EU must solve its own rule of law problems before reforming the Western Balkans
A recent damning report from the European Court of Auditors (ECA) indicated that the EU achieved next to nothing with the 700 million euros it spent on improving the rule of law in the six Western Balkan countries before their eventual joining of the European bloc. The influx of liquidity from the EU, according to the report, has had “little impact” on the serious problems plaguing the Balkan countries, including endemic corruption and political interference in their judiciary.
While the ECA report calls for tougher crackdowns on countries that fail to uphold its basic principles, it’s hard for Brussels to be too preachy when its own house is in disarray. Poland and Hungary have long been open critics of EU values, but Slovakia and Slovenia have also been singled out for backsliding in recent years.
Since the eventual integration of the Balkan states into the EU should be seen as crucial for the continued stability and security of the European continent as a whole, Brussels would be wise to focus first on extinguishing the rule of law on its doorstep, before reconfiguring its strategy towards the Western Balkans, which most likely means just throwing more money and NGOs at the issue instead of getting tough.
The slow pace of EU accession negotiations for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia has caused disappointment, while an average of 62% of Balkan citizens support EU membership, some 22% now think it will never happen.
Some Western Balkan countries are on the verge of giving up and looking for greener pastures. The average Serbian, for example, has developed an extremely negative opinion of the EU, much preferring a political rapprochement with its traditional ally Russia and, more recently, with China.
Growing interest from outside powers is cause for concern, although many observers tend to exaggerate the downside risks. China has gradually increased its influence in the Balkans through major loans and investments and strategic Agreements, while Moscow and Turkey are working to increase their presence in the region where possible. Irregular migration routes run through the Balkans and constitutional mixing crisis in Bosnia underline the need to keep alive the region’s declining European perspective.
Internal issues need to be resolved
The disappointing return on investment of the 700 million euros that the EU has diverted to addressing rule of law problems in the region, however, naturally requires an overhaul of strategy in Brussels. The recent report by the European Court of Auditors highlighted a particular policy shortcoming, the EU’s reluctance to use the stick as well as the carrot with its future members.
France, in particular, played a major role in overhauling EU enlargement rules to include severe financial sanctions and to incorporate the biggest stick of all, the idea of ”reversibility” of all EU accession processes. Paris had to force a very reluctant European Commission to integrate the concept of reversibility, which could well be the only tool that really gives results.
The problem is that it is difficult for Brussels to crack down too harshly on rule of law weaknesses in candidate countries when several EU member states grapple with the same ones. The shortcomings of Poland and Hungary are well known, but they are not the only culprits. In Slovakia, thehistoricalThe anti-corruption crusade promised by the Ordinary People and Independent Persons (OLaNO) party when it took office in 2020 has emerged as another point of contention.
Bratislava’s anti-corruption investigations have been embittered by suggestions that the government exercises undue influence over law enforcement targets and uses repression for political purposes. Indeed, a disturbing diagram accusations seem to be emerging against figures linked to opposition politics, from the head of the central bank Stone Kazimir to the businessman Miroslav Viboo at former chief of police Milan Lucansky, died suddenly in his prison cell, apparently by suicide.
The Slovak prosecutions have come under particular scrutiny because of their reliance on reverse defendants; a prominent judge in the country recently slander on the methods by which confessions are urged and then invoked as elementary evidence, noting that “in a state governed by the rule of law, the end should not sanctify the means”. Confidence in the OLaNO seems to be fading both among party cadres – a former minister recently leave the movement after losing hope of honestly tackling corruption – as well as the general public; The founder of OLaNO, Igor Matovic, now enjoys the confidence of only 14% Population.
Elsewhere, Slovenia also appears to be backtracking on its democratic progress under right-wing Prime Minister Janez Jansa, with the European Parliament recently who passed a resolution criticizing “the state of EU values” in the country for the first time. In particular, concerns have emerged over whether Ljubljana is cracking down on dissent under the guise of Covid-19 restrictions. The Slovenian government has also been accused of taking control of the main public broadcaster by insisting on the airtime of its representatives and cutting critical segments from its broadcasts, while the slow pace of appointments to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office has also caused the ire of deputies.
Crucial moment ahead
These rule of law concerns are only heightening tensions in Europe after a turbulent period marked by everything from Brexit to the pandemic and accompanying economic downturn. To make matters worse, other political forces seek to take advantage of any potential weakness by further fragmenting the continent and insinuating themselves into its fabric.
Given that the Western Balkans have served as a key target for such tactics and as a gateway to the rest of the world, it is not surprising that the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, recently called a European future without them “inconceivable”. Of course, the political status quo in several of the candidate countries is incompatible with the basic principles of the bloc – but this contradiction is almost impossible to resolve when several EU members are also out of step with the fundamental values of the group.
As a result, Brussels must shine the spotlight on countries that refuse to align and do what it takes to calm crises on its own turf. Only then would it be able to respond to the recent report of the European Court of Auditors by developing a more effective strategy to promote the rule of law in the Western Balkans.