Half-empty or half-full? Gaps in the New EC Strategy for the Western Balkans


After years of neglect, the EU has re-discovered the Western Balkans last year. The crisis in Macedonia, increased Russian involvement, often destructive, and the unresolved relations between Serbia and Kosovo highlighted for the EU that the laissez-faire approach it took in recent years has been destructive. Having left the series of crises of recent years behind, from economic to Euro, Greek, migration and Brexit, it could also focus more on the Western Balkans.

This renewed interest is reflected in the new Commission strategy and stronger rhetorical commitment of the Commission and its president Juncker, such as his recent visit to the region.

Much of this shift is rhetorical. When Juncker took office he stated that no enlargement under his mandate would take place, now the magical date discussed is 2025. While the former was taken interpreted by many as a rejection of the Western Balkans, 2025 is now seen as a promise for the region. Of course, both timelines are the same. Juncker will not be in office in 2025, nor will his commission. So in fact, the main difference is that Juncker said a few years ago the glass is half-empty, now he says the glass is half-full.

Rhetoric matters and there is no doubt that the EU is more interested and willing to support enlargement now than two or three years ago. The strategy puts its finger on the most serious problem in the region, namely that the “countries show clear elements of state capture”. This suggests that all countries of the Western Balkans display this. Of course, the term “elements of” is a bit misleading. The concept of state capture suggests that the state is serving the interests of individuals and groups, not society at large and that political parties or other networks are in control. “Elements of state capture” is a term that is akin to describe “acts of genocide” (rather than genocide) or being a bit pregnant, either the state is captured, or it is not.

Furthermore, the strategy rightfully identifies the need to overcome the legacy of the past, a clear reference to addressing the contested legacies of the wars of the 1990s and ending bilateral disputes.  The diagnosis is thus correct, but a bit timid. However, what is mostly lacking is a remedy. The Commission has offered some new tools, like special rule of law missions. These appear to be modeled on the so-called Priebe Report for Macedonia, which identified the weaknesses in the rule of law under the previous government clearly and publically. However it is not clear if they will be public and as high profile as their model in the Macedonian case where. Thus, Juncker and others have not found the resolve (yet) to be more blunt and public in identifying state capture in the region: It is the autocratic tendencies of many ruling parties and their leaders that constitute state capture, state capture has names and leaders and is not a passive process that happens by itself.

When it comes to the legacy of the past, the EU offers little new: Of course, the main initiative has to come from the countries, including adopting the REKOM initiative, but there is a need for more, such as a mechanism to resolve bilateral disputes, as was started at the Vienna summit of the Berlin Process, but without follow-up, as well as addressing the legacies of the wars in the public debate and education. Here, the steps have been going backward. In Serbia, convicted war criminals are given a prominent place in events by and functions of the ruling parties, including most recently Vinko Pandurević. Here, clearer condemnation by the EU would be important to send the message that giving an official voice to war criminals is unacceptable.

If then the EU is not able to be more open and direct in identifying the problem, the date of 2025 might turn out to be just another mirage along the long path to EU accession. After all, the member states will have the final word on new members and many will look very careful to avoid importing another problem into the EU.

This article was published in the context of the Kopaonik Business Forum (see video of discussion there), by the Serbian daily Danas . For a more detailed analysis on the strategy see here.

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