With the debates over the possibility of future EU membership of the Western Balkans countries, some voices started to rise in the European Commission. This issue does not only bring back questions about the European Union’s values and identity, but it also allows to examine the usage of European ‘Soft Power’ over its own members and potential accession candidates. This case underlines the contradiction between the EU’s objective of maintaining stability in the Balkans’ region and the European willingness to fight against ‘populism’ and nationalism inside its own borders.
In March 2019, Federica Mogherini reminded us that the Balkans’ region strives to become part of the European Union (EU), even if all of the Western Balkans countries are not ready yet for the EU membership. For instance, only two countries of the Western Balkans started a negotiation process: Serbia and Montenegro. Macedonia and Albania, despite their official statue of candidates -since 2005 and 2014 respectively- did not start the negotiation yet. The Commission recently did two different announcements concerning the Western Balkans.
First, despite some progress that still needs to be achieved, the European Commission suggested to officially open the negotiations with Tirana and Skopje.
Then, the two countries already in a negotiation process with the EU, Serbia and Montenegro, are said to be ready for accession by 2025 according to the Commission.
2025: merely a fantasy.
If someone still had doubts about it, the perspective of accession of the Western Balkan countries is rising issues in the EU. The European Parliament (EP) and the governments of numerous member states claimed that the establishment of such a date was pure fantasy. Most of the critics worry about the possibility of an ‘automatic accession’ for Serbia and Montenegro without giving them the time to fully acquire the ‘acquis communautaire’ of the EU. Many fear an over-hasty membership. Indeed, the present condition in the Western Balkans can raise some doubts about the realistic nature of such an announcement, particularly concerning the rule-of-law in the region.
“Montenegro can be considered as an unconsolidated democracy.”
As a matter of fact, some concerns about the rule-of-law in the Western Balkan appear legitimate. Montenegro, for example, has known only one political party at the head of the State for 25 years now. The DPS, led by Milo Djukanović adopted an attitude very similar to the one of western populist parties that are condemned by the EU. The DPS is often using a narrative of ‘othering’ and references to the ‘heartland’, presenting itself as the savior of the Montenegrin nation. This kind of populism is quite far from the usual left wing populism, but is on the contrary presenting strong elements of right wing modern populism. The power in Montenegro is still captured by a small amount of personalities, a nomenklatura whose political responsibility can’t be challenged. Montenegro can be considered as an unconsolidated democracy and despite the reforms that the EU normative power pushed the government to adopt, it seems that the domestic pressure is not sufficient to allow meaningful progress.
The same problem appears when inspecting the Serbian political situation. The ruling coalition in this country heavily relies on a ‘catch-all’ ideology and clientelism despite the EU’s influence. In fact, the attachment to European values could mainly be superficial, with the ruling elite being more attracted to some model of illiberal democracy as in Russia or Turkey. This tendency to lean towards autocracy is clear when inspecting the rule-of-law in Serbia. The freedom of press is particularly endangered and the leading coalition keeps trying to bloat any form of political opposition. The EU, focusing on the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, did not pay sufficient attention to the concrete consequences of the reforms implemented in Serbia.
The same is true with the two other candidates: North Macedonia and Albania. In North Macedonia, for instance, the press’ seems to be particularly sensitive to external pressure, mainly coming from Russia.
In view of these elements, it could seem paradoxical that so many progress is claimed to be made, in order to attain accession but very few appear to be concrete. Moreover, the EU is still condemning countries behaving in a similar way inside its own borders. For example, Hungary and Poland know a comparable political situation, with some human rights and civil liberties being abused, while the leading government displays a populist discourse (composed of ‘othering’ and references to the ‘heartland’). The difference is that the EU officially condemns them through the Article 7 of the treaty on the European Union since 2016, even if it is often criticized for its lack of efficiency.
It can be argued that if the EU officially condemns Hungary and Poland, the concrete effects of such a measure have yet to be felt. The lack of consensus among the member states on the means to put pressure on Poland and Hungary is not helping. On the contrary, Poland and Hungary have a very clear strategy and are dedicating an important apparatus to their defense, trying to seek the support of other member states.
Bearing in mind these limits, one cannot argue that the EU is approving the abuses that appear in these countries. Then, how is this possible that Western Balkan countries, such as Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia or Albania, are benefiting from the EU’s acquiescence despite their domestic situation?
We argue that the answer does not simply lies on the difference of status between these countries: being a member of the EU or not. Taking the example of Bulgaria, a member of the EU since 2007, we will underline the geopolitical determinants of the EU behaviour toward the Balkans.
Bulgaria despite its behaviour, is barely seen Bulgaria as one of the ‘european populism’.
The example of Bulgaria, led by Prime Minister Boïko Borissov, could be among the list of ‘populist states threatening the EU’, standing with Hungary, Italy and Poland. Indeed, Boïko Borissov has been at the head of the government for 15 years now. He is often using populist discourses and, on this matter, has no reason to envy its Polish, Hungarian, or Italian counterparts. Every single element composing a populist rhetoric is present in his discourse: processes of ‘othering’, migrants being labelled as a threat for the Bulgarian culture, and a strong focus on the ‘elite corruption’ against which, he says, he is the best safeguard. Moreover, Bulgaria has been the first European country to build a wall against migrants, before Hungary. Despite all of that, we barely see Bulgaria described as part of ‘european populism’ and the EU does not seem to condemn Bulgarian politics.
The reason is simple: in Bulgaria, rejection of migrants, mistrust in the press and nationalist discourses are shared even by the opposition. In the country, the political debates can be more or less be reduced to a choice between western countries or Russian influence, the Bulgarian left-wing being supportive of Russia and the right-wing being more oriented towards the EU. This explains why the EU is so tolerant of the Bulgarian politics.
What is true for Bulgaria is also true for the Balkans.
These geopolitical issues, prevailing on the European values, also exist in the Balkans. Indeed, despite the very few changes in the Balkans’ domestic situations -in term of Human’s rights abuses and democracy- the Balkans’ governments have all been said to be ‘pro-European’ for 20 years now. In Montenegro, the DPS is even using its relation with the EU to assert its political domination over the national sphere by associating its political success with the perspective of EU membership. The opposition is often pro-Russia. In the region, only Albania is presenting a political pro-European consensus.
Is the EU’s soft-power still relevant?
This situation explains the European forbearance for the Balkan’s politics. In the region, the EU tends to privilege political stability -in a region often divided by conflicting nationalism- and its influence on the area rather that the reinforcement of European values and of the rule-of-law. Even worse, despite the absence of progresses concerning democracy in the Balkans, the EU is still promoting a vision of the Balkans as an inherent part of the EU.
In the light of such a geopolitical tension it can easily be understood that the EU does not want to put too much pressure on the Western Balkans’ countries, fearing to lose the little influence it has over the region to the benefit of Russia or Turkey. However, this strategy may be counterproductive. When inspecting the progresses realized in Bulgaria and Romania after their accession to the EU, it appears that the use of normative power as a pressure to make changes is way more efficient before a country obtains the status of EU member. Tim Haughton, doctor of political science specialized in the European region, also establishes that once negotiations are opened, the conditionality is less effective because membership seems almost acquired.
Moreover, this situation could be harmful for the EU’s reputation, damaging its credibility. The term ‘stabilocracy’ already appeared in the press and is used in order to criticize the EU’s behaviour and hypocrisy. In the end, no one buys it: the Balkans’ population is losing hope in the EU’s project, understanding that EU membership is far from being achieved. At the same time, this situation is undermining the legitimacy of the populist government -which bases its project on this opportunity. This would mean that few progresses would be achieved in terms of human rights while the EU could also lose its influence in the region.
Maybe it is time for the EU to either face its political responsibility or assume its aspiration for soft-power in the region. However, these two objectives do not seem to match with each other. After the first announcement and the rise of critics about the ‘2025’ objective, coming from both the parliament and the press, the vice president of the European Commission Frans Timmermans claimed that this date was only an estimation based on the progresses already made and was not a binding decision.
In any case, it appears clear that the EU should make sure that the reforms taken under its normative power are correctly enforced if it wants to avoid a new premature accession which would, once again, increase its political and economic heterogeneity.
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For further information:
EUROPEAN COMMISSION : Albania 2019 Report, Communication on EU Enlargement Policy, 2019.
EUROPEAN COMMISSION : Montenegro 2019 Report, Communication on EU Enlargement Policy, 2019.
EUROPEAN COMMISSION : Serbia 2019 Report, Communication on EU Enlargement Policy, 2019.
EUROPEAN COMMISSION : North Macedonia 2019 Report, Communication on EU Enlargement Policy, 2019.
EUROPEAN COMMISSION : Kosovo 2019 Report, Communication on EU Enlargement Policy, 2019.
EUROPEAN COMMISSION : Commission
Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s application for membership of the European
Union, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the