The European Union’s approach to the Western Balkans is “positive realpolitik” rather than turning a blind eye to local autocrats, European Commissioner of European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn said during a visit to Belgrade on June 9.
Hahn also implied that Balkan politicians would not implement reforms without external pressure – and specifically EU pressure – and reaffirmed his determination to bring the Western Balkan countries into the union, despite a growing perception that the enlargement process is doomed. But he insisted it would only happen once European values are “implemented in the genes of the people”.
In response to a bne IntelliNews question about increasingly vocal claims that Brussels backs “stabilocrats” in the region, favouring stability while regional leaders erode the rule of law and democracy, Hahn said that the approach was a pragmatic one, but with an end goal of ensuring countries meet European standards.
“In an ideal world, I’d like to see 100% democrats, but even within the EU, we don’t have 100% democrats,” the Commissioner said at a press briefing on the sidelines of a Western Balkan investment conference. “This is an evolutionary process, it’s about striking the right balance, it’s about a kind of positive realpolitik, to see what is achievable. We have to have in mind our final goal, and I’m always saying that all these countries in the region should be a really full member of the European Union family from the day of their accession. And this includes that they are accepted as a member state because they are performing well in terms of the economy, but also because of the rule of law and [democratic] fundamentals.”
The EU has been accused of ignoring creeping authoritarianism in the Balkans, allowing domestic backsliding as long as the region remains conflict-free and once-warring Balkan states normalise their bilateral relations.
Regional governments are accused of imposing curbs on media freedom, allowing limited exposure for opposition politicians, and monitoring and intimidation of opponents, as well as electoral manipulation. Domestic and international critics say that Brussels is too willing to cosy up to regional strongmen such as Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic, Montenegro’s Milo Djukanovic, Kosovo’s Hashim Thaci, and former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. They argue that the EU’s decision to favour the status quo over change for fear of upsetting the Balkan applecart will in the long run lead to a more combustible regional situation as peaceful political development stalls.
“The guys here will never change something on fundamentals without external pressure, I’m also not naïve on that,” Hahn said.
But while admitting Brussels’ “realpolitik” in the region, Hahn insists that over time, Balkan countries must prove themselves to be fully-fledged democracies with European standards of rule of law before they can join the union. He says that the EU’s approach is to start accession by opening chapters (areas of negotiation in which candidate states must harmonise with EU laws and standards) with two of the toughest and most symbolic: 23 on judiciary and fundamental rights and 24 on justice, freedom and security. These will also be the last chapters to be concluded with current candidate states. This approach was partly developed after the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, during which some felt that the most difficult chapters were left too late, and the countries were granted membership before they were fully compliant.
Currently, Serbia and Montenegro have started negotiations on EU accession, Macedonia is an official candidate state but has had its progress blocked by a Greek veto, while Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo are regarded as “potential candidates”.
“Our new concept to start negotiations with opening chapters 23 and 24, and finishing the process by closing these two chapters, demonstrates that this is for us so fundamental, so decisive, that it has to be at the beginning and at the end of the process,” Hahn said. “Only if we have a very high reassurance guarantee that these European values, this European concept is implemented in the genes of the people, will membership be possible.”
Hahn acknowledged that bringing the Western Balkans into the European Union will involve convincing often-sceptical electorates in current member states, who will demand high standards of the prospective new members.
Hahn also emphasised that the EU is a soft power, and that he does not have the tools to remove regional leaders or governments. The EU has been accused of powerlessness in recent political crises in Macedonia and Albania, with a perception that agreement between opposing sides was only achieved once US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hoyt Yee started playing a more active role in mediation. Hahn insists that the US worked in coordination with the EU, and that one of his main aims is to encourage greater cooperation and compromise between players in the otherwise zero-sum world of Balkan politics.
“It is unrealistic to believe that I can pull out a leader and introduce another one, which is sometimes proposed by people who otherwise stress their commitment to democracy,” Hahn said. “So we can only contribute with a lot of time and energy to facilitate soft transitions.”
In recent years, the EU’s internal problems, “enlargement fatigue” and seemingly intractable political, economic, and territorial problems in the Balkans have led to a rising feeling that the region may never be integrated into the union. Even some moderate public figures in the Western Balkans already openly talk of preparing for a scenario in which EU prospects have dwindled to nothingness, and diplomats in the region talk off the record about the huge challenges stalling the enlargement process. Some say that the EU’s stance is already clearly shifting to an emphasis on political, economic, and social “resilience” and associated institution-building in the region, with reassurances that the countries can be integrated into Europe without necessarily becoming full members.
Hahn, however, gave a robust defence of EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, and Brussels’ much-criticised policies in the region.
“If somebody says the EU doesn’t have a strategy in the region, the answer is simply that it is the future accession of all these countries, and we achieve this sooner rather than later,” he said. “Everything we do is subordinated to this overarching goal – all these countries should become members of the union. This is simply the message.”
To reinvigorate EU engagement with the Western Balkans, Hahn proposes a range of measures, including better communication with citizens by both EU institutions and national governments. Some of the latter, however, seem reluctant to give the EU much credit; recently German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel noted that the motorway into Belgrade from the airport features a prominent billboard praising Serbian-Russian partnership, but little of the “yellow and blue” of the EU.
Hahn also proposes changing tack on EU financing in the region, focusing on larger and higher-profile projects that increase the visibility of the union’s work. This is increasingly important as other global players – China, Turkey, and particularly Russia – look to boost their role in the region.
“Europe should not be seen only as a cash machine where you get money and the emotional relations are towards others,” Hahn said. “Our understanding is that the success of Europe is based on our values, and if a society wants to have a similar success story as the European one, it needs to apply the same values.”