The year 2016 is a year to forget. The virus of the crisis has been spreading across Europe and the globe too rapidly to give us any chance to look for a cure. The election of Donald Trump in the USA, described by David Ramnick in „New Yorker“ as nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic“ and „a sickening event in the history of liberal democracy“, has been applauded by Wilders, Hofers, Orbans and Le Pens on the other side of the Atlantic as a taboo-breaking moment for a new right-wing and nationalist vision of illiberal Europe. The EU-rope seems to stumble. And the countries outside of the EU like in the Western Balkans, still in a rather loose waiting line for (im)possible EU-integration, are only a marginal notice in the current debate about the future of Europe and liberal democracy.
To describe the EU-enlargement as a “Dead Man Walking” might be an exaggeration. But whatever assessment criteria we apply on this once very powerful policy of the EU, the conclusion is quite obvious – the EU’s enlargement policy is no longer among top priorities for the Union, and there is no guarantees whatsoever that it will ever regain the power to transform societies in the European periphery again.
However, on a merely technical level everything seems to run smoothly in the candidate countries of the Western Balkans. Negotiations are ongoing, new chapters opened, membership applications are accepted. And precisely in this technical or technocratic apparent motion lies the biggest danger for a true and fundamental Europeanization of the region. Yes, Montenegro is making progress and negotiating the chapters. Serbia, too, is in the line to open new chapters, accompanied by the EU-pragmatism of the Prime Minister Vučić. Even Bosnia’s membership application was accepted by the EU Council in September.
Precisely the Bosnian example in particular shows the whole range of paradox that lies in the manner the current enlargement process is unfolding. Following the referendum in the Republika Srpska on 25 September, and against the background of a re-opened “Croatian question”, the sense of desperation and agony in the country is as deep as in toughest moments of Bosnian history. And just at this very moment the next EU-step takes place, which inevitably poses the question of the substance of the process. The explanation is easily found – the EU wants to keep the process technically alive and to stay at least on the technocratic track. It wants to create incentives and motivate, but is at the same time running the risk of confusing the formal with the real progress and rewarding those who, while announcing reforms and endlessly preaching Europe and democracy simultaneously put all their energies in building strong authoritarian rule internally that is gradually destroying the notion of democracy and liberalism. In the meantime, the gap between winners and losers of this permanent transition, between the poor and the rich, between widespread precariat and new elites is growing with no one – neither the governments in the countries nor the EU – to offer answers how to address the burning social question and new inequalities.
This is the moment where the Western Balkans join the European debate, a debate which defines the social questions and new inequalities together with the fate of liberal democracy as key questions for the future of Europe.
Back to the dead man walking. In the face of all challenges Europe and the region are facing today, is it already illusory or utopian to ask for a re-activated and re-energized new EU enlargement policy? We are in dire need of alternatives, both in thinking and acting. I am convinced that we need to think in a counter-intuitive way. As the EU is discussing its internal framework and trying to reinvent its normative core, it might be precisely the EU-enlargement to the Western Balkans where the Union could start regaining its functionality as a democratic and liberal Union. A new, offensive and re-energized EU-enlargement policy in the Balkans is badly needed, one that goes beyond technocratic business us usual and that is courageous enough to address and confront the fake democrats and narcissist authoritarian leaders.
As there is a need for confidence on the side of the EU there is also a need for new energies in the Balkans to meet the Europeans half way. Where would the sources of the possible new confidence be? The social protests that we have witnessed in recent years in the Balkans for me represent the most important democratic development in the region over the past two decades.
The liberal-humanist activism in the region, as we saw it for example in the so-called “Colorful Revolution” in Macedonia or in the protests in Belgrade around Savamala, stand for a new liberal and emancipatory spirit in the region ready and able to confront the new authoritarianism. These new energies have to be embraced by the EU as new and authentic allies in the fight for open societies and common European democracy. It is the mobilization around urgent social questions and an open fight for liberal and democratic values where the Balkans can join many European forms of new activism (like the Municipalismo movement in Spain for example) and help addressing the pan-European questions of social justice, equality and liberal democracy.
After many years of enlargement, there are too many enlargement junkies, in the Commission, in the civil society or among state officials. What we need today are true Europe-junkies, inspired by the European idea and ready to fight for it.
Dr. Vedran Džihić is currently a Senior Researcher at oiip – Austrian Institute for International Affairs, Co-Director of Center for Advanced Studies, South East Europe, Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Political Sciences, University of Vienna, and the member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG)