How to Improve the EU’s Credibility in the Western Balkans

5 June, 2020

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How to Improve the EU’s Credibility in the Western Balkans

The EU should approve visa liberalisation for Kosovo and pledge to include the WB6 in the Conference on the Future of Europe

This year started on a positive note for the relations between the European Union and the Western Balkans. Long-time in the making, the two considerable achievements of opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, and of agreeing on a new methodology for EU Enlargement, finally materialised. The Western Balkans summit on 6 May, organised under the auspices of Croatia’s EU Presidency, was a third achievement, at least insofar as it has taken place at all at a time in which - due to the coronavirus crisis - everyone’s thoughts would have otherwise been focused elsewhere.

The hope of EU officials is that these developments would have “restored credibility” to the process and showed that the political will of EU member states is present. Looking back to autumn 2019, when France and the Netherlands blocked North Macedonia’s and Albania’s EU aspirations yet again, the situation seems indeed an improved one. However, two questions arise. Has this actually translated into a perception from the citizens of the Western Balkans that the EU is supportive of their European perspective? And, what next?

Making good on promises

Answering the question about perceptions is difficult, but crucial. It is difficult because there are no reliable studies quantifying the changes in public support towards the EU, vis-à-vis the attitude towards other foreign countries (such as China and Russia) in the early months of 2020. And yet it is crucial, because the progressive disillusionment with the prospect of joining the EU is an all too real development of the past decade. From fervent Europeanists in the early-mid 2010s, the citizens of the Western Balkans have gradually slid into a protective armour of cynicism, convinced that EU member states are not serious about letting them in.

A prime example of such disillusionment has occurred over the thorny issue of visa liberalisation with Kosovo. A whole generation of Kosovan civil society activists who openly lobbied for their country to implement all of the EU-imposed requirements, was then left in the cold by the European Council, when it failed to make good on its promise (the European Parliament ratified the decision, but the Council never did). Quite naturally, their position on the EU as a positive force cooled off as well. Finally lifting visa restrictions would be a first concrete way to show that the EU, too, can learn from its mistakes.

Late coronavirus reaction puts EU at PR disadvantage

Had the world not been swept by the biggest pandemic in modern history, it is possible that the modest EU Enlargement victories of spring 2020 would have been enough to make the enlargement-sceptics in the EU and the Western Balkan countries satisfied that developments are moving forward. Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned. Struck by an incipient medical emergency (compounded by the mass-scale emigration of medical personnel), and with the prospect of an even harsher economic emergency down the line, the Western Balkan countries needed another show of solidarity.

A quick reaction is not the European Union’s strongest suit: the EU decision-making mechanism doesn't do well under stress and it is too often reactive, rather than proactive. Before helping the neighbouring countries, Commission President Von der Leyen had to tend to substantial shambles created by Member States acting on their own, and burning decades of political efforts and hard-reached compromises. After a few weeks, the EU did however come to the rescue of its WB neighbours, and it did so with a very substantial financial package.

But the problem was that China and Russia were faster, and put themselves at a PR advantage. The fact that the EU’s contribution was by far the largest has been slow to translate into a public recognition of this support. Part of it is due to the ‘theatricality’ of the assistance: the EU does not parade its help in military vehicles, nor it requires leaders to kiss a yellow-starred flag when medical help lands in Belgrade Airport. It requires other shows of gratitude, with technical and unappealing names – such as rule of law conditionality. But for politicians such as Serbia’s President, it is easier to kiss another country’s flag than to dismantle a well-oiled machine of state capture.

Give people a say

The good news is that, across the region, there are large pockets of citizens who are standing up to these authoritarian tendencies. They might not be doing so by waving a European flag, but their demands - democracy, media freedom, transparency and meritocracy - are fully in line with European values. It must be clear, however, that change in the Western Balkans cannot come through the ballot box alone, until the conditions for fair and free elections are in place (in several countries of the region, that is not yet the case).

But what the EU can do is to involve the citizens of the Western Balkans in a pan-European dialogue. There is a low-hanging fruit in this sense: opening up their participation in the Conference on the Future of Europe. In answering a journalist’s questions on this topic after the Zagreb Summit, Ursula Von der Leyen and Claude Michel were evasive. The truth is that there is no answer as yet, given that the work on the Conference on the Future of Europe has been de facto stalled since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. The European Commission would be well advised to push for this to happen and thus show their commitment to the strengthening of democracy in the Western Balkans.

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