international analysis and commentary

Benefits and drawbacks of EU accession for the Western Balkans

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In 1999, the European Council established the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP), stating that the countries of the Western Balkans could qualify for EU membership if they met the criteria outlined at the European Council meeting in Copenhagen in June 1993. However, the duration of this crucial process has far exceeded initial expectations. Even after 25 years, the transition to democracy in these countries, which were once part of the Yugoslav single market, remains ongoing.

The 1993 Copenhagen Criteria, including political, economic and administrative prerequisites, set clear standards for countries aspiring to join the EU. Despite the EU’s consistent commitment to supporting the Western Balkans in their journey towards European integration, progress has been slow. As of now, only two countries, Croatia and Slovenia, have successfully joined the EU, in 2013 and 2004, respectively. The remaining five countries – Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania – are still in the negotiation process for EU accession. Kosovo gained visa-free access to EU countries earlier this year and is still awaiting candidate status.

Although the EU has consistently stressed its commitment to supporting the Western Balkans on their path towards European integration, as demonstrated by the regular EU-Western Balkan Summits convened since 2018, there appears to be a lack of sufficient political will from both Europe and the candidate countries to overcome certain obstacles. Additionally, the prolonged journey towards EU accession is leading to increasing doubts among citizens of countries that have not yet joined the 27-member bloc, as to whether they will ever become part of the Union.

At the Bled Strategic Forum, an annual gathering of leaders from Central and Southeastern Europe, held in Slovenia on August 28-29 2023, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, introduced a significant proposal. The proposal entails setting a deadline of 2030 for completing all necessary steps for EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. While this deadline has been established, the true challenge lies in garnering alignment among all 27 EU member states and maintaining consensus on the importance of EU accession among political actors in the candidate countries.

Western Balkans countries leaders and EU officials at the Tirana enlargement summit in April 2024

 

The key to Croatia’s success, and its democracy deficit

Negotiations with Croatia, which began in 2006 and lasted six years, took place at a time when the country had a much worse position in relation to European institutions than the countries of the Western Balkans today. Croatia received the green light from the Thessaloniki Conference in 2003, but there was always the idea that the country should have waited for expansion together with all the entire Western Balkan countries, or at least with Serbia.

Davor Gjenero, a political scientist and analyst from Croatia, argues that Croatia’s success can be attributed to the unanimous agreement among all relevant political actors on the importance of EU accession as a shared goal. This consensus generated significant political momentum and facilitated the concentration of resources and efforts towards achieving the common objective.

“A special body, the committee for monitoring Croatia’s European Union membership, was established, and the result was significant political progress, the democratization of society and the relatively swift adoption of the common European acquis,” Gnjenero explained.

The consensus on the significance of EU accession, present in Croatia from 2003 until the conclusion of accession negotiations in 2011, is lacking in other Western Balkan countries that are not yet part of the EU.

This absence of consensus explains, even though member states now recognize the common enlargement policy as a crucial instrument, why it fails to generate the same momentum in the negotiation process as seen in Croatia, where coordinated action among all relevant political actors propelled progress.

Unlike the period from 2003 to 2011, when Croatia experienced the emergence of positive social energy and evident progress toward becoming a better country and society, joining the EU actually marked the onset of a process of regression. The change in government post-EU accession brought forth political factions that fueled internal conflicts and the radicalization of society. This trend persisted throughout the tenure of Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, who currently serves as the President of the country.

Subsequently, Croatia entered a phase of euro-optimism, as explained by Davor Gjenero, characterized by eight years of administrative efforts promoting the concept of “We want more Europe” and aligning policies with mainstream European agendas. Notably, this period, aligned with the government’s mandate from 2007 to 2011, was characterized by cooperation between the ruling political party HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) and representatives of national minorities.

While Croatian society still grapples with significant democratic deficits, signs that the country is emerging from the regression phase are evident. There is a noticeable strengthening of democratic political culture, attributed in part to EU membership and successful integration processes such as Schengen, the adoption of the euro last year, and the effective utilization of structural and crisis funds, which have positively influenced societal consolidation.

However, Gnjero is concerned about a change in direction: “The return of Zoran Milanović, the President of the Republic, to the party arena in the recent elections held on April 17th, which is unconstitutional, was also the return of the model of verbal civil war, while the model of cooperation of the majority with minority communities after this election cycle is seriously threatened, raising the risk of an undemocratic campaign.”

This suggests that everything is once again up for scrutiny, and it remains to be seen whether a resurgence of radicalization is underway or if the process of aligning Croatian society and the state with European policies will persevere.

Zoran Milanović

 

Media freedom and pluralism, censorship and impunity

While Croatia was harmonizing its media regulations with European standards during the negotiation process, it experienced significant improvements in press standards and respect for freedom of speech. This progress continued until the country finally joined the EU.

Maja Sever, a Croatian journalist and President of the European Federation of Journalists, says that times and media have changed drastically since Croatia joined the EU. Although it was not so long ago, the development of social networks, new platforms, the emergence of SLAPP lawsuits (strategic litigation against public participation), and the decline of traditional media forms, such as print and television, make it challenging to compare today’s situation with that of the past. Furthermore, Europe itself has been weakened due to wars, pandemics, and declining trust in institutions.

“When Croatia joined the EU, the demands presented to our institutions were very firm, and I believe that at the time we significantly strengthened media pluralism and the protection of journalistic freedoms. Unfortunately, after joining the EU, we neither received continued support nor were able to maintain the level of acquired rights and freedoms. The decline continues,” Sever said.

However, Sever still believes that Croatia has gained much more than it lost in the accession processes and since becoming a member of the EU. Opening those doors has brought numerous possibilities, cooperation opportunities, and tools for building a robust system of media and journalist protection. In the last term of the European Parliament alone, numerous directives and recommendations were passed to strengthen the framework for protecting journalistic freedoms, copyrights, journalist safety, defense against SLAPP lawsuits, and even the European Media Freedom Act.

She also believes that the strength of the requirements set by the EU in fulfilling various chapters of the negotiations is much lower today. Thus, they are less of an opportunity for the countries in the accession process to strengthen media freedom.

 

Read also: Don’t forget the Balkans

 

According to a recent report from the Council of Europe, Serbia and Albania are among the top ten countries in Europe where journalists are most threatened. The most egregious example is Serbia, where the media is highly polarized, and crimes such as the murder of journalists often go unpunished. The decision of the Belgrade Court of Appeal, issued on February 2, 2024, modified the first-instance sentence and acquitted four defendants of the murder of Serbian journalist Slavko Ćuruvija who was known as an opponent of the dictatorial regime of Slobodan Milošević and assassinated on April 11, 1999. This verdict underscores the ongoing impunity for threats and murders of journalists in the country. Such impunity significantly undermines democracy, freedom of speech and the work of journalists, consequently impeding public access to important information.

 

The paradox of democratic transition: the consolidation of authoritarian regimes

In the countries that have already been selected for enlargement, such as Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, the capacity of civil society, academic elite, and even the public administration does not appear to be a primary issue. Instead, the main challenge lies with the political class and the lack of genuine social commitment to the accession process. In Serbia’s case, a crucial problem is the reluctance of the political elite to align public policies with EU standards, particularly in foreign and security affairs, and the failure to uphold the rule of law as a fundamental principle of governance. There is a pervasive sense that rhetoric surrounding EU accession is merely empty discourse, lacking substance. This attitude toward the accession process seems to have permeated much of the opposition as well, including civil society.

 

Read also: The EU accession prospect for Western Balkans countries: dream or reality?

 

According to the conclusion of the latest report by Freedom House (a leading organization for human rights and the promotion of democracy), Serbia recorded the biggest decline in democracy and human rights of all 29 European and Asian countries observed.

The drop in ratings was recorded in four out of seven areas: the electoral process, the media, local democratic governance and the judiciary. Surely, the elections in December 2023, held in unfair conditions and with numerous irregularities, contributed the most to this.

In recent years, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its leader, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, have continuously violated political rights and civil liberties, exerting pressure on independent media, political opposition and civil society organizations.

Serbia received 18 out of 40 points in the category of political rights, and 39 out of 60 in the category of civil liberties, according to an earlier Freedom House report on freedoms in the world for 2023.

According to the average rating, Croatia, Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro are now ahead of Serbia in the Balkans, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are behind it.

 

Is there room for optimism?

When it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the main obstacle in the accession process lies with the political class, characterized by a lack of willingness to engage in the fundamental work needed, establish compromises and reach agreements within the parliamentary arena. The country is increasingly divided, with secessionist policies from Republika Srpska and the pathological influence of the regimes in Moscow and Belgrade hindering progress. Due to this situation, and the uncertainty of whether the country will ever join the EU, more and more young people have left in recent years. From 2013 to 2023, according to research conducted by the Union for Sustainable Return and Integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than 484,000 citizens departed. Similar situations exist in other countries of the region that are not yet EU members. For instance, a total of 233,291 inhabitants left Croatia in the last five years.

However, as explained by Adi Ćerimagić, a political analyst from the European Stability Initiative, the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina still largely support their country’s membership in the EU.

“Citizens of the country recognize that the path to membership and eventual accession will bring, above all, the assurance of peace and stability, as well as reforms that will enable them to catch up to the socio-economic development standards of the EU itself,” explained Ćerimagić. He further emphasized that, despite the disillusionment caused by Croatia’s accession to the EU, which was closely followed by the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina, people are still aware that EU membership remains a positive option.

In early March of this year, the European Council made the decision to commence accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been a candidate for EU accession since 2022. On this occasion, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, wrote on X platform that Bosnia belongs to the European family. When asked about the realistic possibility of Bosnia and Herzegovina and other Western Balkan countries joining the EU by 2030, Ćerimagić suggests that with political, technical and financial support, all candidates could implement the necessary reforms and fulfill the required conditions within the next six years.

 

At present, however, the EU is not prepared to extend such an offer for European membership to any candidate in the region. On the contrary, as French President Emmanuel Macron stated in a recent speech at Sorbonne university, that Europe in this current form could die and future EU enlargement is contingent upon successful deep reforms and simplifications within the EU itself. Many European leaders share the French president’s diagnosis of the threats looming over the continent. But many question whether it is an electoral move.

However, as Adi Čerimagić claims, without reforms and essential changes within the EU itself, even successful candidates will only gain access to the EU’s single market. Consequently, citizens in those countries would benefit from the four freedoms of movement within the EU. Achieving this goal hinges solely on the preparedness of candidate countries to implement reforms and align with EU standards.