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25th Feb 2024

Opinion

Western Balkans: A new start for Europe

  • Macedonia. The Priebe report in 2015 was bold in shedding light on corruption and a one-party takeover of state institutions. (Photo: Flickr/Maxim Bonte)

The European Commission is rarely praised for bold action these days.

But the EU Strategy for the Western Balkans published Tuesday (6th February) deserves applause.

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  • Six Western Balkan countries hope to be EU members, although the 2025 'perspective' date seems unlikely (Photo: Google Maps)

Long neglected by the West, the Western Balkans region is an easy prey for other geopolitical powers that see instability as their opportunity.

The EU's wavering political commitment to future membership of the six Balkan countries has caused many people in the region to lose hope.

The EU strategy aims to turn the tide and push the region towards EU membership and deep transformation.

The commission has proposed bold measures; particularly important are progressive opening of EU funds, inclusion of the Balkan six governments in EU policy-making processes even before membership, lifting of visible and invisible barriers for trade and travel.

The mention of 2025 and other target dates for progress in negotiations are especially valuable as a powerful incentive for the region's politicians to work to meet the criteria for membership.

These incentives for reform now need to be matched by clear standards for the region's governments to work towards.

The European commission must follow the strategy document with an overhaul of its instruments to monitor of progress in the region. Otherwise, the more sceptical member states would be right to fear that mention of dates would favour speed over quality of reforms.

A stop on the way

Many citizens in the region also see the EU membership not as an end in itself but as an opportunity to improve governance so that they can live in orderly, prosperous and open societies.

The commission's country reports will not lead us there by themselves. This is especially true in the rule of law, where domestic problems were highlighted last month by the appalling assassination of the Kosovo Serb moderate politician Oliver Ivanovic and the continuation of the mafia wars in Serbia and Montenegro.

The new strategy foresees new instruments to monitor progress, such as the kind of report produced by Reinhard Priebe on corruption and one-party takeover of state institutions in Macedonia in 2015.

However, the proposed system needs spelling out and consistent implementation. New tools need to be public, concrete and easily understandable.

The language of the Priebe report made it reach the hearts and minds of the Macedonian population. The commission be bolder in naming and shaming laggards and fake reformers in the Balkans.

Corruption and organised crime are the biggest threat to stability of the region. The strategy is right to focus on it.

Over 100 mafia murders

According to the data of the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) and the Radio Free Europe, there have been 102 organised crime-related murders on the streets of Serbia and Montenegro since 2012.

Only five were successfully resolved, while the perpetrators remain unknown in 75 cases. Given that the overall clearance rate for murders is roughly 80 cases resolved out of 100, either law enforcement is utterly incompetent or there is political collusion.

Corruption and organised crime are endemic in the rest of the region.

Albania is undergoing an ambitious judicial reform but this is just a beginning.

Even without the accession negotiations open, the commission is asking Macedonia and Albania to implement reforms that front-runners Serbia and Montenegro have not yet completed.

This is a sign of learning by doing on the commission's part, but it also shows that the countries that are not yet in negotiations could in theory leapfrog those further ahead to join on the 2025 target date if they are successful in implementing reforms.

The strategy promises a shift in focus from the countries adopting EU legal frameworks to respecting its fundamental values.

Well managed, EU accession negotiations are also region's best chance for an irreversible transformation in a number of crucial fields such as reconciliation, bilateral disputes, Roma and other minority rights.

But the commission will need to use its new and effective tools to twist the arm of politicians to overcome the oligarchies and push through meaningful reforms.

The next president of the European commission who will start in 2019 should start by creating a separate directorate-general dealing only with the countries having a credible membership perspective (call it DG Membership).

That would ensure the DG's internal capacity to go beyond the monitoring of the adoption of laws towards a credible assessment of the real impact of reforms.

Member states, civil society and investigative journalists should be included in the monitoring process.

To separate enlargement from neighbourhood policy again would be no insult to neighbouring countries in the East and South.

Insincere membership promises did no one any good.

The progress of some should serve as an encouragement for the rest.

The best part of the Western Balkans strategy is that is moves beyond the 'stabilitocracy' approach shown by the EU when it favoured local strongmen who display worrying illiberal tendencies.

This approach encouraged a protracted political crisis in Macedonia, growing euroscepticism in Serbia, hopelessness and emigration elsewhere in the region.

Now the EU should recognise the citizens of the regionas its true partners, and press for reforms that serve their long-term interests in better governance.

Srdjan Cvijic is a senior policy analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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