Lots of promises, little action: why the EU fails to evoke democratisation in the Western Balkans



Picture of Tineke Strik
Tineke Strik

Member of the European Parliament and Greens/EFA spokesperson on Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.

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Friends of Europe’s Balkan Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkan Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

You are part of our family, your future is in our Union, and our Union is not complete without you! were the words of hope towards the citizens of the Western Balkans in Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s 2022 annual State of the Union address.

Ever since the unjustified Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has drastically shuffled the geopolitical cards and propelled enlargement back onto the top of the EU agenda, hopes have been high in the region that the decade-long accession impetus could finally be broken and EU membership could become a genuine outlook again in the near future. However, after almost two years without significant progress, we can conclude that the EU still fails to break with the trend of the past and evoke true progress and democratisation in the Western Balkans.

The current tensions at the Kosovo-Serbian border can be interpreted as a direct result of the lack of resolute EU action against Belgrade

One of the main drivers of the EU’s ineffectiveness is the flawed strategy of appeasement it applies when attempting to deal with authoritarian forces in the region. EU enlargement chief Olivér Várhelyi is the former Hungarian ambassador to the EU and still maintains very close ties with the political aspirations of his former government. Like Budapest, his main partner in the region is Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, one of Vladimir Putin’s few remaining European friends who actively refuses sanctions alignment against Russia; fuels conflict in Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH); and structurally undermines the rule of law and democracy in his own country. Yet, Várhelyi refuses to criticise Vučić for his actions. On the contrary, he keeps on lobbying member states to unjustifiably favour Serbia’s EU path.

Apart from Várhelyi, other high-level EU officials maintain close ties with Vučić too. During her last visit, von der Leyen referred to her fellow European People’s Party (EPP) party member as “dear Aleksandar and failed to say a critical word about his ties with Russia, damaging role vis-à-vis Kosovo and domestic erosion of the rule of law. Von der Leyen also never took any decisive action against Várhelyi, despite strong allegations of misconduct and several resolutions by the European Parliament urging to launch an independent investigation. The fact that von der Leyen’s re-election might depend on a Hungarian vote – as it did last time – might have to do something with it.

The current tensions at the Kosovo-Serbian border can be interpreted as a direct result of the lack of resolute EU action against Belgrade. Another illustrative example of the bloc’s defective appeasement strategy is the way it deals with another Putin adept in the region: Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Bosnian-Serb entity of BiH. Dodik has visited the Kremlin on at least three occasions since the start of the war and has an upcoming visit scheduled for November. Backed by Vučić and Putin, Dodik regularly escalates the situation in BiH by threatening secession, as part of a deliberate strategy to gain concessions by the EU. And this strategy is effective.

Fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria is not just a simple tick-the-box exercise but about system change, democratisation and tackling corruption

While the United States and the United Kingdom have imposed heavy personal sanctions on Dodik over the last years, the EU maintains a different approach and is willing to negotiate with him in exchange for de-escalation. Dodik has learned the trick and causes trouble whenever he needs something from the EU. This is part of the strategy that helps him keep his power and distracts the EU’s ability to direct its efforts to achieve highly needed constitutional changes to remove ethnic discrimination from BiH’s electoral system, as well as tackle the endemic corruption among the political elite that plagues the country. Both of these go directly against the interest of Dodik.

Especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one would think that the EU would have learned its lesson about the disastrous effects of appeasing autocrats. But for some reason, the Commission still turns a blind eye towards autocratic forces in the Western Balkans.

Aside from the EU’s executive, member states had already started the erosion of the credibility of the accession process long before the start of the current Commission’s mandate. Neighbouring countries such as Greece and Bulgaria found their veto right to be an effective tool for solving bilateral disputes totally unrelated to accession, forcing North Macedonia to commit to changing its name and constitution before being able to book any further progress.

On behalf of western Europe, France, Denmark and the Netherlands did their part by blocking several key accession-related steps for Kosovo, Albania and North Macedonia, despite positive recommendations by the European Commission – due to fears of domestic far-right, anti-EU sentiment.

Altogether, the Commission’s appeasement of autocrats and member states’ unjust use of vetoes have created a situation in which the EU has become an incredible actor in the Western Balkans that does not keep its promises. We cannot underestimate the chilling effect that this has on the willingness to undertake democratic reforms throughout the region, particularly given the far-reaching changes that the EU asks. Fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria is not just a simple tick-the-box exercise but about system change, democratisation and tackling corruption that is deeply and systematically entrenched in some of the region’s countries. It often goes against the interest of the powerful political elite in a country and thus takes serious commitment from political leaders who are willing to put their heads on the line and engage in this process.

If the EU is – for whatever reason – not able to live up to its promises and autocrats are favoured over democratic leaders, the latter will not be able to show the concrete benefits of the reforms to their constituencies, and it is evident that both their popularity as well as the appetite for reforms will erode over time. If EU leaders are serious about their renewed commitment towards enlargement, a serious policy shift is needed, starting with the abolishment of vetoes and the treatment of autocrats with a hard hand. It is high time to put our words into action.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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