Srdjan Cvijic and Goran Buldioski / Nov 2015
Johannes Hahn, the European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker committed a strategic mistake when he announced a year ago that "[t]here will be no new enlargement in the next five years". No politician or voter in the Balkans was under the illusion that EU accession would come so quickly. But the unnecessary bluntness of this statement did not work as a stimulus towards that longer-term goal. Instead, it became an excuse for many of the region’s national leaders to diminish their commitment and energy in the accession process. Juncker’s message was a blow to the EU’s influence and credibility in countries moving towards membership. This ‘enlargement embargo’ announcement continues to resonate in the Western Balkans and its negative effects are already being felt.
Before the summer, the EU’s interest in the accession process was at best anemic, but the influx of refugees turned the Balkans into a mere backdrop against the biggest crisis of the year. The EU’s moral suasion has been further diminished by fences on its external borders and challenges to EU values in member states like Hungary. Chancellor Merkel’s Berlin process, initiated with a big bang last year to improve EU ties with the Balkans, now looks like a deflated balloon. An all-European response to the refugee crisis remains important but is not the only challenge that needs addressing in the Western Balkans: Democracy is still fragile all over the region.
Macedonia, once an aspiring member of the European Union, advancing towards membership shoulder to shoulder with Croatia, remains on the verge of serious destabilisation. A victim to increasingly illiberal internal policies and bilateral issues blocking its enlargement process, it has been sliding towards authoritarian rule for years. The agreement brokered by Commissioner Hahn to overcome the latest political crisis in Skopje and its demand for conditionality, might not ensure a level-playing field for the April 2016 elections.
The Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) between the EU and Bosnia and Herzegovina entered into force in June this year, yet the constitutional reforms remain an open issue. Last week, Kosovo signed a similar agreement with the EU but Kosovars remain the only nationality in the Western Balkans unable to travel to Europe without a visa. It should come as no surprise that at the beginning of 2015 there was a dramatic surge of Kosovars crossing into the EU in pursuit of a better life. Notwithstanding some differences between the two, the combination of high unemployment, corruption and inter-ethnic tensions do not offer positive prospects for the citizens of either country.
Montenegro, the fourth runner in the EU enlargement process, is a clear example that a strong political commitment from the EU is needed for the democratic processes to move forward—the enlargement negotiations’ technical processes are just not enough. Growing political instability in Montenegro is not so much about the country’s future NATO membership. Rather, it is about the fundamental preconditions of democracy: freedom of speech, assembly and ultimately the alternation of power.
In Albania and Serbia a combination of Commission-led technical enlargement processes and strong political commitment by EU Member States has produced results—both boosting bilateral and regional cooperation and advancing internal reforms. Nevertheless, both countries continue to face internal challenges—like corruption, an inefficient judiciary and poverty—and remain exposed to external destabilisation and spillover effects from the region and beyond. The lack of sufficient commitment to democratic governance means independent media reporting is compromised and there is fertile ground for widespread censorship.
The long-awaited EU enlargement annual progress reports, postponed to the beginning of November, can show a positive sign of change. If they indeed prove to be as the Commission pledged, “more political”, “more transparent” in language and “more comparative” than the previous overly-bureaucratic reports, they will offer civil society and the media in enlargement countries a useful tool to hold their governments accountable for the lack of progress in reforms.
Democratisation and societal transformation in the Western Balkans does go hand in hand with EU enlargement negotiations but they are not the same process. EU Member States need to voice their renewed, strong, and unequivocal political commitment to the EU membership of the Western Balkans in order to give new life to democratic reforms in the region and avoid the risk of destabilisation. To revive the momentum there needs to be a sequel to the 2003 EU-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki. The next iteration of that summit should result in a strong statement of commitment to erase the effects of Juncker’s words at the beginning of his term. These would not be empty phrases, they would signal a political vision that right now is so desperately lacking.