Stability vs. Democracy? The Dilemma of Illiberal Tendencies in the Enlargement Region

The repressive backlash against the July 2016 coup attempts have made Turkey’s prospect of joining the European Union (EU) a very distant one at best, with a formal suspension of accession negotiations a more likely scenario for the near future. Illiberal tendencies, however, have emerged of late across the current enlargement region, including prominent manifestations in several of the countries in the Western Balkans. They pose a crucial challenge to the EU’s enlargement policy and risk undermining both the credibility of the EU as a ‘transformative power’ and the potential for democratisation of the entire region.

One can distinguish two dominant patterns of democratic regression. On the one hand, there is the rise to power of ‘strongmen,’ as personified by Vučić in Serbia, Đukanović in Montenegro, and Gruevski in Macedonia. These leading figures, legitimised by a popular vote, are both able and willing to keep the opposition at bay, curtail media freedom, and roll back individual rights. On the other side, there are partly dysfunctional political systems thwarted by excessive competition between parties and the unwillingness to cooperate constructively with political opponents. This is the case in Albania and Kosovo, which have seen regular parliamentary boycotts by opposition parties, and most obviously in the utterly ineffective government system in place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While with some optimism, the latter tendency may be qualified as a lack of maturity of young democracies that they will hopefully outgrow with time, the former signals a deeper questioning of the value of liberal democracy and the willingness of regional leaders to live up to European standards in this regard.

The EU has been surprisingly silent on these worrying tendencies. The most recent enlargement strategy, published in November of this year, points to ongoing weaknesses in the functioning of democratic institutions. It fails, however, to point out the broader dynamics of democratic backsliding in some of the countries that are formally most advanced along the accession path. The absence of more explicit condemnations of executive abuse of power is indicative of two separate shortcomings in the EU’s enlargement policy. As has been argued by others, the Commission’s technocratic approach to monitoring political progress on the ground prevents it from seeing ‘the forest behind the trees.’ Thus, while there may be advancements in the functioning of individual institutions, the overall picture does not add up to steady progress towards the establishment of a fully operational, liberal democracy.

More importantly though perhaps, the current situation reflects an inbuilt paradox in the EU’s approach to the region. Traumatised by its failure to act decisively during the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia during the 1990s, the EU chose to simply transfer its hitherto successful enlargement approach to the Western Balkans in a partial attempt to redeem itself and to rebuild its shaken reputation as a credible international actor. Yet from the get-go, the EU’s engagement with the Balkans was marred by the dual goal of simultaneously stabilising and transforming the countries of the region, as embodied by the inherent contradiction of the ‘Stabilisation and Association Process.’ For a while, the EU succeeded in pursuing both objectives in parallel, despite being at times confronted with the reproach of unfair privilege (such as granting Serbia the candidate status in the wake of legislative elections in 2012 to prevent SNS victory) or unfair punishment (such as holding Serbia back over Kosovo since then).

With the emergence of charismatic leaders with authoritarian leanings, however, the dilemma of pursuing a double objective in the Balkans has returned with a vengeance. And in light of the multiple other crises the EU is currently juggling simultaneously – from economic recovery to the refugee crisis up to negotiating Brexit – it seems that neither the Commission nor EU member states are willing to rise to the challenge. To put it simply, faced with the alleged choice between democracy and stability, the EU has chosen the latter. Backsliding in Turkey is too obvious to be ignored, though the Commission has so far refrained from suggesting formal consequences of Ankara’s obvious refusal to live up to even the most basic democratic and human rights standards. In the Western Balkans, it prefers to commend minor positive developments rather than tackling the more pressing issue of the deteriorating political context in which they take place.

This choice is short-sighted. By valuing the relative calm of ‘business as usual’ over the exposure of an authoritarian drift in the region, the Commission is not only undermining its credibility as a critical counterpart of national governments in candidate countries, but it is also disappointing Balkan citizens who have come to trust the EU to hold their leaders accountable and to push for more ambitious and far-reaching reforms. The refusal to look reality into the eye is turning the EU enlargement process into a farce – and risks unravelling much of the hard-earned progress that the EU has supported both materially and politically over the past one-and-a-half decades.


Dr Natasha Wunsch is an Ernst Mach Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz, Austria, and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG). She completed her PhD at University College London and holds degrees in Political Science from Free University Berlin and in European Studies from Sciences Po Paris. Since 2010, she has been working as a Western Balkans expert for the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).


This article has been produced with the support of the European Fund for the Balkans. The content of this text and the opinions expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the portal European Western Balkans and in no way reflect the views and opinions of the European Fund for the Balkans.