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Is the EU a guardian of the rule of law in the Balkans?

The Western Balkan countries’ efforts to foster the rule of law reform are extremely limited. On the one hand, there are autocratic elites in the region with no will to change. On the other hand, despite a series of events and even EU-level documents over the last two years aimed at revitalizing the integration process, there has been no significant shifts in the practice. This brings us to at least two ways to improve the current situation, one relates to the EU toolbox that needs revision, the other relates to pressure on the ruling elites to complete the necessary reforms

Any attempt to revise the EU enlargement methodology should take into account the fact that although the current enlargement toolkit requires improvement, even the best instruments cannot deliver results on the ground unless there is greater commitment on the EU’s side, and determination to eliminate all practices that undermine democracy on the candidate countries’ side. The Western Balkan countries do not need advanced solutions on paper that will be forgotten in a couple of months, as was the case with the European Commission’s ‘credible enlargement perspective’ communication. Also, the existing instruments which aim to advance the rule of law in the countries aspiring to become EU members (and those provided in the last year’s EC communication for the Western Balkans) should be fully implemented swiftly and improved in line with the lessons learned.

Although many factors influence the deficiencies of the rule of law (and democracy) in the regions, the autocratic way of governing in these countries is the most significant part of the problem. The Commission itself is not always clear and precise in sending messages. Instead of imposing strict conditions and increasing pressure on regional politicians, in line with the assessments about the elements of the captured states in the Balkans from recent documents, EU officials often use phrases that strengthen the positions of Balkan autocrats. Therefore, it is precisely the pressure from citizens, civil society organizations, the European Commission and the EU Member States that should be crucial for disciplining political elites and democratizing states.

This text has been prepared within the project “Rule of Law Reform in the Western Balkans: Reinventing the Rules of the Game” implemented by Politkon Network, in cooperation with CRTA and Tim Institute, and with the support of the European Fund for the Balkans (EFB).