Western Balkans’ Plight is Wake-up Call for Europe

In societies devas­tated by the pandemic, the EU needs to leave its conven­tional tool-box behind and urgently speed up the Europeani­sation of its neigh­bours in Southeast Europe.
By Vedran Dzihic and Paul Schmidt

The coron­avirus pandemic has deepened the vulner­a­bil­ities of the Western Balkan countries and exposed the weakness of their state insti­tu­tions, especially in the health sector and social protection.
At the same time, related to the limited effec­tiveness of the EU enlargement process over the past years, the progress of reforms has stagnated and some countries have even experi­enced concerning regres­sions in the rule of law. The outbreak of the coron­avirus crisis has meanwhile increased the presence of other geopo­litical players in the region, mainly in the context of compe­tition over vacci­na­tions, not only of China but also of Russia and the United Arab Emirates, UAE.

Awareness is growing that the EU and the West is not the only available partner. As other powers not known for their democ­ratic practices use or misuse the Western Balkans to promote their interests, it’s becoming clear that the vision of a free, democ­ratic and truly European Balkans is no longer self-evident.After a long lean spell in terms of EU enlargement, now is the moment to act and put the whole range of EU policies applicable to the region back on the agenda. In times of major geopo­litical shifts, the EU has to leave its conven­tional tool-box behind. It needs to advance the Europeani­sation of its neigh­bours in the Western Balkans and provide substantial funding and suffi­cient political will to its own enlargement policies.

The recent enlargement policy reform entails some new approaches and mecha­nisms, but is dealing with countries in the Western Balkans that fear perma­nently remaining the outside the EU.
It is, therefore, high time for the EU to meet up with reality, to reassure and demon­strate that the countries of the region are potential future member states, and – to be concrete – speed up enhanced investment plans. While internal EU reforms are essential to consol­idate struc­tures, improve the EU’s own functioning and enable it to enlarge, it would be wrong for the EU to withdraw now within its own borders and pretend not to see the rising challenges in its closest neighbourhood.

On the contrary, an element of pragmatic optimism and geopo­litical realism would help push the combi­nation of corona, reform and enlargement fatigue aside. A European global player, with a geopo­litical European Commission at its centre, would now be the best inspi­ration to share European values, inspire, and not merely protect its way of life and but convince others of its democ­ratic ideals and achieve­ments. The EU must not turn a blind eye to a Western Balkans facing deeply rooted struc­tural problems, ranging from a flawed state of democracy to societies captured by dominant elites, exclusive politics and nation­alist discourses.

Govern­ments fearing a collapse of funda­men­tally weak health systems have intro­duced strict measures, including states of emergency without time limit, general lockdowns, restricting individual freedom and increasing their overall control over societies. An already weak system of checks and balances has been further dimin­ished, as parlia­ments are sidelined, formal proce­dures disre­garded and the judiciary weakened. such dynamics, justified by a crisis situation, strengthen the notion of impunity and a lack of account­ability among the governing elites.

Yet, there is dire need to strengthen the rule of law as the funda­mental pillar of any stable, liberal democracy, not loosen it. This is even more so in a context where populism, polar­i­sation and tendencies to author­i­tarian rule are on the rise not only in parts of Europe but globally. Some of the power elites, also within the EU, pretend to be democ­ratic and in favour of European integration, but when the limelight is turned off, engage in clien­telist policies that prevent social inclusion and deepen cleavages in society.

Time to change the old elite-centred approach
This discrepancy between words and deeds reminds us that the Europeani­sation process may have vested too much attention in elites and their formal European stances.
This must change. By altering an elite-centred approach, the various EU programmes, such as those supporting mobility, visa-free travel, civil society and the media, will gain more promi­nence and become real vehicles for change. The next few years will be decisive for the democ­ratic and European future of the Western Balkans. In addition to a credible enlargement perspective and a positive reform narrative, which needs to be reinvented and reinvig­o­rated, it is vital to boost the rule of law, civil dialogue, pluralism, social justice, and strengthen the fight against corruption.

In the middle of the pandemic, new regional dynamics can be seen: the change of power in Montenegro raises many question marks about the politics of the new government. In the elections in Kosovo, younger voters and women gave strong support for Albin Kurti and Vjosa Osman, compelling them to deliver on their promises.In other parts of the region, new bottom-up and grass­roots movements and initia­tives are fighting for a broader vision of just and democ­ratic societies. They are still often small and local but point to the potential that civic mobil­i­sation and engagement born out of daily struggles can have.

These emanci­patory civic movements are the centre of broader societal changes that should lead to more democ­ratic, free, equal and just societies in the Western Balkans. This is why a more prominent and consistent focus on the social and civic dimension of the region seems without alter­native. It would be encour­aging to see the EU fiercely supporting these new forces, creating an environment for change in the Western Balkans, and also becoming an integral part of the EU-internal debates, such as in the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe. A renewed EU enlargement, a new and true commitment to the European future of the region, has to be based on mobil­ising its people and building trust – offering oppor­tu­nities, hope and optimism. This is what not only the Western Balkans needs. It is what the whole European continent during a pandemic, and with all the conse­quences it entails, urgently needs as well.

On behalf of the WB2EU network co-funded by the European Commission under its Erasmus+ Jean Monnet programme (www.wb2eu.eu):

Paul Schmidt, Austrian Society for European Politics (ÖGfE)
Vedran Džihić, Austrian Institute for Inter­na­tional Affairs (oiip)
Inva Nela, Cooper­ation and Devel­opment Institute (CDI)
Nedžma Džananović Miraščija, University of Sarajevo, Faculty of Political Sciences
Evelina Staikova-Mileva, New Bulgarian University, Centre for European Refugees, Migration and Ethnic Studies (CERMES)
Senada Šelo Šabić, Institute for Devel­opment and Inter­na­tional Relations (IRMO)
Amélie Jaques-Apke, EuropaNova Deutschland / Elise Bernard, EuropaNova France
Katrin Böttger, Institut für Europäische Politik (IEP)
Nikolaos Tzifakis, Department of Political Science and Inter­na­tional Relations (PEDIS), University of the Peloponnese
Christina Griessler, Andrássy University Budapest (AUB)
Eleonora Poli, Istituto Affari Inter­nazionali (IAI)
Venera Hajrullahu, Change Experts Group (CEG)
Jovana Marović, Politikon Network (PIN)
Ivan Stefanovski, EUROTHINK — Centre for European Strategies
Rufin Zamfir, Global­Focus Center
Marko Savković, Belgrade Fund for Political Excel­lence (BFPE)
Marko Lovec, University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Social Sciences — Centre of Inter­na­tional Relations (CIR)

Vedran Dzihic is a Senior Researcher with the Austrian Institute for Inter­na­tional Affairs, Co-Director of the Center for Advanced Studies (Rijeka), and Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Political Sciences, University of Vienna. 

This article has been also published in Serbian in the weekly NIN.

Paul Schmidt has been Secretary General of the Austrian Society for European Politics since 2009. Previ­ously he has worked at the Oester­re­ichische Nation­albank, both in Vienna and at their Repre­sen­tative Office in Brussels at the Permanent Repre­sen­tation of Austria to the European Union. His current work mainly focuses on the analysis and discussion of topical issues regarding European integration. Schmidt’s comments and op-eds are regularly published in Austrian as well as inter­na­tional media.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not neces­sarily reflect those of BIRN.