Balkans: Caught between Competitive Autocracy and EU Indifference

By Jovana Marović

Despite some recent ‘earthquake’ changes on the political scene of the Western Balkans, which were achieved – to the surprise of many – through the ballot box, the prospect for democratization of the region is still weak.

On the one hand, there are deeply-rooted problems that cannot be eradicated overnight and without external support, especially in countries that have never experienced democracy as such and are characterized by a weak rule of law culture. On the other hand, the EU policy towards the Western Balkans has experienced many ups and downs, keeping the region firmly at a distance. The recent blocking of the opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, in spite of the latter having delivered what was asked for, is a clear message to other countries in the region that political considerations take precedence over merit-based decision-making in the EU. This will go on as long as several of its member states will keep not looking favorably towards enlargement (for now, there is no sign of this changing).

Caught between the failure to fight widespread corruption, clientelism and nepotism on part of the local elites, and the EU’s tendency to maintain the status quo, the citizens of the Western Balkans are those who suffer the most. And this is happening in the midst of a pandemic when the region is further affected and weakened and when it feels further excluded. On a positive note, citizens are becoming more and more aware of their role in democratization and collective action, to which recent changes have contributed but even that cannot be long-lived without a clear vision of where it all leads.

What, additionally, is not encouraging is the proposal on how to apply the new enlargement methodology to candidate countries that are currently negotiating membership, i.e. Montenegro and Serbia. The framework remains the same, the requirements / benchmarks remain the same, the roadmaps (action plans) the same. This actually means that EU tools are not changing, and they have so far not proved to be precise and sufficient to improve the rule of law in the Western Balkans. Instead of waiting for the problem to arise in order to take corrective action, as announced, the EU should know that Montenegro has been negotiating membership on the same terms for almost nine years and that it has agreed to stricter conditions, as the new methodology was not binding for it and that there is already plenty of room for corrective measures.

Perhaps, for the promotion of the EU idea in the Balkans, it is particularly problematic that in each presentation of the new approach, the possibility of “reversibility” has come to the fore. It does not necessarily motivate. In the crisis, such as economic or during the pandemic, this is perceived as an excuse for the EU to extend the time for the integration of Western Balkan countries. The model of incentives and sanctions envisaged by the new enlargement methodology in last February is good, but instead of just insisting on punishment, the EU and member states should invest in joint efforts to make progress in the building the rule of law in the Western Balkans and provide a clear strategy of inclusion it in the EU policies. In this sense, a certain time frame with clear priorities and shifts from one phase to another, if those priorities, are met is more than needed. It is not about the date or year of accession, but about clear steps: what if the country is really making progress. That would be good for both the Western Balkans and the EU’s transformative power, which has been seriously called into question in this part of Europe.

The text was originally published in German in the Wiener Zeitung on March 20, 2021 and can be read here: https://www.wienerzeitung.at/meinung/gastkommentare/2097071-Zwischen-Autoritarismus-und-Gleichgueltigkeit.html

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