Only in the 1990s has the European future of what is now known as the Western Balkans been bleaker than nowadays. After the ‘democratizing turn’ in 2000, the year marked by regime changes and political commitments to democracy, open society, free market economy, and European Union (EU) integration, the people living in this southeastern corner of Europe believed that a brighter future was ahead of them. The EU policy-makers dealing with enlargement still had their hands full attempting to prevent inter-ethnic conflicts, mediate state disintegrations, using the ‘carrot of EU membership’. Fifteen years after the ‘democratizing turn’, with the exception of Croatia that became the twenty-eighth EU Member State in 2013, the Western Balkan states are still in the limbo of political transition.
While there has certainly been some moderate progress across a few policy areas, such as education and healthcare, the overall state of democracy in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia has suffered a major backslash in recent years. The protracted transition has enabled political and economic elites to capture these contested states and exercise control over their political systems and economies. Albania remains among the poorest and institutionally weakest Western Balkan countries. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, ethnic conflict has been translated into a constitutional structure that prevents major political issues from being effectively resolved; that leaves not only the country’s Others unable to access key citizenship rights; and that has pauperised the entire population of this post-conflict country. Despite having signed several agreements with the goal of enhancing their EU prospects, the relations between Kosovo and Serbia are still tense. The political grip over the media in Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia has increased. So has the number of protests across these countries, and the intensity with which the police repress them. Authoritarian tendencies have crept into the Western Balkans, while the region’s prospects of joining the EU in the next decade seem to be creeping out.
Has the EU lost its power of appeal and, by extension, its transformative power?
Obviously, the process of EU integration of the Western Balkans is different from that of the Central and East European states. The EU, which is almost twice as big nowadays as it was before May 2004, is far less politically and economically stable than during the Eastern Enlargement. Both at national and at the latest European Parliament elections there has been an exponential rise of right-wing parties; in 2017 Britain will hold a referendum on its EU membership; Catalan independence is likely to be a concern for Europe in the coming years; economic crises struck the southern European periphery; approaches that some of the EU member states took regarding the Syrian refugee crisis raise serious concerns over human rights, a core component of European identity and the building bloc of EU integration. Against this context, it is unlikely that enlargement will be a top priority for the EU, as confirmed by the latest composition of the European Commission. In other words, the accession timelines for the Western Balkan states remain unclear. The combination of these issues opens up new avenues for the downfall of democracy in the region.
Academics, commentators and analysts have criticised the EU for the lack of understanding of the specificities of the Western Balkans and for treating the region as ‘business as usual’. Indeed, countries in this region and their relationships are more complex than most of those the EU had dealt with before. What needs to be acknowledged here is that over the past fifteen years the transformation of the Western Balkans has been a major political and financial investment for the EU. The EU intervened in a number of political and economic issues, where the domestic political elites were unable to a reach a compromise. It has conditions for accession and offers support for meeting specific benchmarks in the process. Even so, the EU has not always been clear on its criteria and in many instances it could have exercised more pressure in ensuring compliance. The implementation of the Sejdic and Finci vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina, media freedoms, judicial reform, and organised crime are but a few examples where stability was put ahead of democracy. The combination of the lack of clarity and the absence of ‘pressure to do the homework’ disincentivises reforms in the Western Balkan states, which already have the track record of being ‘difficult students’. As a consequence, there are stalemates in accession and backslashes of democracy across the region.
Putting the region on the right track for accession requires an effort on both sides. The EU needs to be more aware of the regional issues and dynamics, as well as of the effects of political culture in individual countries on meeting the membership conditions. It also needs to enhance its communication with the Western Balkan citizens. It is them, and not their respective governments, who are the most avid supporters of EU integration. Equally, governments of each individual Western Balkan state need to embrace EU integration not as a buzzword or an electoral slogan targeting the hopes and dreams of the people stuck in transition since 1989, but as a comprehensive political and socio-economic transformation. They also need to bear the political costs of such a transformation; something they have been unwilling to do so far. In the meanwhile, some eighteen million people remain ‘stuck in the middle’ with the EU.