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[EWB Interview] Zweers: Citizens of the Western Balkans have the right to know the exact state of their EU accession process

“Stabilitocracy is a country that claims to have democratic ambitions, claims to make reforms towards the EU membership. But, if you zoom out a little bit, this decisive democratic transformation is not really taking off”, explains Wouter Zweers, Research Fellow with Clingendael – the Netherlands Institute for International Relations.

This was the topic, he says, he and his colleagues “dived into”, which resulted in a report published on 8 February. The report found that the enlargement process had lost both efficacy and political momentum and that, instead of experiencing decisive democratic reform, the Western Balkan Six have slowly developed into stabilitocracies.

What is the role of the European Union in this process, can it be reversed and what will be the future of the enlargement policy – these are the questions we asked Wouter Zweers during our interview in Belgrade on the occasion of the publication of the newest findings.

European Western Balkans: Clingendael’s report on the ways the EU is contributing to stabilitocracies in the Western Balkans was published this week. Do you think that the EU is aware enough of the effects its policies are having? Do the EU decision-makers accept this analysis of the situation?

Wouter Zweers: Well, it’s a very good question. I think it’s important to emphasize that this report is not trying to point a finger at the EU. What we are trying to do is to see how effective the EU policies are, and in those cases when they are not effective, what can be done to improve that. And I would say, to go back to your question, it’s to some extent unintentional. It’s not that the EU is deliberately here to support authoritarian tendencies in the region. Diplomats from the EU that I have spoken to in fact do recognize some of the problems that we highlight in the report. I would say that most of the Member States and the EU institutions actually have a democratic agenda. The problem is that there are certain flaws in the policies and especially in the implementation of those policies that make that the EU democracy promotion doesn’t work perfectly and that sometimes there’s even an opposite effect. At the same time, we do signal a lack of political will in the EU to confront politicians in the Western Balkans with the slow pace or even backlash in reform. This explains a large part of the implementation problems we see and is something that the EU really needs to do better.

EWB: The most famous recent example was the visit of President von der Leyen to the region, when she praised President Vučić quite a lot and that left a negative impression on many pro-European citizens in Serbia. Do you think that this was just a misjudgment of her part or was it some sort of necessary compromise from her point of view?

WZ: That’s difficult to say. In the report, we identify these sorts of flaws and this one, public communication, is one of the most prominent examples we see in our research. The fact is that the EU is sometimes overly positive in its public assessments of the state of reforms, and I think that’s quite problematic because citizens here in Serbia, citizens in the region also have the right to know what is the exact state of affairs, what is the state of democratic reforms, what is the position of the country in the accession process. And if an EU leader, like Ursula von der Leyen, comes to the country and praises reform efforts that are well, surface-thin, and sometimes independent indicators actually suggest there is backlash in terms of democracy, then it’s hard for these two things to rhyme with each other and it gives a wrong message.

Citizens in the region have the right to know what is the exact state of affairs, what is the state of democratic reforms, what is the position of the country in the accession process.

EWB: You also mention this leader-oriented approach in the report. What would be a realistic alternative? You identified it as a problem, but can it be overcome?

WZ: That’s very difficult because, of course, the EU, is an international organization, and its default mode is to work with other politicians and with the incumbent governments here in the region and I think it’s not so easy for the EU to simply to ignore them. We’re also certainly not advocating for that. But the conclusion from our research is that at least, the EU could do more to enhance its public communication. One example that we have in our report is Bosnia and Herzegovina, where there’s quite a lot of EU interlocutors who come into the country regularly for meetings with politicians. Quite often these meetings are informal, taking place in restaurants, etc… This is understandable. As a diplomat, you probably need these kinds of meetings to work out certain deals or details. But sometimes these visits, are not accompanied by any press conferences or any engagement with the public. So, I think that the very simple solution would be to make sure to add that public component as well.

EWB: And you also mention affiliations between parties in the region the European party alliances. Your analysis shows that they are quite unconditionally supportive to their partners in the region even if they are showing some signs of democratic backlash or similar tendencies. Why are they doing that, why are they so unconditionally supportive to the parties that are not even in the European Parliament?

WZ: It may be good to emphasize that these relations also have had positive effects, they contributed to the development and professional political parties in the region, and these political ties matter. The problem is indeed examples such as that of former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who went to North Macedonia to support the former Nikola Gruevski government with the new elections coming up, even though the democratic track record of that government was not particularly good. There are probably some political interests behind it, which I don’t have a full picture of, but if you look at the events of this kind, you really often see that such almost undue support strengthens the position of political parties and politicians here in the region that are not always as democratic as they promise or as they say.

Such undue support strengthens the position of political parties and politicians here in the region.

EWB: You, of course, provide a set of recommendations on how to change this dynamic but, can this dynamic be significantly changed without a tangible membership perspective? There are assessments that the fact that the membership perspective is not visible at the moment is the main reason why the EU is losing its transformative power in the region.

WZ: I’d agree with that. The EU has a lot of internal challenges related to the core issue of the European project like rule of law, and of course, many foreign policy challenges at the moment related to Europe’s East. In the past decade we’ve also seen the migration crisis and all these kinds of crises have deviated some of the attention away from the EU enlargement and all this makes that the process is now simply taking too long. The duration of the process has in itself become one of the problems that undermines this transformative power.

EWB: Do you feel that it is possible for the EU to return its attention to enlargement? Can it solve its internal disagreements and problems in order to refocus and give more political momentum to the process?

WZ: We’ve seen that there has been a certain drive to re-incentivize the process. The EU adopted the revised accession methodology that is supposed to make the process run more smoothly. At the same time, the problems we identify in the report are not necessarily being solved by it. For example, the revised accession methodology very clearly stated and had a very clear ambition for the EU to provide more genuine feedback to the Western Balkan Six on the state of reforms, to really call out the backlash when it’s taking place. In our report, we specifically researched this. We haven’t seen those changes yet, those ambitions have not materialized.

EWB: You mentioned the rule of law crisis. The elections in Hungary are taking place in April this year. Do you think that if, for example, Fidesz and Viktor Orbán lose these elections, will that actually be a significant step towards resolving those problems or are they more structural in nature?

WZ: I think they are more structural. But if the democracy of countries within the EU improves, that will certainly help. What is most important is that the EU will return to a more principled approach. You see that already very much on paper in the revised accession methodology. If you read the document, it is actually a good policy. The problem is that in the implementation, there are just too many mistakes that are being made, which we also outlined in the report.

EWB: Many are criticizing DG NEAR and Commissioner Várhelyi for not being critical enough as well to the negative trends in the Western Balkans and many are connecting that to his ties with the government in Hungary. Do you think if the government changes this year, will that have an effect on the functioning of the DG NEAR and the European Commission?

WZ: I certainly don’t want to comment on such alleged links, but what we have seen are very alarming reports, among others by Politico, on alleged political influence also within DG NEAR whereby there would be political pressure from higher levels of DG NEAR to influence the outcomes of the annual progress reports, county reports. The EU as a whole and DG NEAR should really make sure that there can no doubt about their reporting of progress, so that the annual enlargement package with the country reports and everything and the conclusions there are in a line with what you actually see on the ground. And one of the problems we identify in the report is that this is not always the case. For example, Commission reports year after year state that in certain areas there is some progress, little progress, no progress,… Why, then, the level of preparation of the country in this same area remains the same? If a country has moderate progress in the reforms of the judiciary for a number of years in a row, then it just cannot be that the level of preparation remains the exact same level, right? Something is then, apparently, wrong in these reports.

The Commission reports are very rich, they provide a very extensive analysis of all these different fields on reforms in all of these negotiating chapters of the EU which is, I think, a great accomplishment. But at the same time, these reports will really benefit from a model in which, at some point, they zoom out and provide overall conclusions on the democratic transformation in the Western Balkans six. That’s an element that we miss in those reports and also miss somehow in public communication from EU interlocutors.

If a country has moderate progress in the reforms of the judiciary for a number of years in a row, then it just cannot be that the level of preparation remains the exact same level.

EWB: We heard the President of the United States Biden saying several days ago that the Western Balkans should be integrated into the European institutions. There’s an impression that in the last couple of years, this geopolitical argument for enlargement is becoming more prominent than it was earlier. This view advocates integrating the Western Balkans into the EU even though there are problems with democratic institutions, rule of law, and so on because it’s a geopolitical necessity, it’s a security issue and so on… Do you think that this argument will become more prominent in the future given what is happening for example with Russia and Ukraine and the whole architecture of European security?

WZ: It may become more prominent, but I think it’s a wrong argument, or at least it should not be the only part of the equation. Geopolitical pressures cannot be used as an excuse for letting in countries that have not yet undergone necessarily democratic transformation to comply with the Copenhagen criteria, the accession criteria. And actually, the counterquestion that you could also ask is what happens if you have them enter the EU without these reforms and probably, then the EU itself would become weaker and would also become more prone to geopolitical challenges because countries like China, like Russia, would also have better opportunity to use loopholes in the rule of law and democracy to increase their influence of these countries which would then be EU Members. So probably, from a geopolitical point of view, it would actually be better to make sure that Copenhagen criteria are adequately lived up to, that political systems here in the countries of the Western Balkans and also in the EU itself are they are strong enough to withhold those geopolitical pressures and undue influence that we see coming from other major powers in the world.

EWB: What do you think about the proposals for phased accession to the EU? So, for the Western Balkan candidate countries to get some membership rights but not, for example, voting rights, in the first phase? This is something that has been advocated by civil society in Serbia. Does this proposal have perspective?

WZ: I think it certainly has. We concluded in our report basically two things. On the one hand, the policies and methodologies we have now are not sufficiently lived up to yet. There is still room for improvement there. But, at the same time, we’ve seen some very interesting ideas coming from think-thanks here in Serbia among others on phased or staged accession models. There is a number of reasons why these ideas could be interesting to further explore for the EU. And one thing is that it would focus on creating some more joint ownership of the overall enlargement process. Of course, the factor to keep in mind and what will always be important for the Member States, such as the Netherlands where I come from, will be the rule of law. I guess there will be some concerns among the Member States, among the EU institutions how such a model of a phased accession would relate to rule of law standards and how could ensure that actually, if countries move closer to the EU, that this goes in a line with the rule of law standards. So that’s one thing to further explore.

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