What are the main reasons for the apparent stalemate of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans and did the policy of stabilitocracy come to end? Also, what should be expected from the Slovenian EU Presidency and what effects will the Bulgarian veto on North Macedonia have on the entire region and EU’s own credibility? These are some of the topics we have discussed with Florian Bieber, professor at the University of Graz and the coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), during the Prespa Forum Dialogue on 2 July.
European Western Balkans: It could be said that the Western Balkan countries are blocked on the way towards EU accession. In your opinion, do you think that there is chance for this progress to be unblocked in the coming months, for example during the Slovenian presidency and later the French presidency?
Florian Bieber: I think unblocking, if it’s going to happen, would happen in the next months, because certainly the Slovenian presidency probably would like to take this issue on board and resolve it. And then there is the Western Balkans Summit to be organised by the Slovenian presidency, so that’s certainly an opportunity.
But then I think once we get into the French electoral presidential election campaign next year, we have other intervening factors, because then Bulgaria might not be the problem anymore, but then maybe France becomes a problem. So, I think we have a time now where it could be resolved after the Bulgarian elections and before the Slovenian Western Balkan summit. And afterwards I am sceptical that then it might get harder again. Of course, there are two things, there is a concrete blockage by Bulgaria which, if it would be lifted, would immediately create a positive atmosphere, but we cannot be sure that there wouldn’t be other blockages afterward.
EWB: When we look at the entire Western Balkans, we see different reasons why these countries are now stuck in the EU accession process, but in general could it be said that this blockage has more to do with the EU and the lack of will for enlargement within the EU or is it more a matter of dynamics here in the region?
FB: Well, I would say it’s both. Because in some countries its clearly got more to do with what’s going on within the countries. Serbia and Montenegro have all the ability to make progress. They have accession talks and they are not opening chapters, they are not doing anything. That’s not the result of Member States intervening. So, in that sense I think the Commission isn’t moving forward because it feels that the countries aren’t progressing. So, I think it has nothing to do with the EU, but much more with the countries themselves. The same is with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
For Albania and North Macedonia, it clearly has to do with the European Union, with Kosovo in the sense that the dialogue isn’t going anywhere at the moment it has something to do with the European Union and with Serbia. So, I would say in that sense it is half-half and even in Albania and North Macedonia where clearly accession talks should begin it doesn’t mean that everything else is fine, it just means that that step is overdue. So, it is a mixed bag I would say.
EWB: You were one of the first ones to talk about stabilitocracy as a policy of patting the Western Balkan governments on the back, making some progress formally in the EU accession while at the same time we could see deterioration in democratic institutions, rule of law etc. Can it be said that having in mind that some of these countries are now actually stuck in the accession process and are not rewarded by the EU by opening chapters or closing chapters, that there is evidence that the policy of stabilitocracy came to an end?
FB: Well, I mean basically that only would be the case if relations between the European Union and countries would deteriorate and indeed one could say that, especially Serbia and Montenegro being prime examples which had been rewarded for years despite obvious backsliding in the rule of law and democracy. At the same time, I think the enthusiasm for joining the EU has declined at least in Serbia to a large degree. The government could sell opening and closing of chapters as a reward but it’s not that important anymore, so in that sense, the relationship is not tainted that much that I would say that we moved out of the stabilitocracy dynamics, dynamics of the EU, or the EU Member States accepting and even endorsing, supporting this kind of regime, because we don’t see fully critical comments coming from the EU about democratic decline.
I mean yes, the last Commission report was more critical than previous ones have been when it comes to Serbia for example, but we also have deliberate efforts of the European Commission, especially the Commissioner for Enlargement to downplay the state of democracy in Serbia. So that is the suggestion that actually this dynamic is going on at the moment, because as long as there is no very critical strong voice coming from the EU saying there is a serious problem and democracy has declined further than last year in Serbia, than I think we can’t speak of a break with that pattern. There are certain openings like the lack of progress in the EU accession and some more critical statements, but I think it’s certainly not enough to talk about an end of that dynamic.
EWB: But one can have an impression that the EU started to care more about the rule of law in recent years. The new methodology was also in a way triggered by the lack of progress that Serbia and Montenegro made in accession negotiations, especially with the rule of law. And you mentioned this reports on Serbia becoming increasingly critical and triggering very harsh responses from the Serbian government. Does this mean that the EU has started to care more about the rule of law and democracy or it’s just a matter of things deteriorating to a such a level that simply some kind of criticism had to happen?
FB: Well, I think there are two European Unions at the moment. There is one EU which cares about the rule of law and democracy sometimes for genuine concern, sometimes because it is a convenient excuse to dress up your own scepticism about enlargement. This is the French position and the Dutch position and of some other countries.
And then you have the European Union which actually wants the countries of the Western Balkan in, especially Serbia, because they are not respecting the rule of law, this is Orban’s EU. A recent advertisement of Orban explaining his criticism of the EU and his open endorsement of Serbian membership is an evidence of that approach. He is clearly saying “We don’t care about the rule of law, we care Serbia being in” and that is for the reason which as Orban himself has said sometimes, to have another EU state between the external border of the EU and Hungary makes it isolated from migration and because he is of course a like-minded autocrat who is getting along. And that is a different EU.
So, in that sense you have two forces in the European Union – one which pushes for more rule of law and the other one which pushes for less rule of law, and the Hungarian one is maybe a minority, but it has allies in other countries. Slovenia has been sending these ambiguous signals, especially (prime minister) Janez Janša, Poland as well, the Commissioner for Enlargement is a Hungarian ally of Orban. So, all of that suggested that that this EU is not necessarily bigger but it’s certainly able to also influence. And this is why you get contradictory messages sometimes.
EWB: What can we than expect from the Slovenian presidency, having in mind that Slovenia is country which is pretty much in favour of enlargement in the Western Balkans and has been quite vocal about this, but at the same time it is increasingly seen as one of the countries of this non-democratic bloc together with Orban and Kaczynski. How does it all translate into changes when it comes to enlargement?
FB: I don’t expect much in the overall enlargement dynamics under the Slovenian presidency exactly for that reason that Slovenia is schizophrenic in that sense. The foreign ministry is certainly very professional and not under Janša’s influence in the same way, people are in favour of enlargement not for Orban’s reason but because Slovenia has been in favour of enlargement for many years and working on it many channels. So, in that sense they are genuinely committed to it but at the same time there is then the Janša phase to the whole story which is much more following Orban’s line.
Every public statement and public appearance of Janša discredits the idea of enlargement because he makes it look bad. Anybody who cares about the rule of law and leaders who seem very untrustworthy is in a certain way reminded of why they don’t want enlargement when they see his statements. In the same way, just like Orban, it’s the friend you don’t want to have. For example, by him openly promoting Serbian accession in a way of saying that the European Parliament needs to lose its competences, to strengthen the nation states etc. and Serbia needs to join it, is basically hurting Serbia. All the other countries who were critical of Orban then associate enlargement with this kind of politics. So, when they hear enlargement, they see this is what the autocrats want and that of course is a disastrous message for enlargement.
EWB: And do you believe that Janša will have the same effect? He is the one now advocating for the enlargement…
FB: Yes. If you see, already in the first two days of his presidency he has made the press conference with journalists in Brussels, where he shows this video accusing judges of being leftist who are attacking him and media not being independent and leftist controlled. He made dubious statements yesterday at the kickoff when the official family photo was boycotted by Timmermans. So, already in two days of the presidency he has already done that damage. So, yes, his behaviour will damage enlargement. In that sense, the ministry might do professional work, they might help to hammer out the deal with Bulgarians behind the scenes, but I think at the larger enlargement area I would be very surprised if he could have a positive effect because of his destructive personality.
EWB: Undoubtedly, bilateral disputes in the Western Balkan are one of the major factors when it comes to slowing down the EU accession process. Does this dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia seriously damage EU’s credibility, because we have seen North Macedonia delivering on different levels, also resolving its bilateral disputes and there being also a whole process of having a new methodology because of French and other objections and after all of this Bulgaria single-handedly puts a hold to the EU enlargement process of North Macedonia. Is this a serious threat to the credibility of the European Union?
FB: Of all bilateral interventions we have seen of the Member States, it is the most serious. Of course, you could say the most serious was Greek because it has done it for twenty years, a very long period of time, but at the same time you can say that in the case of Greece it has been said from the very beginning that it has a dispute, so in a certain way it prepared North Macedonia, which knew that this was a problem. It was one which was unfair, and Greece has always used its leverage in a way which is not justified, but its position from quite early on was clear. And then there was lots of behaviour from the Macedonian side which also did not help, especially under the Gruevski government. All the other vetoes we had were temporary – Slovenian objections to Croatia at some point because of unresolved issues or Italy before that about Slovenia. All of these were very short-term blockages, they weren’t serious blockages.
Bulgaria has now blocked it for more than half year and it did so without any previous interventions. It was clear for years that they have different views on the past and on the language, but Bulgaria has never said that this was going to be something which they would block over, so this is out of the blue in that sense. And it comes after they signed a Friendship agreement which in a certain way is the irony is that you sign a Friendship agreement and then you block. So, in a certain way you are really kind of undermining not just the EU accession process but the idea that these agreements are there to resolve differences and not to create them. So, Bulgaria has really in a certain way damaged the credibility most seriously especially since this comes at the end of two previous blockages.
You can say okay, the country has been making progress and then it has a blockage for half a year, but you know it’s been blocked for over and over for twenty-five years and now it gets another one, so I think it also kind of suggest that any random country can block the process just like that. So, what if Malta doesn’t like the flag of Macedonia, what if Estonia says that Albanian currency should be called differently? There are silly ideas but why not if you can get away with that? That just kind of completely hijacks the process.
EWB: What does it tell us about the will for enlargement within the EU? Is it possible that 26 member states cannot pressure Bulgaria into making this very important step for the sake of EUs credibility?
FB: There are two points. First of all, indeed it does raise the question about the commitment of other countries to enlargement, how serious do they mean that, because you could certainly have a lot of pressure on Bulgaria. Bulgaria is not France, the French veto was harder to deal with because France is a big country and important player and one which maybe other don’t want to alienate…
EWB: One has the impression that even France was under more pressure from all sides, even from United States, to change it stance and to allow North Macedonia and Albania opening the negotiation than Bulgaria is at the moment.
FB: What you get now is a lot of expressions of regret and disappointment which is good because it clearly identifies the problem, but at the same time I don’t see direct pressure. And Bulgaria is in fact a country which has a lot of problems in the European Union irrespective of the veto when it comes to corruption, organised crime, rule of law, media freedom – media freedom is worse in Bulgaria that in most countries of the Western Balkans – the issues which merit a lot more scrutiny, and I think the problem with Bulgaria is in many ways similar to Hungary in terms of democracy. It’s just that they haven’t attacked the European Union and thus have flown under the radar in a way which Hungary hasn’t.
So, yes, I think there is a problem one the one side that countries are not putting enough pressure on Bulgaria, but the other problem is and that is the second point – if one country is determined, it’s very hard to pressure it on these questions if it’s willing to pay the price. If you raise the stakes high enough the others have to put up proportional pressure to counter you to work against that. And few countries care that much about as you do, and that is what we are seeing with Bulgaria at the moment.
EWB: We are now at the Prespa Forum Dialogue and the Prespa agreement has often been lauded as a success story when it comes to resolving bilateral disputes and showing political will to do even unpopular moves for the sake of good neighbourly relations and progress in EU accession. What happens right now with Bulgaria undermines the Prespa Agreement, even makes it look like that those who are willing to invest so much in EU accession will eventually not be rewarded. Is that a serious message for other countries in the region, and here I am especially referring to Serbia and Kosovo who are expected to make a similar agreement, even more costly for them for the sake of EU membership?
FB: The simple answer is that the message is “forget about it”, because why would Serbia and Kosovo make an agreement if already before this the tangible benefit of EU accession was not that attractive as the reward for finding an agreement. Especially in Serbia I would say, because EU accession support is declining for years, the government has not been that eager to join the European Union because it worries that it has to improve the rule of law. So even before all of that, the motivation of EU accession as a way to end the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo was not clear, but now it is easy to say “why should I do that, what is the reward?”. Because yes, you can be very sure in fact that if Serbia and Kosovo were to resolve and normalise their relations tomorrow that this would not open the door for Serbian membership.
EWB: Do you see then where could this political will for making normalisation happen come from if this EU perspective is entirely unclear? Is there such a source of political will?
FB: No, I don’t think there is any other source. You can say money or other investments or whatever else, but I think all of those are too abstract or too small. This would be a symbolic agreement, one with very great symbolic and national sensitivities. So, to sell it you have to offer a big reward and it has to be external to the agreement, because otherwise then you go for border changes or things like that which are much more dangerous. So, you have to offer an external reward and as long the EU integration is not attractive and not realistic, I don’t see why it would happen. I don’t see why, if I was a Serbian president now, why would I agree on normalising relations with Kosovo when it brings political risks at home. As you said it is not easy to sell, it is not going to be a popular decision and the reward is very abstract and very unclear.
There are personal rewards, you can offer somebody lots of money, you can bribe somebody, but this is not very likely to be a successful strategy because you want an agreement to be fully committed and one which survives. The Prespa Agreement is a perfect example – you have an agreement, and you have a change of government in Greece – the agreement survives, because it is accepted enough and it is clear that you know it takes care of the interest of both parties enough that it survives the change of government. Any agreement has to be able to stand that, otherwise they are going to fail at the first instance.