Upgrading the Commitment to the Western Balkans
BRUSSELS/BELGRADE — Today’s global challenges teach us that interdependence is as much a source of stability as it is of instability. The events in the past decade pushed the transatlantic community toward the edge, challenging and questioning its natural and firm alliance. The Balkans is a region where transatlantic cooperation has been successful — despite its recent ten year clumsiness — and we now see the beginnings of a comeback of the allies united in their determination to finish the unfished in the southeast part of Europe.
On February 6, the European Commission launched a strategy outlining the path for the accession of the Western Balkans to the EU. The new strategy is a welcome corrective to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s infamous and unnecessary statement of the obvious in 2014: that no accession would take place under his leadership of the EU (2014–2019).
Long overdue, the document pinpoints the most pressing challenge that the EU is facing: the state of democracy. The most interesting point is the acknowledgement that while progress toward accession rests on the shoulders of the region, the EU too needs to put its house in order, including on its own rule of law problems. Indeed, the linkage between the state of democracy in the Western Balkans and in the EU is probably one of the most complex issues on the European agenda for the decade to come.
In the Western Balkans, there is vicious cycle to be broken. Political leaders of all shades have a consolidated habit to agitate spectres of the past in order to get international attention toward the region’s potential instability, and juxtapose the commitments of Europe and the United States to the interests of Russia, Turkey, China, and the Gulf states. In doing so, these political leaders achieve the aim of covering up their own lack of commitment toward democratic change and the well-being of their citizens, sparking polarization within society and disillusionment with the West and about the region’s future. Rising poverty and brain drain of the region’s youth is one of the consequences.
In the eyes of many citizens of the Western Balkans, the EU’s need for state cooperation in managing borders and preventing flows of migrants moving from the Middle East to Western Europe is behind the frequent back-patting and hand-shaking of government representatives who use dubious democratic practices.
On the EU’s side too there are problems with democracy, most notably in Poland and Hungary. With Britain set to leave the Union, there are also tensions between those seeking arrangements to deepen integration, possibly in smaller groupings, and those others who want to see, conversely, states taking back competences from Brussels. A looser Union with lower democratic standards could be tempting for some leaders in the Balkans, but it would remove mechanisms to protect the health of Europe’s own democracies which are crucial for the future of the Western Balkans too.
The strategy is refreshingly blunt about the worrying state of democracy in the region, blaming its deterioration for the many political hiccups the Western Balkans have been through, the inability to address the outstanding bilateral disputes, and the deleterious impact that state capture has on the economy. And it paves the way to better involve Western Balkan policymakers into EU processes to socialize them into the practices before formally joining the Union. The strategy also identifies six areas for special initiatives: rule of law, security and migration, socioeconomic development, transport and energy, the digital agenda, and reconciliation and good neighborly relations.
The transatlantic community that has invested in stabilizing the region must call the bluff and make it clear that double messaging to domestic politics and the international community will no longer be tolerated. The Commission’s document implicitly does this, but Europe’s diplomacy needs to follow at all levels — including representatives of governments of the EU member states. This has not been the case in recent years despite repeated warnings that were coming from the civil societies of the Balkan states about the deterioration of democratic life in the region. It is also worth capitalizing on the fact that the United States, on the whole, has shown more continuity of engagement with the Balkans than the change of policy or deep uncertainty it has manifested elsewhere. Even if, or perhaps because of, the top levels of the administration are not particularly engaged, those elements of U.S. policy that have been historically committed to the region have shown their resolve through field engagement, for instance in mediating major political crises in Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and by supporting Montenegro’s accession to NATO last year.
The EU's enlargement policy continues to be a strategic investment in peace, security, prosperity, and stability in Europe. Built on strict but fair conditionality and the principle of its own merits, it continues to drive transformation and modernization in the partner countries in an overall challenging environment. Stabilization through such transformation is in the EU's own interest. The firm prospect of EU membership, as continuously reaffirmed by all member states, continues to drive transformation and anchor stability and security in the countries of southeast Europe.