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Rule of Law Culture Missing, Path to the EU Elusive

In the 2003 EU-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki, the EU made it clear that the prospect of European Enlargement shaped its political commitment towards the Western Balkans. Almost two decades later and numerous oscillations in the accession process – mainly marked by staleness, the EU has reiterated its commitment to making the Western Balkan countries a part of its Union at the 2020 Zagreb summit. This Special Panel faced the difficult task of unraveling the challenges of the Western Balkans and the EU’s joint future.

The discussion started with the remarks on account of the new EU’s methodology ‘A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans’ representing an attempt to reinvigorate the accession process and correct its shortcomings. Simonida Kacarska, Director and Co-founder of the European Policy Institute, expressed her cautious optimism:

We have to see how these documents will materialize in practice. I see another potential red light for North Macedonia. I am referring to the request of neighboring Bulgaria to include some historical matters in the accession negotiations framework, pointed out Kacarska.

Reinhard Priebe, Member of the Brussels advisory board of Transparency International, agreed, noting that, although the methodology may have changed, the prerequisites for the accession have stayed the same, and the changes are there only to help countries carry out the work more efficiently and speed up the process.

This is no revolution and there is no guarantee that the process will speed up, Priebe said.

Priebe also reminded listeners of the absorption capacity of the EU itself. Can the EU admit new members into its Union, Priebe asked.

Throughout all these years, there has been some progress but not at the desired pace, Srđan Majstorović, Expert at the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) and Chairman of the Governing Board of the European Policy Centre (CEP), framed the issues at stake.

When we look back at 2020, we can see a mixed bag of hopeful expectations, lethargic disappointments, and unfortunate and hard pandemic reality.

Agreeing with his fellow speakers, Majstorović considered that the new methodology is a positive happening, but that the region faced some disappointments, like Montenegro and Serbia being downgraded in Freedom House as hybrid regimes.

Finally, the public health crisis will produce socio-economic consequences that will go into favour of populist politicians. It is likely that Western Balkan will continue to lag behind in the economic development in the region, and I see another crisis of trust happening in the future.

Nedim Hogić, PhD candidate at the Sant’ Anna School of Advanced Studies, noted that the support for the EU in the region has remained steady, despite the pandemic. Hogic emphasized that the support seems to be continuous, especially in the field of economic integration and especially for its regional aspect, for example, the Mini Schengen deal. We should however, not forget that this has been happening for a while, this idea of a closer regional economic integration, Hogić added.

Referring to the findings of the famous ‘Priebe reports’, Priebe as one of the authors, noted that the major problems were found primarily in the area of the rule of law.

It was clear that in all countries of the Western Balkans, there are serious shortcomings in the area of the rule of law. Even worse, not only was there no progress, but there were setbacks and declines in the performance of countries. We spotted a lack of the rule of law culture and a lack of behavior. Sometimes there was a lack of understanding of what it means to hold a public office, Priebe said.

Kacarska noted that the reports had made a meaningful difference.

The reports on North Macedonia gave substance to the notion of state capture, and it helped compensate for some weaker language used by the European Commission in the progress reports over the years. It also provided a tool for civil society and guidance for urgent reform policies, pointed Kacarska.

Conversely, Hogić noted that he saw two major problems with the reports: first, there was no concrete roadmap towards accountability in the Macedonian case, and it did not address two major issues of the killings and subsequent lack of proper investigations of Dženan Memić and David Dragicević, which brought tens of thousands of Bosnians to the streets in 2018 in the protests.

There was too much focus on the word trust, but trust cannot be measured, and it is not the right benchmark for obtaining goals of the rule of law, Hogić added.

Majstorović noted that Serbia is much divided and that he was not convinced that there was a political will to change the situation. He said that we seemed to still be in denial when it comes to the problems we face. Government and the elites need to understand that there is a problem of underrepresentation of people in the politics and overall ill-functioning of democratic institutions.

The political system of Serbia is broken; it needs to be fixed, Majstorović concluded.