BiEPAG policy study on the rule of law in the Western Balkans presented in Brussels

Photo: Twitter/European Policy Centre

BRUSSELS – EU’s mechanisms for tackling the rule of law reforms in the Western Balkans have been improved in the past several years, but an increased effort is still needed if the real changes are to take place, concluded the participants of the panel discussion “Assessing the EU’s rule book for the rule of law in the Balkans” which took place in the European Policy Centre yesterday.

The discussion was organised on the occasion of publishing Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group’s (BiEPAG) policy study “Strengthening the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Call for a Revolution against Particularism” authored by BiEPAG members Jovana Marović, Tena Prelec and Marko Kmezić. It was moderated by Corina Stratulat, Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre, who emphasised that, while the EU has enhanced its democratic conditional, there is still a lot to be worked on in the region, some parts of which are experiencing democratic backsliding.

According to the panel’s first speaker, Sabine Zwaenepoel, Senior Expert Coordinator at the Centre of thematic expertise on Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights in the European Commission’s DG NEAR, this topic is very much in focus both in region and in Europe. “I was in Belgrade in December and I will be in London and Pristina in February to discuss the same topic”, she stated.

Even though it can be agreed that there is a mismatch between what is in the rule of law areas of the EU founding treaties and its toolbox for tackling this issue, the latter one is evolving, Zwaenepoel emphasised.

She gave several examples for EU’s increasing ability to incentivise the reforms in the candidate countries – from “fundamentals first” approach and the status of the Chapters 23 and 24, along with their interim benchmarks, to EU’s financial leverage and ability to stop negotiating at any moment if there is no progress.

Zwaenepoel also reminded the audience of the 2018 EU-Western Balkans Strategy, which gave the region a clear European perspective, but not a blind cheque, with the rule of law being one of the primary requirements. “The negotiating process has become more rigorous and comprehensive, but it is strict and fair and the entire timeline is in the hands of the candidate countries”, she concluded.

The panel was then addressed by Tena Prelec, Researcher at the London School of Economics and one of the authors of the study. She stressed the need to find the ways for the reforms to stick even if they are implemented.

The consequences of the lack of rule of law can and will be felt in the EU as well, either in a form of a “spillover” of organised crime, or in the increasing immigration from the Western Balkans. The research is showing that economic reasons are not the only ones behind people’s decision to leave their countries, Prelec explained. It is also about the feeling that there is no meritocracy, which is directly linked to the underdeveloped rule of law. The relations between Western Balkan countries and autocracies such as Russia and China also tend to rise because of the potentially corruptive business deals. It is therefore in the interest of the EU to seriously focus on this issue, she concluded.

Benchmarks are not clear and precise, and the instruments at hand are insufficient and often not used, stated Prelec. For example, Kosovo has not been granted visa liberalisation even though it has completed all the necessary benchmarks. Action plans are very much non-living, and they haven’t been updated in both Serbia and Montenegro for years, she added.

Prelec also pointed out that the free and fair election remain elusive in the majority of the Western Balkan countries. “The rules of the game are skewed in favour of the elites”, she emphasised, listing abuse of public resources and media domination of the public officials as some of the main problems in this area.

Marko Kmezić, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz and BiEPAG member, another one of the study’s authors, said that, if the current trends continue, we cannot expect the Western Balkans to become success stories of the EU ten years after their accession.

According to him, the most important question is how to make reforms stick, and the biggest stumbling blocks are the political elites.

One of the ways to ensure that the reforms will be internalised is including additional actors in the process, mainly civil society organisations. “Ultimately, society should be the one to ensure the transparency and accountability of the government. But in return, the state should ensure efficiency, effectiveness, responsiveness and inclusivity of the institutions dealing with the rule of law”, Kmezić said.

EU should help strengthening the capacities of these institutions and help them connect with others in the region, so that when one is endangered, others can come to its support, he concluded.

The final speaker of the panel was Srđan Cvijić, Senior Policy Analyst on EU external relations at the Open Society European Policy Institute. He focused on the example of Serbia, where political influence on the judiciary is the biggest obstacle to the development of the rule of law.

“The government hides behind the process [of reforms] – action plans and strategies – to mask its lack of unwillingness to deal with this political influence”, Cvijić underlined, adding that in Serbia, court trials last very long and often reach the status of limitations. This is especially the case with tycoons and businessmen connected to the ruling elites.

“The overall lack of efficiency of the court system is used as a smoke screen to deliberately delay political cases”, he added, pointing out that, in the current situation, Serbia will not become an EU member by 2025 even if it reaches the deal with Kosovo, because of the lack of the rule of law. It is a shame, since 2025 would be a reachable date if there were political will, Civijić concluded.