Western Balkans and the Refugee Crisis: EU’s Democratizing Power in Decline

Migrants and refugees in Roszke, Hungary; Photo:Tanjug/AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic

In his newest paper about the effects of the EU’s asylum policies, Bodo Weber, senior associate from Berlin based Democratization Policy Council, analyses recent developments in EU candidate countries along the Balkan Route. His report, titled “The EU-Turkey Refugee Deal and the Not Quite Closed Balkan Route”, is published by Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Sarajevo.

The 2015 refugee wave triggered an avalanche of fear and intolerance within several EU member states. The harsh division between open-door and anti-immigration oriented countries made the EU incapable of taking the responsibility for people who needed international protection. Instead, EU leaders focused on decreasing the number of irregular arrivals to its territory. It was envisaged that the closure of the Balkan route and an adequate deal with Turkey would achieve the goal.

Such a deal, implying that every person arriving in Greece irregularly should be returned to Turkey as a safe country, was made in March 2016. It was the same month when Balkan countries shut their borders. Taking into account that about 80 per cent of refugees who reached Germany in 2015 passed through the Balkan route, the expected effect of tighter border controls in the Balkans becomes obvious. And indeed, the number of refugees who arrived in Europe last year dropped by two-thirds.

However, many human rights organizations embraced Amnesty International’s stance when it named 2016 “Europe’s year of shame” and the EU-Turkey deal “selfish and dodgy”. Namely, by closing its external borders, the EU disregarded its international obligation to protect asylum seekers. Despite designated safe, Turkey is failing to ensure that the refugees and asylum seekers who stayed in the country are able to have their basic human needs fulfilled. Others, stuck in limbo in Greece or in the Western Balkans, were left in comparably bad conditions.

Finally, despite the fact that countries along the Balkan route officially closed their borders, Frontex estimated that in 2016 around 123,000 migrants still managed to travel the route and arrive to Western Europe. It has only become more difficult, more expensive and more dangerous as it now includes smugglers and illegal activities. The number of people who died as they tried to reach the EU rose significantly in 2016.

While many look at legally and morally controversial EU decisions through the perspective of its responsibility towards refugees and asylum seekers, in his latest report, Bodo Weber reflected on the effects of its asylum policies in EU candidate countries located on the Balkan route. He concluded that, for the first time since the EU made clear that the future of the Western Balkans is within the Union (14 years ago in Thessaloniki), it exported instability to the region and clearly showed the readiness to compromise its democratic values.

As demonstrated, the consequences of its current approach include the misuse of Serbia’s and Macedonia’s asylum systems to deny international protection to asylum seekers with its harmful effect on the rule of law and democracy, the weakening of pro-Europeans and the rise of authoritarian tendencies in the region. It was also indicated that the support for those tendencies comes from the EU member states advocating the closure of the Balkan route.

With regards to their asylum policies from 2016 onwards, EU members on the route – Hungary, Croatia and Bulgaria – have increasingly relied on the safe third country concept and sealing their borders. Weber noticed that, in order to ensure that migrants stay out of the EU territory, that they did not only change their asylum legislation but have also resorted to the use of physical push-backs of refugees and asylum seekers in breach of national, EU and international law.

He found that this approach, combined with Austria’s decision to introduce daily and annual caps on the number of migrants who are in transit or seek asylum, had a profound effect on the Western Balkans countries. Under the threat that thousands of refugees will remain stuck in the region, the initial pro-refugee stance of the Western Balkan countries was replaced with legally questionable approaches. They eventually adopted the asylum policies of their EU neighbors. According to Weber, they have been “pushed towards illegal, antidemocratic practices”.

What he finds especially dangerous is the trend shown by EU institutions. They have been ignoring the illegal practices of both aspiring and full member states. For example, the Commission has not reacted on the abovementioned Austrian cap on the number of refugees and asylum seekers nor on illegal push-back reports from Croatia.

In the same manner, the European Commission’s 2016 annual reports for Macedonia and Serbia notably neglected the issue of illegal push-backs, even though, as the author finds, it is pretty safe to assume that police officers from several EU member states who are deployed to Macedonia and Serbia to support domestic agencies in securing their borders are (at least) aware of the systematic illegal practice regularly done by those agencies.

Among several other examples, Weber singled out a surprise appearance of Sebastian Kurz at an election rally in Skopje backing up former Macedonian Prime Minister and an authoritarian leader Nikola Gruevski as especially indicative of the “readiness to trade the promotion of democracy and the rule of law in the region for winning governments over for their asylum policy”. Accordingly, these and similar actions led to the weakening of pro-European forces among political elites and civil society in the region.

One could often hear that the refugee crisis is a specific identity test for the EU. If such terminology is adopted, judging by the current developments, the EU is not scoring well. By continuing the current practice of tolerating the above described violations, the EU is on the way to lose its title of democratizing and normative power whose major foreign policy concern is exporting democracy to its neighbourhood and beyond.

To recover its widely-praised identity of such an ethical international player, the EU must oppose the irresponsible leadership of both its member states and the aspiring members. Bodo Weber suggests openly addressing the illegal asylum policy practices in Macedonia and Serbia and speaking up against human rights violations and violations of EU and international law made by EU member states.


Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States