Tuesday

19th Nov 2019

Opinion

Cleaning up both the EU and Western Balkans

  • Emmanuel Macron's stated interest was improving the EU's own internal governance before welcoming new members (Photo: Consilium)

A recent New York Times investigation into EU-funded corruption related to agricultural subsidies , The Money Farmers: How Oligarchs and Populists Milk the EU for Millions shines a spotlight on one of the most troubling cases of a member state gaming the system.

The case of Hungary is notable for several reasons. Prime minister Viktor Orban openly opposes the EU's policies and values while benefitting handsomely from its money.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 year's of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join as a group

Under his leadership, Hungary has moved in a fundamentally illiberal direction as he has captured large swathes of the economy.

Moreover, the rightward turn in Hungary is part of a global struggle over core political values – between independent rule of law and authoritarian rule; between rights-based systems and exclusionary nationalism; and between accountable, citizen-driven governance and strongman rule.

The timing of the Times' investigation provides a chance to highlight another recent development on the continent that underscores the importance of dealing with the EU's present seeming inability to safeguard liberal values – the EU's decision, forced by French president Emanuel Macron, to delay the opening of membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia, even though they both had met the EU's own requirements for doing so.

There are a number of reasons behind this decision, most notably Macron's stated interest in improving the EU's own internal governance before welcoming new members.

On the one hand, this sounds sensible, and if implemented could ensure a stronger Union to which western Balkans countries could aspire.

Six out in the cold

On the other hand, the amount of political will that must be summoned to generate a fundamental change of direction in the aircraft carrier-sized EU, and the amount of time that this will take, in effect shuts the door on enlargement indefinitely, thereby opening space for the remaining western Balkan EU hopefuls (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia) to at best continue to regress in their own domestic reform efforts, and at worst increasingly align with other powers eager to fill the vacuum, most notable Russia, China and Turkey.

This is more than an economic issue – it touches directly on Europe's security and deserves the attention of all who favour continuation of the trans-Atlantic alliance and its values.

Since the Macron decision, much has been written that has been critical of the ability of the EU's enlargement policy to effect real change among membership hopefuls.

However, there has been little substantial analysis of why so much money and effort in the Balkans has failed to result in the political and economic transformation needed to prepare candidates for full membership.

The Times piece goes a long way to explaining the dynamics in the Balkans, many of which are similar to Hungary's post-1989 trajectory, yet made even more dangerous due to the legacy of the wars of the 1990s that killed around 130,000 people and displaced millions.

Temptations to wanna-be-oligarchs exist in every country and can only be prevented or prosecuted by an empowered, impartial and independent judicial system; an independent media free from tacit pressure or direct and violent threat; and a political system based on accountability and genuine representation rather than patronage.

Shallow institutions

All of these factors have proven to be quite frail and shallowly-rooted in several of the newest EU members states; in the western Balkans they are even more fragile.

The Times piece notes that there is little stomach in Brussels to address the $65bn [€57.8bn] goody bag of agricultural subsidies that national governments are able to spend as they see fit, especially at a time when it is undergoing its own democratic stress test, evident through the rise of an illiberal right and Brexit.

However, the only way the EU in Brussels, and EU-supporting parliamentarians in the members states, can ever ensure the endurance and strengthening of the Union is to take steps to acknowledge and remedy the legalised self-dealing that is present throughout all 28 members states, but has had such spectacularly negative impact on the states with the weakest democratic checks and balances and economic vigour.

The impact of more transparency and a broader distribution of EU subsidy programs could in addition improve the bloc's standing among its own increasingly eurosceptic citizens, in the short-term through demonstrable housecleaning, and in the long-term through less blatant income inequality.

A genuine effort to address this problem – in the agriculture sector but also throughout the EU structural funding pipeline - could then have the added benefit of demonstrating to the six western Balkan countries just what they need to do internally to prepare for membership, while simultaneously denying these countries EU funds that, history has shown, will primarily serve to prop up elites and an illiberal status quo contrary to the interests of the EU.

A genuine anti-corruption, pro-transparency movement grounded in the recognition that the way in which the EU's own euros are spent (and who benefits from them) matters, could kick-start the process of addressing core weaknesses within the EU, while at the same time demonstrating the reform requirements of prospective Balkan members.

This will not be simple; as we increasingly hear in the region, "turkeys don't vote for Christmas."

However, there is no reason the EU's own self-improvement cannot happen in tandem with simultaneous efforts in the western Balkans. In fact this would lend credence to the EU's favoured notion, "partnership," by demonstrating to EU hopefuls that they must do as they do, not as they say.

Author bio

Dr Valery Perry and Toby Vogel are senior associats for Democratisation Policy Council, an initiative promoting accountable democratisation policies worldwide.

Disclaimer

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

To play big, Europe needs to get bigger

Enlargement has always propelled the EU's growth. On the contrary, every time the European Union closes its doors to potential new members, it chooses a path of decline, warns Ukraine's deputy PM, Dmytro Kuleba.

Corruption in the Balkans: the elephant in the room

Over the years, both real and perceived levels of corruption in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have remained high. The necessary reforms in those countries, to put it mildly, are not yet effectively carried out.

EU investment bank 'wide open to abuse by fraudsters'

Fundamental reforms are needed if the EIB is to become more accountable, democratic and transparent. Establishing a firm grasp on corruption to ensure that public money no longer feeds corrupt systems is a vital first step.

News in Brief

  1. France: wide EU backing for enlargement change
  2. EU Council calls for policy action to protect marine life
  3. ECJ: Poland's judicial independence in doubt
  4. Suspected 'middleman' in Caruana Galizia case arrested
  5. European populists more favourable to Russia
  6. Hungary's new commissioner approved by MEPs
  7. Balkan coal power plants fail to meet emissions targets
  8. Belarus vote: zero opposition candidates elected

'A game of roulette' - life as a journalist now in Turkey

Turkey has more journalists behind bars than any other country in the world. The authorities seem to equate journalism with terrorism: everyone has the right to express themselves, but, in their eyes, legitimate journalism is a threat to security.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  3. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture
  5. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  6. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  7. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  9. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  3. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  4. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  5. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  6. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  11. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  12. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us