Interview with Florian Bieber, Professor at the University of Graz and member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG). The interview was conducted in Trieste, during the Trieste Civil Society Forum, which took place on 11-12 June.

European Western Balkans: Both you and the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, which you are a member of, have repeatedly warned about the dangers of stabilitocracy the preference of stability over democracy in the region by the European Union. What do you think triggered this stabilitocracy and when has it emerged?

Florian Bieber: It is closely linked with the declining interest of the EU in enlargement. Once the EU was obsessed with other problems, enlargement dropped on the list of priorities. It was basically all about not having problems in the Balkans, but also not focusing on reforms and committing to them.

That was the beginning of this process. Then individual member states then reinforced it by seeing the region mostly as ether obstacle for stability or as a source of creating more stability. For example, the refugee flows or the closing of borders were more important than what the governments did domestically.

It has been a process which has been going on maybe since 2008 – since the beginning of the global economic crisis and the EU’s multiple crises – and it has been reinforced by the migration crisis and by the governments in the region becoming more authoritarian over time. These are mutually reinforcing mechanisms.

EWB: What do you think the EU should do to help improve the level of democracy in the region? It seems that the EU already puts lots of emphasis on key rule of law issues, exemplified by the special status of chapters 23 and 24 in the accession process. What is the problem?

FB: The first problem is that the EU has to make sure that it recommits itself to the enlargement process in honesty and with full political support. It has been restated by the Commission and by the key Member States that membership is on the cards, but one gets the sense that their enthusiasm is gone. As long as this message is not clear, that “engine of change” is not working.

Secondly, the EU needs to be more open and honest in its criticism. We often get comments that either EU member states or the Commission are quite critical behind closed doors, but this is not seen publicly, and governments in the region are able to publish pictures of them shaking hands with German Chancellor Merkel or with Commissioners, and that looks good for them. Then they can ignore criticism. We need public well-founded criticism that says – “these are the problems, you need to deal with them” – and this is a friendly advice among partners, because among friends and partners you have to be critical, which is not something that the EU is always living up to.

EWB: What do you believe the be most important reason for the slowing down of the European integration process of Western Balkans states? Is it the so called enlargement fatigue on the side of the EU, or the lack of will for reforms in the region?

FB: That is a chicken and an egg situation. You cannot disentangle them. The lack of will for reform is based on the fact that they do not see the rewards in terms of EU membership. Even the fatigue is a distraction and political leaders feel like they cannot promote enlargement because their citizens do not want it, which is not entirely honest, because yes – more EU citizens are sceptical of enlargement – but it is not a high-priority issue. It is not something which the EU citizens care about that much, except if we talk about Turkey. They do not like it particularly, but they are also not particularly against it. If EU governments made more case for it, they could push it. But, governments are distracted by all these other crises, so they do not want to invest the energy and the focus on it and that is what we are witnessing. The lack of reforms of the region and the lack of commitment in the EU are symbiotic. You have to break the cycle.

Maybe having a new government – taking Macedonia as an example, whose new government is clearly very much based on reforms and on wanting to join the EU path again, that can help break this pattern. Currently the governments in the Western Balkans are cynical that the EU does not really want them, the EU is cynical that the region is not really ready to join, and the citizens are cynical both about their governments and about the EU.

They have to break the cycle of cynicism and say – if we have a joint goal and are actually committed to joining the EU, we can do something. Maybe having a new government in Macedonia can be an impetuous for changing this kind of dynamic.

EWB: There is now a debate about the possibility to replace the regatta principle with a Western Balkans Big Bang, which would represent a single-entry date for all Western Balkans states. Which approach do you think would be better for the region?

FB: If we go back to the 2004 enlargement, the initial idea was to have regatta principle – to have each country try to make as much progress as possible and then to see how much you can package them together. It is unlikely that we will see country by country joining the EU because it seems that the enlargement process is very cumbersome.

If you can get more than one country to join, they would then avoid use of bilateral issues afterwards, so there is a strategic interest to take as many countries in one go. I do not think it is going to be a “big bang”, there might be a “medium bang” or two of them, rather. Maybe there is a group of two or three countries which are ready first and they could join first, and then there is a second wave of the others. That would also allow dynamic and distinction, but also create competition – who gets there first.

EWB: What are your expectations from the Berlin Process and the announced Berlin plus? Do you think they will manage to tackle the most important problems in the region, namely the economic stagnation and democratic backslide?

FB: The Berlin Process was never thought to be more than a support for something else, which is the EU enlargement. It cannot be self-standing, it can only provide impetus and give a push in a certain direction. I would never have overly high expectations of the Berlin Process. If it is recalibrated, it can deliver on some issues, but it requires some redesigning. It requires to be more inclusive.

It requires civil societies and other venues to be more integrated into the Summit itself and it also needs to have a follow-up. There have been many commitments signed over the last three years, but there has not been a follow-up. Take the bilateral declaration which was signed in Vienna two years ago, which is seen as very important to deal with bilateral issues, and yet, there has not been any sustainable follow-up, because countries hosting have not necessarily picked up the agenda from the previous host, which means there is a high degree of discontinuity.

If the Berlin Process is to go on beyond London next year, it has to have more continuity, more follow-up, more consistent agenda. It cannot solve the issue of democratic backsliding, or the issue of economic stagnation, but by having the regional focus, it can provide the impetus, create symbolic push, take certain key initiatives and take some bilateral issues off the agenda. The Berlin Process can prevent the abuse of the future governments, and cut off the abuse of these bilateral issues as distraction for their own lack of reforms. The Berlin Process can help, but it needs some recalibration.

EWB: Do you think it can have a crucial impact? Sometimes the Berlin plus is referred to as the new Marshall Plan for the Western Balkans and there is an impression it is going to solve all the problems with a magic wand. Do you believe that this hope for Berlin Plus is perhaps exaggerated?

FB: I do not want to hear the word Marshall Plan again until I see the evidence of it. There have been so many “Marshall Plans” promised. There has been one promised when the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe was launched 18 years ago and it has never been materialised.

I see now also a lot of money which has been promised as repackage and certainly the volume is nowhere close to the Marshall Plan. What can be most helpful is more limited resources which are focused properly, but this is one of the challenges. A lot of money goes into connectivity, which is very costly and important, but soft issues are sometimes neglected. Everybody wants to open roads, and it is one thing you can get every government on board with, but it is the most expensive type of connectivity.

Let us talk about digital connectivity, and getting rid of the roaming fees in the region, making people more able to move. You might have a wonderful highway, but no one is driving on it because you need a visa, because of roaming, or because they have nothing to do on the other side. You have to also create the software to go with the hardware, which is actually a lot cheaper, but people like to think more about ribbon cutting, because you can open up a highway by kilometres, but you cannot “open” these other things which are much more abstract, but probably more meaningful.

EWB:  How do you see the results and the potential of the Civil Society Forums? What should be done to increase their relevance and impact?

FB: The Civil Society Forum has been mostly about saying loudly and clearly that civil society has to be part of any kind of regional high-level political process. You cannot ignore the civil society. Civil society is both the key engine for exactly the same goals and values the process is about – regional cooperation and reform. It is absurd not to include civil society, but it is also a warning that if the civil society is not included, there is no guarantee that this process is inclusive and really stays on the message.

This is what the civil society forum has been about – saying yes, we have complete ideas, we want to be constructive and to offer proposals, but we also need to be taken on board. The mechanism which has been done today has been really ad hoc, and the hosting governments have been to various degrees hopeful and inviting, but it has also not been a systemic integrated approach.

We would need much more civil society effort to be ingrained in the “DNA” of the Berlin Process, as a part of the way that Berlin Process operates, which means that in every step throughout the year the civil society is a part of it and consulted to provide input and thinks instructively about how it can help. So that at the Summit the job is already done, and this is something which we have not achieved yet. So far, we are still at the level of getting the message.

EWB: What do you think it is the obstacle for civil society having that role in the Berlin Process?

FB: It is partly because the governments still remain sceptical about involving civil society. Individual governments are sometimes quite open at the level of ministers, but then again structurally they are often very resistant to civil society involvement.

The complexity of the process which involves the EU, some EU member states, the six Balkan countries makes it a very complicated process where there is a not one institution clearly responsible, and the changing hosts mean that there is always a different government and different officials involved, which creates no continuity.

If there was a little secretariat or a little office which would be helping to organise the Summits, or if the RCC had that mandate and they were really involved, then you could have the civil society more systematically integrated. But, this has not been the case so far.


Publication of this article has been supported by the European Fund for the Balkans