There was a time in the Western Balkans, some fifteen-odd years ago, when local politicians, journalists and civil society organisations carefully read the fine print of the European Commission’s so-called progress reports. It was a time when these documents were considered technical rather than political: an expert opinion by an objective and trusted ‘judge’. NGOs were in the habit of pushing the Commission to use unbiased language and include an assessment scale so that they could better track the progress (or regress) of the country and explain it to the public. The Commission responded by introducing scales for progress and subsequently for the level of preparedness for each chapter of the pre-accession process.
Faced with the prospect of more direct language that would expose their resistance to progress and even autocratic tendencies, Western Balkan leaders gradually started working other channels within the European Union to question the credibility of Commission reports. First in line was the group of sister parties in the European Parliament. Depending on their political affiliation, Western Balkan leaders would ensure that their citizens heard like-minded MEPs commenting on positive aspects of reports. However, as opposition parties started doing the same with ‘their’ MEPs, this channel was soon discredited in the eyes of the region’s public. It has also not been difficult to find politicians in member states articulating the narrative of a faulty EU over the past decade. Indeed, the EU is complex and has diverging interests at times, which has made it easier to sell half-truths to the public.
As Western Balkans leaders succeeded in undermining the trustworthiness of Commission reports in the eyes of the domestic public, they also succeeded in casting doubt among member states. And, to be fair, who can blame them? While the Commission was claiming good progress in the fight against corruption in Albania, the country was in fact sinking fast in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index with a record drop of 23 places between 2016 and 2019. These developments challenged the objectivity of the Commission specifically and the EU more generally, and caused the Commission reports to be seen as biased and political by many audiences in the region and also in member states.
A new enlargement methodology?
The revised accession methodology proposed by the Commission is a good but insufficient attempt at restoring the EU’s credibility vis-à-vis the region. The document appears to be more of a face-saving exercise than a roadmap for a credible and reinvigorated accession process for Western Balkan countries. Much of its content is about bolstering the influence of member states. The roles of Western Balkan citizens and civil society barely get a mention.
A rapprochement between the Commission and member states is not a bad thing per se. Western Balkan citizens desperately need a credible EU to speak with one voice on what are critical issues for them. The recent lack of this has led to widespread disillusionment.
Re-establishing trust is fine, but there is also a pressing need to restore the Commission’s monitoring role as an objective guardian of progress – free from political games with regional strong-men. In doing so, the EU should not trade stability for democracy. Commission reports should be equally vocal and straightforward, not only when member states’ interests are threatened (illegal migration, organised crime, terrorism, etc.) but also when Western Balkan citizens’ priorities are at stake (grand corruption, state capture, decline of democracy, shrinking civic space, and loss of freedom of expression).
The new methodology must carefully assess the causes and the symptoms of stagnation in the Western Balkans. Above all, it should not ignore the most reliable partner and ally of the EU in the region: citizens, civil society and independent media.
Needless to say, the EU has to work with governments and political actors in the region, but it should align its action with the ambition of citizens. It should not shy away from their perspective just to please fake reformers in the government or opposition. It should strengthen the people’s role, and the voice of independent media and civil society in keeping governments accountable.
Unfortunately, the Commission’s proposals for a revised enlargement methodology largely ignore the role civil society should play in democratisation reforms and the pre-accession process, even if CSOs are assured that EU funds will continue to support their work if the EU decides to punish a Western Balkan government for lack of progress.
The truth is that CSOs have been active without funding, even when the EU failed to back them up with political statements. Among several other instances of people taking to the streets, without taking a single EU cent, to rally against corruption and media censorship, the community of artists in Tirana has been protesting every single day, for over two years, against a highly controversial PPP-project to replace a treasured theatre with a private development, facilitated by specially created laws to legitimise the scheme.
Empowering the missing ally
The revised methodology for EU enlargement fails to capitalise on a huge potential for change in the Western Balkans. This requires a credible EU speaking openly with one voice against state capture, grand corruption, shrinking freedom of expression and civic space, threatened independent media and democratic values. More than funding, civil society in the region needs to be reassured about its role under the new accession methodology.
There is still time to improve the approach and make the methodology more effective and reliable, thereby increasing the chance of real change and more impact for the positive innovations proposed by the Commission, such as a stronger link with the economic reform programme of Western Balkan governments, regular EU-Western Balkans summits and intensified ministerial contacts, and clear and tangible incentives of direct interest to citizens, such as ‘phasing-in’ of individual EU policies, increased funding and greater investment.
The main challenge ahead is to make the new methodology more credible and attractive to Western Balkan citizens and their civil society – the human capital of the region, which has been severely hit by a brain drain and accelerated emigration over the past few years.
This will require something less expensive than EU funds, but far more impactful. It will require partnering with the ambition of the region’s citizens, entrusting them with a role in the accession process, and empowering civil society, media, and other agents of change against captured political class in our countries. That is the only sustainable way to help both the region and the EU with its own concerns such as illegal migration, security, and organised crime.