The EU in the Western Balkans: a political failure?

This is a translation of an op-ed I wrote and published in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet 25 December 2015.

“The EU risks a political fiasco in the Western Balkans”

After little more than a decade of relative tranquillity in the Western Balkans, the interest of the EU and its member states has declined. At the same time, research, analysis and understanding of the region have decreased substantially. In parallel with the fact that thee armed unrests have calmed down and the countries in the region have reformed in line with the EU membership criteria, it is excusable to think that all is well: that peace, democracy, and respect for human rights have taken root in the region. Unfortunately that is not the situation, and the Western Balkans is on its way back onto the agenda, and for all the wrong reasons.

Perhaps the most apparent reason is the current refugee crisis, where the countries in the region lack the resources, and perhaps even the willingness, to help the large amount of people going through the region on their way to the EU. This challenges the internal and external stability of the region. The second is more worrying; that the quality of democracy and rule of law has declined during the last years. That is the result of several linked processes which have been ongoing for quite some time. The third is the ever present, but recently increased, Russian interest in the region.

We can, unfortunately, observe backsliding and worsening of the situation in several countries. Macedonia has gone towards an increasingly authoritarian leadership and is going through a deep political crisis. Molotov cocktails have become uncomfortably common in the Kosovo Parliament. Important political processes are being blocked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with increased political tension in its footsteps. There is indeed a risk that we could face crises which were foreseeable and preventable.

Given this, and the large amounts of resources that the EU has spent on reforming the Western Balkans into a stable region which would eventually become EU members, it is obvious that the capacity and image of the EU as a strong foreign policy player is at risk. It has been very difficult to promote democracy and rule of law in the region, and Russia’s increasingly intense activities, in particular in Serbia, could force some countries in the region to take side in what Moscow seemingly see as a zero-sum game.

In my PhD thesis from Uppsala University I show that the transformative power of the EU in the Western Balkans is not only weaker that previously assumed, but also that the EU actively avoids acting strongly in situations where EU rules and standards are not respected and complied with. The wish to be a positive actor, spreading the core values of the EU regarding democracy, rule of law and human rights has had the unintended consequence that the EU instead actively avoids the use of stronger power tools such as sanctions.

The effect is that the EU manages to induce formal reforms of fundamental democratic structures, but face a much more difficult situation when it comes to changing the underlying values. My research shows that EU has been successful in changing laws and regulations, but not in changing values and behaviour. The consequences are that the laws and the structures lack a normative foundation and could easily be reversed if wished to. This means that democracy and rule of law are built on the surface, without deeper fundaments and risk remaining weak and unstable.

This represents a dilemma for the EU. If, in this situation, the Western Balkan countries are invited to closer cooperation and even membership negotiations, with the aim to show signs of positive developments and integration, the risk is that it signals that geopolitics are the core aspects for coming closer to the EU and not the quality of the state as such. There is also a risk that the pattern observed is strengthened in such a case.

The alternative is to be tough: to openly say that the countries in the Western Balkans are welcome into the EU, but that they have to deal with the necessary reforms to fit in. But that could on the other hand result in a process where the countries in most need of reforms instead distance themselves and turn towards other regional powers.

It is here that the newly re-awakened Russian interest for the region comes into the picture. Russia is continuously present, in particular regarding energy issues, but also through a general political interest, in particular for Serbia and Montenegro. Russia has supported Serbia in certain foreign policy matters, in particular about Kosovo but also regarding Srebrenica. The interests are mutual: Serbia participated with troops for the Russian commemoration of the end of the Second World War last summer.

The fact that Serbia opened EU membership negotiations on 14th of December 2015 should be seen in this light: the EU tries to get a better control over the developments in the region.

Given all the resources, money, experience, time and knowledge which have been invested by the EU and its member states in the region, there is a risk that the EU is approaching a big foreign policy failure. It is not at all certain that all the resources have had only positive effects on the society, its laws and guiding norms. Or indeed the will to join the European Union. This is an important geopolitical issue for the entire EU and all its member states, which has been well exemplified by the events in Ukraine the last years.

It is thus about time for the EU and its member states to dare to show some political creativity in the Western Balkans and dare to show some leadership. Partly to lend confidence to its role as a foreign policy actor, where the failure to transform countries which want to join the EU is becoming increasingly clear. And partly to strengthen its position against an increasingly more intensive Russia which is more or less discreetly courting the countries in the Western Balkans and is giving clear indications that this is also their sphere of interests, with a right to influence both domestic and foreign policy issues.

By continuing along the same path as always, we risk repeating the same pattern: formal, shallow reforms while old behaviour and values prevail. It is time to dare to change the policy towards the region. Deeper changes will not come about through laws and institutions only, but a more active approach is needed if the EU and its member states really want to see change. No one could afford Potemkin villages without content, neither the citizens of the Western Balkan countries, nor the EU and its member states.

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