A bulk of technical and normative measures implemented by Western Balkans governments for the sake of their country’s progress towards EU accession hasn’t really brought about substantive reforms. Indeed, democratic standards in these countries are backsliding. The European Union is aware of it, as it is aware that its approach towards this region needs improvement. However, it still hasn’t figured out how to effect this.
The rhetoric of the European Commission in 2018 was braver than usual. Most notably, it proclaimed in its Strategy for the Western Balkans that the problem of state capture affects this region as a whole. Nevertheless, it didn’t name any country specifically, which enabled each government to exclude itself from this remark. Moreover, the Commission hasn’t elaborated on the symptoms leading to the diagnosis of state capture. The usual EU reporting system hasn’t made it possible. That’s why we need an additional, different report.
We need a report that would publicly and directly point to problems overlooked by regular division of acquis communautaire into chapters. This report must be a part of EU’s Enlargement policy in order to secure enough incitement for implementation of necessary reforms.
The scope of state capture eludes regular EU reporting
State capture implies a state of widespread corruption and exploitation of public resources for private gains, while neutralizing control mechanisms, whether by legal or illegal means. This state spreads across sectors covered, to varying degrees, in separate negotiation chapters, as well es across political criteria that are more difficult to monitor and assess.
Although the reporting within EU accession process already is quite voluminous and complex, some of the reports are not publicly available, and those that get published use diplomatic phrases and cautious formulations watering down their findings. Furthermore, these reports are strictly divided in chapters and progress is assessed based on specific benchmarks, while most of the security sector remains left out, since EU has no competences there. Such a structure misses broader trends and context that connect different chapters and provide meaning for a series of implemented measures. Without them, one cannot see the overall picture.
In Serbia, this picture captures connected processes of gradual and almost indiscrete merger of the state and the ruling party, that sells its interests as public (and national) interests; basic democratic processes, such as elections and work of the parliament, are reduced to a form derived of substance; the judiciary and public administration are increasingly politicized; the public sector is decreasingly transparent; politicians on high positions are accumulating discretionary powers; freedom of media is hardly existent; representatives of the opposition, civil society, independent institutions, academia and journalists voicing criticism towards official policies are sidelined, intimidated and attacked.
More alarmingly, these processes unfold as the measures defined in the negotiations get formally carried through, although no substantive reforms ensued. On the contrary, under the guise of accession negotiations measures lacking transparency and inclusiveness are implemented for the sake of quantity, disregarding quality altogether.
EU should build upon its own positive example of addressing state capture in Macedonia
Let us recall how the official EU reports missed the scope of Rule of Law collapse in Macedonia before the so called political bombs went off in 2015. The bombs refer to disclosure of illegally intercepted telephone calls, which unveilled numerous corruptive practices of the ruling party, including interfering with the work of the judiciary, manipulating election process, tightening the grip over the media and releasing security services from democratic oversight.
The bombs lead the political crisis in Macedonia to its peak in 2015, making it clear to the EU that it must act swiftly and effectively. Along with diplomatic mediation between political actors in Macedonia, the EU gathered a group of independent experts, lead by a retired European Commission director Reinhard Priebe and tasked to identify systemic Rule of Law issues in the country. This endevour resulted in the so called Priebe report. Independent experts from EU member states were more frank in providing diagnosis and they weren’t trapped in overly formalized structure of EU reports. Nevertheless, the fact that the Report was commissioned and published by the European Commission provided it with great authority.
The Priebe Report identified the security sector as an important lever of state capture. It pointed to power concentration in one civilian intelligence service in Macedonia, operating without oversight. Responsible authorities hadn’t used their control and oversight powers, because they were politicisized or intimidated, or otherwise sabotaged. Although democratic civilian control looked good on paper, it has failed in practice. Well written laws were not enough.
Priebe’s team explained how specific problems it analyzed in several areas – judiciary, independent institutions, media, elections and interception of communications – have in fact common sources. Beside insufficient transparency of public affairs and widespread political corruption, one of the key causes was the absence of constructive political dialogue. The vicious circle of polarisation, politicisation and fear rendered democratic mechanisms paralyzed and led to state capture.
The Report offers an overall picture, doesn’t beat around the bush and offers concrete recommendations. These were transposed into the Urgent Reform Priorities for Macedonia and the EU facilitated a special agreement between ruling and opposition parties. The European Commission managed to commit the Macedonian political actors to their implementation, by announcing its own monitoring of the reforms and turning them into a pre-condition for the country’s progress towards accesion.
Priebe-like Reports Are Necessary For Each Western Balkans Country
The Priebe Report could serve as a model for a new, complementary reporting mechanism, that goes beyond technical monitoring of alignment with EU acquis. An independent expert report supported by the European Commission could be an adequate response to the need, voiced in the Strategy for Western Balkans of 2018 and reaffirmed at the EU – Western Balkans Summit in Sofia, for a more effective monitoring of Rule of Law reforms in aspirant countries. Although the EU is expected to be more introvert in the next few months, it shouldn’t neglect the Western Balkans.
While a reader from Western Balkans may find the picture painted in the Priebe Report irresistibly resemblant to the the state of affairs in their own country, as we do in Serbia, this sort of report should be prepared for every country in the region. However, it should be clear that the aim is not to overthrow and sanction specific powerholders, or to finger-point at individuals and demand from them to assume responsibility. The intention here is to identify critical systemic deficiencies, and provide EU support to overcome them successfully. This process must include an open and sincere national dialogue on reforms.
Being aware of state capture elements throughout the Western Balkans region, the EU must use its leverage in the Enlargement Policy to act proactively in order to reverse state capturing trends and prevent escalation of new crisis similar to the one that shook Macedonia four years ago.