Yesterday, the European Commission published a new strategy that set out its vision for how the EU will engage with the Western Balkans region in the near-term. This strategy provides a path for the six Western Balkan states to become part of the EU after years of languishing on the side-lines. It lists six initiatives to support transformation in the region with an ambitious timetable of potential membership of 2025 for the frontrunners Montenegro and Serbia.
The EU has cooled on enlargement in recent years which has left the region vulnerable to internal strife and external meddling. Anattempted coup in Montenegro in 2016, which saw allegedly pro-Russian groups try to assassinate the former Prime Minister, was foiled at the last minute. Last year in Macedonia 200 nationalists stormed the Parliament over the installation of an ethnic Albanian as speaker of the house, leaving many lawmakers literally bloodied, which followed on from acountry-wide corruption crisis. Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to languish in a political quagmire through its fragile federation, while the status of Kosovo remains contentious, as does Macedonia’s official name.
This strategy makes clear what will have to happen if these countries are to have any chance of becoming EU members by 2025 and the message could not have been more explicit: as long as these countries continue to show signs that the machinery of the state has been captured by private interests, membership is off the table.
Establishing and upholding the rule of law is front and centre in this strategy. This is not new of course, discussions on the rule of law have always been at the heart of EU accession negotiations, but the language was more stark than usual. In part, this reflects the Commission’s bitter experience with countries such as Poland andHungary who, after promising beginnings, are now backsliding into authoritarianism and illiberalism.
Once a Member State goes down this path, the options are limited. The Commission can strip these countries of their voting rights, or, as we have suggested, can suspend EU funds when threats emerge. Both options are fraught with political and administrative pitfalls. Much better to root out corruption and state capture before countries join the club.
At Transparency International we carried out an in-depth analysis of the structures of state and their capacity to tackle corruption in the Western Balkans. We found that across the six countries there are weak justice systems and law enforcement; elements of state capture; and the media and civil society are under serious threat.
That’s why from our perspective the Commission’s strategy has some important and positive steps which may help the region tackle corruption and fight state capture and the EU should be commended for placing such a strong emphasis on the rule of law.
The strategy states: “Strengthening the rule of law is not only an institutional issue. It requires societal transformation,” which is something we have been arguing for over the past years. Reforms on paper need to translate into real action and enforcement and that requires change from different elements of society. The strategy also has a strong focus on the judiciary which we very much welcome, given the importance of an independent judiciary to fighting corruption.
There are still some elements missing from the strategy: on the political system and in particular party financing, the Commission’s language remains vague, and space for the media and civil society gets a mention but compared the importance of these issue we would have liked to see more specific and concrete proposals.
However, as far Commission strategy documents go, this one provides some strong signs that the EU is willing to take some of the steps needed to help tackle corruption in the countries which will become members of the European club, in the now, not so distant future.