Often defined as the European soft belly, the Western Balkans are encircled by the EU without having full access to its economic advantages or benefiting from the security guarantees provided by complete membership. On the contrary, their geographical proximity to the European Union has made them, in recent years, a route for migrants trying to reach Western Europe and an easy market for more competitive European products, which have harshly challenged local production systems.
After Slovenia joined the EU in 2004 and Croatia in 2013, the other five countries of the former Yugoslavia, namely Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, together with Albania are still negotiating their paths towards the EU. To date, the real obstacle to their membership is their low level of institutional development and the lack of effective rule of law. When it comes to those issues, the Balkan countries seem to be still far from the EU standards.
Against this backdrop, in February 2018, the European Commission’s new strategy for “a credible enlargement perspective for an enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans” stated the will to have the Balkan countries enter the Union by 2025. The process will not result in the six countries accessing the EU all together, rather the idea is to engage countries in enforcing the necessary reforms on the rule of law, solving bilateral disputes and boosting their market economies to make their entry smoother and their institutions workable within the EU apparatuses.
To date, Montenegro and Serbia are in the lead for acquiring membership by 2025. Accession talks should begin with Albania and Macedonia, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo need to become candidates. Apart for Kosovo, which is still not recognized by some of the EU member countries such as Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus, the biggest challenge the countries face is a credible implementation of reforms on their rule of law systems. This is of vital importance to obtain EU membership, especially considering that countries like Croatia worsened their trend in the fight against corruption once they became members. Moreover, ineffective rule of law and corruption are also affecting the economic performances of those countries, to the point that, according to the Commission’s strategy, none of the countries in the Western Balkans has a “functioning market economy” and to date none could cope with the EU “competitive pressure and market forces.”
Yet, most of the local politicians seem to backtrack on key reforms, as reforming the judiciary systems will mean giving up some of the privileges as well as openly fighting against illegal practices and organized crime. When it comes to the implementation of the rule of law, according to the 2017 Corruption Perception Index, many of the Western Balkans countries have seen their rating shrink and the fight against corruption has slowed down. While this fits a global trend, as in 2017 no country in the world registered a significant improvement in fighting corruption, this cannot be a justification, especially considering that in 2012 the performances of public institutions registered in the six Balkan countries were quite positive.
The perception of corruption is growing in the Western Balkans
To date, while public apparatuses and independent institutions seem captured by underlying powers, non-independent judiciaries and weak law enforcement, the EU, in order to avoid political volatility, is instead promoting “stabilocracy”. In other words, it is favoring stable regimes instead of democratic enforcement, which could challenge the status quo. For instance, the majority of EU leaders and institutions acclaimed the election of Aleksandar Vucic as President of Serbia, although he was accused of controlling the media and intimidating voters. At the same time, very few European voices denounced the fact that the Serbian struggle for fostering the rule of law, which is led by the director of the country‘s anti-Corruption Agency, Mr. Dragan Sikimić, and who should be totally independent from political dynamics, is a member and a donor of the Serbian ruling party. Montenegro is not placed any better: for instance, its long-time leader Milo Djukanovic, who has now stepped down, has been accused many times of being linked to organized crime. Moreover, according to the last European Commission report on the country, the “track record both on successful investigations and convictions, in particular in high-level corruption cases, and on prevention of corruption, remains limited.”
Similarly, other countries, such as Albania, made progress only against minor cases of corruption in the public sector, while Bosnia-Herzegovina, where corruption and organized crime even challenge the stability of the government, has showed no sign of progress in the last ten years. In 2017, Macedonia, the first country in the region to become a candidate, which has seen its accession blocked by Greece’s dispute over the country’s name, experienced the sharpest drop in the region when it comes to the fight against corruption, passing from the 90th position in 2016 to 107th in 2017.
Such a diffused institutional weakness, however, might not be completely negative as it is pushing EU member countries to engage even more with the region; the new Commission strategy is a demonstration of such a trend. The fear, even if often unjustified, is that without the EU, other countries could step up their efforts to increase their leverage in the region. On the one hand there is Russia, which is already favored by multiple factors ranging from historical ties to energy and political issues. On the other hand, the cultural and religious influence of Turkey and the Gulf countries are reasons for concern, pushing EU member countries to support EU enlargement towards the region.
Indeed, considering that the area was the epicenter of World War I, one of the two bloodiest conflicts affecting the continent, and of another horrific war in the 1990s, dangerous regional volatility could be avoided by a major engagement with the EU. Moreover, at a time when the European Union aims to develop its foreign policy and reach a more relevant standing at the global level, the Western Balkans, with a limited territory and a small population are a more than adequate ground for the EU to test its capacity to maintain peace and boost collective welfare.