The EU and the Western Balkans: challenges changing shape
This new Clingendael Spectator series “Western Balkans In Focus” gives an inside perspective into the wobbly path of the Western Balkans six (WB6; consisting of Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) in their ambition to join the European Union. This opening contribution provides a historical perspective of the challenges that have defined the EU-Balkans relationship in the past 25 years.
A quarter of a century has passed since leaders from the Balkans and the West signed the Dayton agreement. Under the auspices of the United States, Russia and several European states, the warring parties of the Bosnian war (1992-1995) ended their armed conflict and designed a new political future for the new state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
With Jacques Chirac, John Major and Helmut Kohl amongst the signatories, this agreement also symbolises a landmark in EU engagement with the region’s future.
The EU-Western Balkans summit of 2003, held in Thessaloniki, formalised Brussels’ commitment to the region’s EU membership perspective. This commitment has been reiterated at many other summits since. Whereas the countries of Central and Eastern Europe had joined in ‘waves’ in 2004 and 2007, Brussels decided to forego this group-based policy. Instead, the Western Balkan countries were assessed on their individual progress.
EU enlargement primarily relies on political conditionality to incentivise socioeconomic, societal, legal, political and administrative reforms set out by the acquis and the Copenhagen criteria of 1993 (a stable democratic rule of law, functioning market economy and the ability to implement additional policy).
This ‘carrots-and-sticks’ formula is not necessarily very straightforward; it includes “hard” and explicit conditions, but also “soft” and more implicit expectations. The policy’s success, above all, rests upon a “credible membership perspective”.1
However, the years since the Thessaloniki summit have shown that the ultimate reward of EU membership is a more distant, uncertain, and less credible prospect than once envisioned.2 Only Croatia has yet acceded.
The combination of domestic political failure to live up to EU conditions and the infamous EU enlargement fatigue caused frustration among citizens in the region
Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia are candidate member states, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo still await that status. Illustrating the perceived EU’s hesitancy, the Council of the European Union postponed the opening of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia last year.
The combination of domestic political failure to live up to EU conditions and the infamous EU enlargement fatigue caused frustration among citizens in the region. Spurred by this mutual dissatisfaction and the backlash, the EU enlargement strategy has recently been revised to make it more credible, predictable, dynamic and political.3
This article will evaluate the challenges that have defined the EU-Balkans relationship over the past 25 years in light of this new momentum.
EU accession and post-war complexities
The region’s post-war context offered a first test for the flexibility of the EU accession process. Besides direct humanitarian aid and military assistance, initial EU engagement consisted of a Stability Pact and Stability and Association Process to support regional cooperation.4
In later years, the European Commission also worried about “issues stemming from past conflicts” as “major impediment” to EU accession.5 Good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation have thus been central EU conditions.6
It is clear that the prospect of EU accession alone has provided insufficient incentive to profoundly transform the skewed relations
On the one hand, leveraging EU membership has indeed helped to bring about certain bilateral and regional breakthroughs, like the Prespa agreement between North Macedonia and Greece, settling a long diplomatic row over the former country’s name. The European Commission also presented the establishment of official relations between Serbia and Kosovo as “further proof” of the “[EU perspective’s] role in healing history’s deep scars”.7
On the other hand, it is clear that the prospect of EU accession alone has provided insufficient incentive to profoundly transform these skewed relations.
This relates to a wider pattern, where conditionality fell short in transferring the EU values and norms the accession process was expected to foster. A good illustration of an accession condition that failed to bring about the desired transformation was the demand for “full cooperation” with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), established by the United Nations in 1993.8
Brussels’ strict implementation of this absolute accession condition can probably be credited to the extradition of war criminals like Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. Likewise, most domestic political parties at least formally supported cooperation with the tribunal to bolster EU accession.
However, scholars have argued that domestic political actors ‘hijacked’ transitional justice and used the EU to present cooperation with the ICTY as an EU obligation, rather than a domestic responsibility.9
While the ICTY has tried an unprecedented number of war criminals and contributed to fact-finding, wartime ‘heroes’ like Mladic, Ante Gotovina, and Nasser Oric still have a significant nationalist following, also among mainstream political parties and movements.
Today’s realities in the diverse and dynamic region of the Western Balkan are too often written off as mere legacies of the violent past
New security challenges have arisen too. The region found itself under serious global scrutiny again after alarming reports on Bosnian, Kosovar, Albanian, North Macedonian and Serbian citizens joining Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.10 These numbers and the appeal of jihad to the dominant form of indigenous Islam in this region should, however, not be overestimated.11
At the same time, other forms of extremism loom too, including the phenomenon of far-right Serb and Croat foreign fighters in Ukraine.12 These types of extremism are likely to demand our attention for the next years.
While this post-war setting is certainly relevant, today’s realities in the diverse and dynamic region of the Western Balkan are too often written off as mere legacies of the violent past. In fact, the abovementioned concerns strongly relate to shortcomings in more general transition areas, ranging from socioeconomic and administrative to political and security reforms. These types of transition belong to the EU’s more conventional negotiation package, developed throughout earlier accession waves.
Democratic and economic challenges
Compared to the more rigid communist economies in Central and Eastern Europe, the Yugoslav experience of ‘market socialism’ offered a promising starting point for the envisioned socioeconomic liberalisation. Especially in the 2000s, regional economic growth was solid and income per capita increased. The Balkan countries were largely successful in attracting foreign investment and building a reliable export market.
Nevertheless, overall unemployment is still high. Eurosceptic politicians have foregrounded concerns about the EU market overtaking domestic production. Their allegations, while one-sided, are not unfounded and attract a significant electorate.
Large-scale anti-government protests in cities all over the region from Belgrade to Tirana illustrate the democratic backsliding that has plagued the region
Also more generally, many citizens are disappointed by the stalling improvement in their living standards and labour conditions at this stage of EU accession. Key structural market reforms and human resource management, experts explain, did not sufficiently take root.13
This cannot be seen apart from the failures of EU-endorsed reform in the public sector. Having learned from the 2004 and 2007 accession waves, the EU increasingly took the role of a “state builder”14 and “governance builder”15 in the region. Unwilling domestic leaders have caused multiple delays to these ambitions.
Furthermore, the large-scale anti-government protests in cities all over the region from Belgrade to Tirana illustrate the democratic backsliding that has plagued the region. Governments all over the region move towards ‘illiberal politics’ and ‘competitive authoritarianism’, formally allowing for multiparty elections but maintaining a tight grip on power and limiting democratic rights.
This does not only affect the highest level of politics.16 Despite being clear EU priorities, there has been plenty of reason to worry about the independence of the judiciary, failures to fight systemic corruption and organised crime, minority rights, the rule of law, and media freedom, to name but a few.17
In a report that made international headlines, Freedom House concluded that Serbia and Montenegro are no longer democracies, but instead, like Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania, “hybrid regimes”. Kosovo and North Macedonia showed progress on these criteria, but the most recent political turmoil in Kosovo confirms Freedom House’s “doubts about future progress”.18
State capture offers an interesting frame to understand the dynamics between these domestic developments and EU enlargement.19 Over the years, clientelist networks have ‘captured’ weak state institutions, using these official channels to protect their vested interests.20
Brussels ironically relies upon increasingly autocratic governments to implement pro-democratic reforms
Financial flows from Brussels, supposed to foster reform and economic growth, are in many cases “directly or indirectly funding” these corrupt elites. This is increasingly recognised as a major cause of the lack of aid effectiveness.21 The format of EU accession has a difficult time countering this phenomenon, and might even involuntarily enable it.
Because the EU wishes to maintain political neutrality by only negotiating with elected governments, its top-down accession policy legitimises ruling elites and unintendedly weakens democratic opposition.22 Brussels thus ironically relies upon increasingly autocratic governments to implement pro-democratic reforms.
Towards a new approach?
Since Dayton, a lot has changed in the Western Balkans. Some old challenges have waned, some new ones have arisen, but most challenges have stayed, slowly changing shape.
Despite the disappointment that has been built up over the past 25 years, citizens of the Western Balkan still want EU membership
It is clear that the EU’s transactional approach of incentivising reform through a direct reward system has failed. While it has led to certain breakthroughs, it has largely been unable to sustainably bolster good governance and democratic consolidation. Moreover, by working with increasingly illiberal and authoritarian elites, one can argue that the EU has been implicated in the processes of state capture and democratic backsliding.
Luckily, Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi has welcomed the revisions to the enlargement strategy mentioned in the introduction. While these revisions are still too vague to fully rely on, if we allow ourselves some optimism they signify Brussels' commitment to enlargement and offer tools to build stronger aspiring EU member states.
An accession strategy that is more dynamic and guided by a more focused political steer can counter many of the negative side effects of the otherwise positive transformative power that EU accession holds. Despite the disappointment that has been built up over the past 25 years and the alternatives offered by Russia, Turkey, and China, citizens of the Western Balkan still want EU membership. Especially in these uncertain times, they deserve an EU that works for them.
- 1. Frank Schimmelfennig and Ulrich Sedelmeier, ‘Governance by Conditionality: EU Rule Transfer to the Candidate Countries of Central and East Europe’, Journal of European Public Policy 11, 2004, p.661 - 679. The EU recognised this, too. The 2005 Enlargement Strategy for example emphasised that a “continued”, “convincing political perspective for eventual integration into the EU” will be “crucial” in sustaining and “advancing” the reforms. See: Commission of the European Communities, Communication from the Commission: 2005 Enlargement Strategy Paper, COM, 2005, p.561.
- 2. Tanja A Börzel and Sonja Grimm, ‘Building Good (Enough) Governance in Postconflict Societies & Areas of Limited Statehood: The European Union & the Western Balkans’, Daedalus 147, no. 1, 2018, p.116 - 127, p.118.
- 3. Branislav Stanicek, Briefing. A New Approach to EU Enlargement, Brussels: European Parliamentary Research Service, March 2020, p.3.
- 4. Börzel and Grimm, ‘Building Good (Enough) Governance’, p.118 - 119.
- 5. European Commission, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council: Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2011–2012, Brussels: European Commission, COM, 2011, p.666, p.7.
- 6. Stanicek, A New Approach, p.2.
- 7. European Commission, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council: Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges 2013–2014, Brussels: European Commissionm, COM, 2013, p.700, p.1.
- 8. See e.g. Jasna Dragović-Soso and Eric Gordy, ‘Coming to Terms with the Past. Transitional Justice and Reconciliation in the Post-Yugoslav Lands’, in: Dejan Djokić and James Ker-Lindsay, eds., New Perspectives on Yugoslavia. Issues and Controversies, Abingdon: New York, 2011, p.193-212, p.193.
- 9. Marlene Spoerri, ‘Justice Imposed. How Policies of Conditionality Effect Transitional Justice in the Former Yugoslavia’, Europe-Asia Studies 63, no. 10, 2011, p.1827-1851, p.1831, p.1841; Jelena Subotić, Hijacked Justice. Dealing with the Past in the Balkans, Ithaca/NY et al., 2009, p.46.
- 10. Tatyana Dronzina and Sulejman Muca, ‘De-radicalising the Western Balkans’, New Eastern Europe, no. 3-4, 2017, p.25-33, p.27-28.
- 11. For example, in terms of foreign fighters per 100,000 Muslims, Belgian Muslim citizens were four to ten times more likely to travel to Syria and Iraq to join Jihad than Muslim citizens of the Western Balkan countries. Vlado Azinovic, Regional Report. Understanding Violent Extremism in the Western Balkans, Extremism Research Forum, June 2018, p.5-6. It is important to understand that the indigenous form of Islam in the Western Balkans generally allows for little appeal of global jihad.
- 12. Hikmet Karcic, The Balkan Connection: Foreign Fighters and the Far Right in Ukraine, Center for Global Policy, 1 May 2020; Egle E. Murauskaite, Foreign Fighters in Ukraine: Assessing Potential Risks, Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis, 2020, p.2, p.4, p.15, p.17.
- 13. Zuzana Murgasova, Nadeem Ilahi, Jacques Miniane, Alasdair Scott, and Ivanna Vladkova Hollar, The Western Balkans: 15 years of economic transition, Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund, 2015, p.13-15; Nenad Stanišić, ‘Dohodovna konvergencija u procesu pridruživanja zemalja Zapadnog Balkana Evropskoj uniji’, Ekonomski horizonti 18, no. 1, 2016, p.3-14, p.5-6.
- 14. Soeren Keil and Zeynep Arkan, ‘Introduction. The European Union and Member State Building – European Union Foreign Policy in the Western Balkans’, In: Soeren Keil and Zeynep Arkan, eds., The EU and Member State Building: European Foreign Policy in the Western Balkans, Routledge, 2014, p.3-14, p.6.
- 15. Börzel and Grimm, ‘Building Good (Enough) Governance’, p.147.
- 16. Damir Kapidžić, ‘The Rise of Illiberal Politics in Southeast Europe’, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 20, no. 1, 2020, p.1-17, p.3.
- 17. See e.g. Zselyke Csaky, Nations in Transit 2020. Dropping the Democratic Façade, Freedom House, 2020.
- 18. Csaky, Nations in Transit 2020; Milica Stojanovic, ‘Freedom House: Serbia, Montenegro, Hungary “No Longer Democracies”’, Balkan Insight, 6 May 2020.
- 19. See e.g. Milada Anna Vachudova, ‘EU enlargement and state capture in the Western Balkans’, in: Jelena Džankić, Soeren Keil, Marko Kmezić, eds., The Europeanisation of the Western Balkans A Failure of EU Conditionality?, Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2019, p.63-85.
- 20. Kapidžić, ‘The Rise of Illiberal Politics in Southeast Europe’, p.11; Valery Perry and Soeren Keil, ‘The Business of State Capture in the Western Balkans. An Introduction’, Southeastern Europe 42, no. 1, 2018, p.1–14.
- 21. Will Bartlett, ‘International Assistance, Donor Interests, and State Capture in the Western Balkans’, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, p.1-17, p.9.
- 22. Solveig Richter and Natasha Wunsch, ‘Money, Power, Glory: the Linkages between EU Conditionality and State Capture in the Western Balkans’, Journal of European Public Policy 27, no. 1, 2020, p.41-62, p.43.