11 Jul 2016

Is the EU turning a blind eye to the ‘new strongmen’ of the Balkans?

Erwan Fouéré


"We are working on a daily basis with each and every one, to make steps towards the European integration of the Western Balkans."

High Representative/Vice President Federica Mogherini
Western Balkans Summit, Paris, 4 July 2016

The Western Balkans Summit in Paris was the third such event in the so-called Berlin Process, launched by Chancellor Merkel in Berlin in August 2014, with the aim of giving a much-needed boost to the European perspective for the countries of the Balkan region.[1] Following the Summit in Vienna in August 2015, and last week’s event hosted by France, it will be Italy’s turn in 2017, with the cycle slated to conclude in 2018, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

With the dark shadows of the UK referendum continuing to trigger existentialist tremors across the European project, words of encouragement from the EU’s leadership on the continued viability of its enlargement process were particularly welcome for the Western Balkans countries currently negotiating accession to the EU or waiting for negotiations to start.

As in the previous summits, the emphasis was on promoting economic development and regional cooperation, not least in supporting connectivity in the energy and transport sectors between the countries of the region. Commissioner Johannes Hahn announced extra funding of €96 million for three railway infrastructure projects, as well as €50 million for energy efficiency and small-scale hydro-electric projects. Fostering regional trade and market integration, especially through the Central European Free Trade Area, was also highlighted, with in particular the conclusion of an Additional Protocol on Trade Facilitation and plans to conclude another Protocol on Trade in Services before the end of the year.  

As part of efforts to promote reconciliation in the region, an important emphasis was also given at the Summit to the role of youth, with the establishment of a Regional Youth Cooperation Council. According to the Final Declaration by the French Chair of the Summit, this Youth Council will be modelled on the 50-year experience of the Franco-German Youth Office and will “support activities that promote reconciliation of the peoples as well as programmes on remembrance, diversity, intercultural exchange, regional mobility, citizen participation and the promotion of democratic values”.[2]

Reading the Chair’s Final Declaration as well as the statement from the HR/VP, one could be forgiven for thinking that all was well in the Balkan region, and that reform developments were overall on the right track. Indeed, there has been some progress in a number of limited areas. Yet some of the Balkan leaders sitting around the table in Paris have a decidedly mixed record in terms of promoting fundamental rights and democratic standards. The group even included representatives from Macedonia, where senior officials from the ruling party, including the former Prime Minister, are under investigation for apparent direct involvement “in illegal activities including electoral fraud, corruption, abuse of power and authority, conflict of interest, blackmail, extortion ( pressure on public employees to vote for a certain party with a threat to be fired ), criminal damage, severe procurement procedure infringement aimed at gaining illicit profit, nepotism and cronyism”.[3] Whether in the area of independence of the judiciary or media freedom, some countries in the region have experienced serious backsliding and retrograde developments. A growing trend towards authoritarian behaviour, referred to by some as a modern version of the ‘Balkan Strongmen’ of the past, is in danger of becoming the accepted norm. Were these shortcomings discussed at the Paris Summit? Judging from the Final Declaration, it doesn’t appear so.

“Fundamentals” first

The rule of law lies at the heart of the EU’s enlargement process since 2011. In its Enlargement Strategy adopted in November 2015, the European Commission stated: “Core issues of the rule of law, fundamental rights, strengthening democratic institutions, including public administration reform, as well as economic development and competitiveness remain key priorities in the enlargement process.” It added that the “focus on the fundamentals linked to the core EU values, will be the backbone of enlargement policy under this Commission”.[4]

In his statement to the Western Balkans Business Forum organised as part of the Paris Summit, Commissioner Hahn echoed this principle when he pointedly spoke of the rule of law and economic development as two sides of the same coin.

Yet the rule of law warranted only one sentence in the three-page Final Declaration issued by the Chair at the Paris Summit. Does this mean that only one side of the coin matters for the EU, and that as long as there is overall stability, the other issues relating to democracy and the rule of law will sort themselves out?  

One of the important lessons of the past years has shown that without effective rule of law and upholding democratic standards, economic reforms will only have limited impact. They will benefit the few and leave out many vulnerable groups, in particular young people, as reflected in the unacceptably high levels of youth unemployment in the region. The EU member states leading this process and the EU institutions alike must therefore ask themselves whether this succession of summits really brings dividends in the long run, or whether, however unintentionally, it benefits mainly the ruling elites and their client constituencies, thus bestowing legitimacy on those same rulers to continue ignoring the “fundamentals’’.

By focusing on the technocratic aspects of reforms, without at the same time addressing the root causes of the backsliding and retrograde developments in the areas of fundamental rights, rule of law and democratic standards, the EU is giving the impression of inconsistency and the absence of a long-term strategic approach. It is also ignoring the repeated calls from civil society organisations in the countries concerned for a more inclusive approach in the EU’s dealings with the Balkan region.

The new Global Strategy of the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy, presented by the HR/VP at the European Council on June 28th, states in the section relating to the EU’s enlargement policy that the EU “will focus on fundamental requirements for membership first and feature greater scrutiny of reforms, clearer reform requirements and feedback from the European Commission and member states, as well as civil society.”[5]. How this is put into practice, and whether it will make a real difference, remains to be seen.  

The role of civil society

As it happens, the Paris Summit was preceded by a Civil Society Forum, which brought together civil society organisations from across the region. This gathering itself had been the subject of a number of preparatory meetings organised by the Centre international de formation européenne (CIFE), together with the French Institute for International Relations and the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe, with the last one taking place in Paris on May 30-31st. As was the case at the Vienna Summit, the Civil Society Forum provided an opportunity for organisations from across the region to highlight some of the key challenges they face in their respective countries. But contrary to the event in Vienna, there was very little if any interaction between the Forum and the Paris Summit itself. Nor was there any reference in the Chair’s Final Declaration to the Civil Society Forum, whereas in the Vienna document there was a specific reference to civil society with the participants welcoming the proposal “to make civil society an additional important element of the Berlin process”.[6]

This difference with Vienna is unfortunate, particularly in view of the increased attacks directed at civil society organisations in a number of countries in the region, as well as the threat of subjecting these organisations to controls similar to those implemented in Russia under President Putin. The European Commission has always highlighted in its annual country reports that a strong civil society enhances political accountability and promotes deeper understanding of accession-related reforms in society. It also ensures a greater sense of responsibility for the organisations themselves.

These sentiments need to be put into practice in a more systematic way than heretofore, with additional financial support, particularly at the local community and grass roots levels. This is particularly important in countries such as Macedonia, where the long-standing political crisis has resulted in a deep mistrust in society. Failure to include civil society in the mediated settlement in Macedonia will only prolong the agony rather than bringing lasting peace.

A more ‘hands-on’ approach required from the EU

In the introduction to his book Balkan Strongmen, Bernd Fischer suggests that in order to gain a clearer picture of the Balkans in the 21st century, “it is important to try and understand those who did much to get us to where we are today – the Balkan strongmen of the twentieth century”.[7] They all provided some level of stability, which often camouflaged their ruthless regimes. He underlines that it is not inconceivable that such individuals might resurface in one form or another.

The EU should ponder these matters as it engages with a region where the weight of history still looms larger than in any other part of Europe. In particular the European Commission should ask itself whether the annual country reports and the accompanying enlargement strategy are achieving the desired objectives. With a combination of weak institutions, a lack of experience in political dialogue and little appetite for compromise and consensus-building, the Balkan region presents a more complex picture than in any other previous enlargement exercise. It requires a more ‘hands-on’ approach on the part of the EU than it has previously taken, so as to ensure sustainable and inclusive reforms that benefit the entire society rather than the few.

After a career spanning 38 years with the EU institutions, during which he assumed various responsibilities, particularly in the EU’s External Service, Erwan Fouéré joined CEPS as an Associate Senior Research Fellow. His research focuses on the EU’s role in the Balkans, seen from various angles (security and stability, enlargement, domestic politics), with a specific focus on Macedonia, where he served for five years in the dual capacity as EU Special Representative and Head of Delegation in the EU External Service.

CEPS Commentaries offer concise, policy-oriented insights into topical issues in European affairs. The views expressed are attributable only to the author in a personal capacity and not to any institution with which he is associated.


[1] Participants at each Summit have included representatives from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, as well as from Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany and Italy, together with the European Commission and the European External Action Service.

[2] Final Declaration by the Chair of the Paris Western Balkans Summit, 4 July 2016.

[3] As reported in the “Recommendations of the Senior Experts’ Group on systemic Rule of Law issues relating to the communications interception revealed in Spring 2015”, Brussels, 8 June 2015. They form part of the EU-brokered political agreement of June-July 2015. The Special Prosecutor, who was appointed to investigate the revelations, continues to face numerous obstacles in proceeding with her investigations.

[4] Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions COM(2015) 611 final.

[5] “Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe: A Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy”, June 2016, p. 24 (https://europa.eu/globalstrategy/en/node/333).

[6] Final Declaration of the Chair of the Vienna Western Balkans Summit, 27 August 2015.

[7] Bernd J. Fischer, Balkan Strongmen – Dictators and Authoritarian Rulers of Southeast Europe, London: Hurst and Company Publishers, 2006.