Dimitar BechevNonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council
The EU does care about the Western Balkans. That has to do with the region’s geography, recent history, and advanced level of integration with the union. The former Yugoslavia is one of the few places where the EU’s foreign and security policies work, although results often fall short of expectations.
The question, therefore, is not whether but how much the EU cares. As long as the Western Balkans appear stable, European politicians look at issues closer to home. The trouble is that stability looks different from the region’s vantage point. The absence of war provides an alibi for assorted Balkan leaders (“stabilitocrats,” if you will) to capture state resources and institutions and muffle critics.
That’s the root problem in Macedonia. The EU can and should do more to make sure that there is a government in Skopje and that President Gjorge Ivanov plays by the constitution. Yet it’s doubtful whether Brussels has the silver bullet for uprooting corruption. It is therefore incumbent on Macedonian citizens, irrespective of their ethnic background, to maintain pressure and hold accountable whichever party is in government. That’s the only way to make the EU care in a more genuine sense and ensure stability works.
Andrew ByrneSoutheastern Europe correspondent for the Financial Times
Yet again, Macedonia is in the headlines: not for its fake-news industry but because of a grotesque mob attack on members of parliament on April 27 that highlights a broader political malaise afflicting the Western Balkans. Parliaments across the region face boycotts, tear gas, and now violent thugs. The distant promise of EU membership has not yet transformed political life in this region.
In essence, Macedonia’s crisis is a product of an internal democratic failure: the refusal of rulers to hand over power peacefully. Neighboring leaders will view this as a test of what happens when autocrats double down on their defiance of democratic norms and the EU. That alone means Brussels must maintain pressure.
But more broadly, the EU’s brightest minds must reassess the bloc’s Balkan bargain. There is increased skepticism of the EU’s ability to promote democratic norms in candidate countries and its willingness to take in new members.
The EU must offer a more tangible—and incremental—path to membership. A preliminary form of associate membership would represent a more credible and therefore enticing prospect for Western Balkan countries. It would also be a more effective way of retaining conditionality on immature democracies.
The debate on a multispeed EU offers an opening for this idea, and a chance to prove that the EU’s commitment to the Western Balkans is sincere.
Dominik P. JankowskiHead of the OSCE and Eastern Security Unit at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Yes, but the EU must understand that continuing on autopilot will not be enough. The stabilization, transformation, and modernization of the Western Balkans are in jeopardy due to at least three major trends.
First, the EU has still not fully recovered from its internal problems—the economic crisis, Brexit, EU integration challenges, the migration crisis—which have negative impacts on its foreign policy choices.
Second, the still-fragile Western Balkans are not immune to the illiberal tendencies present in European and U.S. politics.
Third, great-power politics is back, which means that Russia, Turkey, China, and the Gulf states are competing with Europe for influence in the region. One could even say that the Western Balkans have become a training ground for Russian hybrid warfare, as in Montenegro, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The EU’s managerial approach toward the region is not enough. The EU should prioritize building resilience, including in the security sector. This should be done in close cooperation with NATO. Moreover, the EU should reassess its operational engagement, as missions and operations should not be treated as a last resort. Finally, the EU should engage more actively in countering Russian hybrid warfare, including aggressive propaganda, in the region.
Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for the Balkans
Brussels is worked up about the antidemocratic behavior of two of its member governments, Hungary and Poland. But where is the EU on two more sinister attacks on democracy in its Western Balkan backyard?
In Macedonia, the parliamentary election in December 2016 produced a majority for a Social Democratic–Albanian coalition government—ethnic Albanians make up 25 percent of the Macedonian population. But the defeated government refused to accept the election result, leading to violent scenes in the Skopje parliament on April 27.
In Albania, the opposition Democratic Party has taken antidemocracy a stage higher by announcing a boycott of the election scheduled for June 2017, in case it is won by the ruling Socialist government.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has tried to bring together Serbs and Kosovars, but the new Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, continues to make revanchist claims on Kosovo and on Bosnia and Herzegovina. Belgrade is now almost a colony of President Vladimir Putin as Russia enters the vacuum created by the absence of a coherent EU policy for the Western Balkans. It is unfair to blame the European External Action Service alone. European foreign ministers have lost interest and get involved only if violence occurs.
Internal politics are corrosive and conflictual. But if the EU cannot solve a backyard problem, how can it claim to be a serious geopolitical player?
Sena MarićSenior researcher at the European Policy Centre in Belgrade
The EU does care about the Western Balkans, but in the wrong way. The EU has taken the region’s stability for granted. The union’s stick-and-carrot approach to the countries of the region regarding EU membership may have been effective in the first decade of the twenty-first century, but no longer. The EU’s waning appetite for enlargement and multiple internal crises have forced it to prioritize security concerns over the region’s Europeanization. That has led to progressive democratic backsliding in the region.
In other words, the EU has been turning a blind eye to the growing antidemocratic tendencies of the political elites in the Western Balkans for the sake of maintaining stability. Recent events in Macedonia, where protesters attacked the parliament on April 27, have shown that this approach was erroneous. A similar scenario can be expected in Serbia.
Therefore, instead of relying on particular political elites, the EU should foster greater economic ties and opportunities, while enforcing necessary rule-of-law reforms, to create stronger preconditions for the region’s stability and prosperity. Otherwise, the EU will continue losing the support not only of its political protégés in the Western Balkans but also, and more importantly, of the region’s citizens.
Nate SchenkkanProject director of Nations in Transit at Freedom House
The EU has no choice but to care about the Western Balkans. The real question is whether the EU cares about the region’s democratic transformation.
The Western Balkans’ lack of economic and security integration with Western Europe, its role as a source of and transit route for migrants to the EU, and the small but potentially serious risk of ethnic conflict make the region strategically unavoidable for the EU. Yet because of the EU’s preoccupation with other crises in the last ten years, and because it sees the region primarily in terms of threats instead of opportunities, the EU has preferred stability over transformation.
This has resulted in the withering of the EU’s promise of enlargement, on the one hand, and the entrenchment of strongman leaders, on the other. Recent European efforts to construct a positive agenda for integration in the region emphasize infrastructure and trade without equivalent leverage applied to democracy and the rule of law. The economic integration agenda is supposed to spur the rule-of-law agenda. But this version of modernization theory hasn’t worked elsewhere in EU enlargement, and it is unlikely to work in the Western Balkans.
Ruslan StefanovDirector of the Economic Program at the Center for the Study of Democracy
There are many indications that the EU does care about the Western Balkans. But the context and perceptions have shifted significantly.
Since 2008, the EU’s attention has been focused more on averting disaster than on devising a strategy to provide for the needs of the region. The relative importance the EU attaches to the region has diminished, too, as the union is swamped by more urgent problems of Grexit and Brexit, Russia, migration, Turkey, and so on. The EU’s capacity to deliver on its pledges of care has been strained, mirroring a rising unwillingness of local elites in the Western Balkans to fulfill their own promises on EU integration.
Yet, the EU has kept and increased its financial assistance and beefed up its enlargement procedures. And it has helped produce results, even in areas such as corruption. According to regional civil-society anticorruption watchdog SELDI.net, in 2016 the level of bribery in the region, though still unacceptably high, was on average 15 percentage points lower than in 2001.
But the EU’s wanting political presence in the region seems to dwarf its commitments. European political families, members of the European Parliament, and local EU delegations can and should do much more to deliver a single-voiced message that the EU does care.
Ivan VejvodaPermanent fellow and director of the Europe Project at the Institute for Human Sciences
The EU cares because of its own interests, among others. But it needs to do much more to put deeds to words as it confronts all of its other internal and external challenges. The European Council meeting on March 9–10 once again importantly reiterated its full commitment to the Western Balkans.
This indispensable relationship is about both the credibility of the European project (whether the EU can integrate the last part of Europe’s geographic core) and the ability of the region to live up to its declared commitments to democratic reforms and regional cooperation and stability.
The geopolitical challenges posed by Russia and Turkey have brought the Western Balkans back into the limelight of the EU. Also, troubling internal regional dynamics in a tough economic environment rightly pose the question of possible authoritarian tendencies.
The serious crisis in Macedonia has shown that the EU needs the United States to find a solution. Thus, the transatlantic approach to the Western Balkans as well as EU-NATO cooperation remain crucial.
The EU must to find ways to bring the countries of the region to the EU table on specific issues while the processes of reform and accession are ongoing and must make the wait for membership meaningful.
Bodo WeberPolitical analyst and senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council
EU officials have been lining up in recent weeks to give alarmist statements about the deteriorating political situation in the Western Balkans. This represents a complete U-turn in rhetoric after a decade of brushing aside warnings that the EU’s policy weakness in the region poses a potential security threat to Europe. There are doubts about whether this shift in rhetoric marks a shift toward more serious engagement.
The EU has moved from operating on bureaucratic autopilot to acting on a number of policy initiatives in the Western Balkans in recent years. Yet those driven by German leadership—in Kosovo and Serbia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina—have lacked a cohesive strategy and fallen into crisis, while the union’s engagement in Macedonia was too weak from the start to succeed.
There are a few lessons the EU should take away from its engagement in the Western Balkans. First, don’t trade democracy for false stability and false EU unity. Second, there is no choice between internal integration and enlargement—and a two-track union is no solution. And third, the evolution of the accession toolbox into a (potential) instrument of external democracy promotion can be helpful for the EU’s internal democracy problem, for example in Hungary.