should have alerted the EU institutions and the EU member states not only that the enlargement policy was not delivering as it should, but also that it was not addressing the re-emerging fault lines from the Balkans’ troubled history. Its enlargement strategy appeared to be out of touch with reality on the ground and in the process losing credibility.
When the High Representative Federica Mogherini traveled to the region in early March, she was confronted with the brutal reality that all was not well in the EU’s nearest neighbourhood. This was a visit which should have happened months ago; indeed for some of the countries, it was her first visit since taking up office in 2014. A succession of statements by the EU and meetings with the region’s leaders followed her visit, a signal that the Western Balkan region was finally back on the EU agenda.
What needs to be done.
The forthcoming summit of EU and Western Balkan leaders under the so-called “Berlin Process”, which will be hosted by Italy in Trieste, offers an opportunity for the High Representative and those EU member state leaders present to re-affirm their political commitment to the accession process for the region as well as ensuring concrete and effective follow up to agreements reached.
In particular this should be an opportunity for greater emphasis to be placed on rule of law and democratic governance, issues which have tended to be sidelined in previous summits and indeed in bilateral discussions between individual EU member states and countries in the region. This was blatantly the case in the context of the refugee crisis in 2015 when the EU and the countries closest to the region such as Austria and Hungary obtained commitments in setting up border control mechanisms from those countries,notably Serbia and Macedonia, in the front line of the migration flows. The latter were only too happy to oblige, providing them with a convenient excuse to divert attention from their increasingly authoritarian behaviour inside their own countries.
As we have seen in several cases , maintaining stability at the expense of the rule of law and government accountability is a recipe for failure in the long run. Even though the focus at the previous three summits of the “Berlin Process” has been mainly on regional cooperation and connectivity in the energy and transport sectors, these programmes and economic reforms will be meaningless without effective rule of law and functioning legal standards. The EU should take effective action on what is stated in the European Commission’s 2016 Enlargement Policy Communication :”Given the impact of the rule of law on economic governance, the Commission will pay particular attention to the links between these pillars of the accession process”.
It will also be necessary for the EU to substantially increase its visibility in the region, otherwise other actors, such as Russia, will be only too happy to fill the vacuum even though they have little if anything to offer. This means more frequent visits by the EU’s highest representatives, and a much more ‘hands on’ approach by the EU institutions, increasing the sense of the region belonging to and being an integral part of the EU integration process. Perceptions play a big role in a region where the weight of history still looms larger than in any other part of Europe. ( President Juncker’s 2014 statement that there would be no enlargement during the mandate of the current Commission, while understood within the Brussels bubble, went down like a cold shower in the region itself).
In addition to being more visible,the EU should also speak out more often and more forcefully when governments and political leaders are ignoring or violating commitments to reform.There needs to be greater emphasis on the EU communicating its messages in a clear, open and transparent manner, particularly when there are repeated failures in democratic standards. These are after all countries aspiring to join the EU, which gives the EU an added responsibility.
Engagement with civil society and local communities.
Perhaps the most critical factor which can impact on the success or failure of the EU’s commitment to the region is its engagement with civil society actors and local communities. Too often, the EU and its member states devote more attention to dialogue with the political elites, thus further entrenching those elites in their grip on power, even when they continue to violate the ‘fundamentals’. This approach ignores the fact that most if not the entire region is composed of societies emerging from conflict, with leaders intent on retaining power by whatever means possible.
If there is one lesson that has been learned from post conflict peace processes around the world, it is the fundamental role of civil society actors in nation building and reconciliation. They are best placed to build bridges across the political and ethnic divide, and of creating a climate of trust at the local level - where it matters most. Indeed they are often the only ones who can push for greater accountability of political leaders in the absence of the normal check and balances that we take for granted in democratic societies.
At a time when civil society organisations are under attack whether within the region or within some EU member countries, it is more vital than ever that the EU demonstrates in word and deed that engaging with civil society actors and local communities forms an integral part of its strategic relationship with the countries of the region. This would also send a clear message to the governments in the region of the imperative necessity to guarantee direct participation from those actors in the development of policies and reform legislation, a consultation process with meaning. This would ensure a more inclusive and more democratic governance of benefit to the entire society.
Perhaps the best way to ensure that the countries of the region are no longer in ‘stand-by’ mode would be for the EU to start a process of engaging, whether through screening or actual negotiations, with each of the countries on the areas covered by Chapters 23 ( Judiciary and Fundamental Rights ) and 24 ( Justice, Freedom and Security ) of the EU accession process. This would lock the applicant countries in an intensive and intrusive interaction with the EU institutions that would help to keep the reform process on track.
The EU has all the necessary tools at its disposal to restore credibility to its enlargement policy and its relationship with the Western Balkans. It should not forget that it is the only actor that can provide stability and a more secure future for the Balkan region.
Erwan Fouéré, Associate Senior Research Fellow, CEPS