Citizens of countries in the Western Balkans are still, overall, positive about the prospects of their countries joining the European Union. However, the path to EU membership is a long one and at the moment the people in the Balkans are caught between a rock and a hard place. The EU accession process seems endless and current member states are doing little to improve that; indeed some appear to be putting further obstacles in the way. Moreover, the de-politicisation of the accession process is having unintended consequences in that it does not allow voters to properly hold their elected representatives to account. This is the rock.
The hard place is made up of the governments, politicians and institutions in the Balkan countries, which are the focal point of people’s dissatisfaction. Publics are sceptical about their governments’ commitment to European integration and this undermines the value of democracy.
To move beyond the rock and the hard place, the European Commission must speed up the implementation of the revised enlargement methodology, with more meaningful incentives to continue reform. Western Balkans countries should be invited to contribute to the upcoming exercise in imagining the Future of Europe. The European Union should also reinforce current support for citizens and civil society to hold their governments to account and end the epidemic of state capture in the region. This is stated in the policy brief of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group – BiEPAG.
A key promise of democracy is to empower people to make their own decisions and have their voices counted in politics. A growing problem of contemporary democracies is that voters no longer believe they can influence how their countries are governed, even when they agree that elections are free and fair.
The EU accession process is set up in such a way that relevant law-making in the Balkan countries
sidesteps policy deliberation. Instead, it translates into the adoption and implementation of EU-compatible standards. While Brussels also curtails the ability of political parties in the member states to offer meaningful policy alternatives to their citizens, at least the EU capitals get a say over the decisions taken at European level that they are later obliged to respect. As aspiring members, the Western Balkan countries are obliged to take the EU conditions or leave them. This dominance of the process of EU integration in the region makes it difficult for their politicians to represent and respond to their voters, even if they genuinely wanted to do so. More than that, however, it has the unintended consequence that it often allows political elites in the region to evade their campaign promises, “selling all unpopular policies as ‘made in Brussels’, while smuggling into their agenda their own pet projects.” Without the ability to hold their leaders accountable, there is a risk that people in the region start losing faith in democratic representative institutions and processes.
So far, citizens in the EU-aspiring countries of the region have not rejected the Commission’s pressure and impact on their national politics. According to a recent Ipsos survey, commissioned
by the European Fund for the Balkans in October 2020, public opinion in the region continues to be overwhelmingly in favour of membership to the European Union (82.5% on average). Even in Serbia – the region’s biggest sceptic – a majority of 64.1% of respondents support their country’s goal of joining the EU (see Table 1).
Most recently, Bulgaria refused to approve the EU membership negotiation framework for North
Macedonia over issues of history and language, thus effectively obstructing the already long-delayed start of accession talks for Skopje. This decision ignores the good track record of reforms in North Macedonia: the country received the most positive assessment in this year’s Commission reports on the Balkan countries. A clash with Greece over the country’s name had previously frustrated North Macedonia’s efforts to join the EU for a decade, until the two finally resolved the issue in 2018.
Public opinion in the region is still positive about European integration, but it is not unaware of these unfolding dynamics. The Ipsos survey (2020) indicates that 52.1% of respondents from across the region are dissatisfied with their country’s progress towards EU accession.
As shown in Table 2, one of the cited reasons for dissatisfaction is precisely the slow pace of the process, especially in the front-runners Montenegro (17.7%) and Serbia (17.6%). 9.4% of those surveyed in North Macedonia and 11.7% in Serbia also complain about the growing number of EU demands and are concerned that “the EU does not want us.” The conditions set by Neighbouring countries are frustrating for 9% of respondents in North Macedonia.
While still small, these numbers indicate that public opinion in the Western Balkans is attentive and sensitive to signals from the EU. In fact, people’s latent scepticism becomes even more obvious when considering the significant sections of the region’s population (20.8% on average) in the Ipsos survey (2020) that believe that their countries will never join the EU: 32.7% in Serbia, 28.1% in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 25.7% in North Macedonia, and 20.9% in Albania.
The hard place
For now, according to the Ipsos survey (2020), the focal point of people’s dissatisfaction is their national politicians and institutions.
In particular, more respondents from Kosovo (24%) than anywhere else in the region doubt that authorities are genuinely committed to European integration; these people no longer believe their leaders’ avowed support for the EU agenda. Public discontent with corrupt and dysfunctional state institutions scores significantly as well, especially in Montenegro (18%). About 14% of respondents in Serbia and North Macedonia agree that domestic political elites and institutions are mainly responsible for the lack of progress or reforms in European integration.
People’s perceptions are not misguided. After almost two decades of European integration, democratic performance throughout the region has not yet acquired a positive dynamic. Neither the adoption of democratic constitutions nor the EU’s rigorous democratic conditionality have managed to overcome informal power structures, state capture, and patronage, but have instead rather consolidated them. The rise of strong Balkan rulers has eroded the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and the freedom of the media in these countries, allowing autocratically-minded leaders to govern unchecked.
The way out
The politics of pressure, whereby corrupt governments find themselves squeezed between angry publics and an uncompromising Council, has proven its limits. As member states continue to diverge in functional terms from agreed standards and procedures on enlargement, the policy’s
credibility and leverage in the Western Balkans is waning. The constant breaks on these countries’ EU tracks risk derailing even the most reform-minded and consensus-driven politicians in the region. To keep the process moving, the Commission ends up having to work with regional political elites who have questionable democratic credentials. People in the region might feel increasingly frustrated with their leaders’ performances, but they are unable to hold them accountable in a depoliticised European integration process. In itself, this deals a heavy blow to the legitimacy and capacity of Western Balkan systems. Ultimately, if anyone is currently ‘sandwiched’, it’s the people. They are squeezed between two half-hearted commitments: that of the EU to enlargement, and that of their political elites to the reform agenda.
To a large extent, the enforcement of the new approach to EU enlargement hinges on the member states’ ability to consent to the negotiating framework for North Macedonia. This recalls the long-standing need to better specify the division of labour between the Commission and EU capitals on the dossier. Given the difficulties of the member states to reach unanimity on enlargement, the Council should revisit the possibility of introducing qualified majority voting, at least for all intermediary stages of the EU accession process. This would grant member states a strong political role, as per the intention of the new methodology. Yet it would also prevent them from frustrating the process while it is ongoing, which is precisely what currently undermines the policy’s transformative leverage.
To help Western Balkan countries cushion the blow of the pandemic and relaunch economic convergence with the EU, the Union should provide more generous support to the region – far beyond the Economic and Investment Plan announced by the Commission this October. The EU should empower the Balkan countries through smart, inclusive, and probably expensive policies. For example, gradually opening the European Structural and Investment Funds (such as to support infrastructural projects), extending the use of the EU’s financial stability mechanisms, allowing the region to participate in the Common Agricultural Policy or enabling circular migration – all these warrant serious consideration.
It is imperative for the EU to strengthen and diversify the ways in which it reaches out to its natural allies in the region, who, in any case, share the same problems and interests. One concrete way for the EU to do so is to invite political leaders and citizens from Western Balkan countries to join, on a consultative basis, the activities and discussions held in the context of the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe. Cooperating beyond the scope of the enlargement dossier to co-shape a common European future could also help restore the region’s significant degree of scepticism in the promise of EU membership.
Last, the EU’s failure to confront persistent stagnation or backsliding on democratic reforms in the region leaves the impression that it is willing to trade off democracy for the promise of stability in the Western Balkans. In the absence of a democratic acquis, the EU is still searching for a proper strategy to transform the countries of the region into sustainable democracies. It also needs objectively verifiable indicators to measure their progress.
By doing all of the above, the EU would make national politics in the Balkans less of a hard place and break down the challenge of its current approach to the region.
This project was funded in part through a U.S. Embassy grant. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed herein are those of the implementers/authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government.