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The EU must address its own rule of law issues before reforming the Western Balkans

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A damning recent report from the European Court of Auditors (ECA) indicates that the EU has achieved next to nothing with the €700 million which it has poured into improving the rule of law in the six Western Balkan nations before their potential accession to the European bloc. The EU’s influx of cash, according to the report, has had “little impact” on the serious problems plaguing the Balkan countries, including rampant corruption and political interference in their judiciaries.

While the ECA report calls for harsher crackdowns on countries failing to adhere to its basic principles, it’s difficult for Brussels to be too sanctimonious when its own house is in disarray. Poland and Hungary have long been outspoken critics of EU values, but Slovakia and Slovenia have also been singled out for backsliding in recent years. 

Given that the Balkan states’ eventual absorption into the EU should be seen as crucial to the ongoing stability and security of the European continent, writ large, Brussels would be wise to first concentrate on putting out the rule of law fires on its own doorstep, before reconfiguring its strategy towards the Western Balkans which most likely means simply throwing more money and NGOs at the problem instead of getting tough.

Essential integration

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The sluggish pace of EU accession negotiations for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia has prompted disillusionment—while an average of 62% of Balkan citizens support EU accession, some 22% now believe it will never take place.

Some Western Balkans countries are close to giving up and are looking for greener pastures. The average Serbian, for example, has developed an extremely negative opinion of the EU, far preferring closer political ties with its traditional ally Russia and, more recently, with China.

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The encroaching creep of interest from external powers is a cause for concern, although many observers tend to overstate the downside risks. China has progressively increased its influence in the Balkans through significant loans and investments and strategic agreements, while Moscow and Turkey are working to ramp up their presence in the region where possible. The irregular migration routes running through the Balkans and the brewing constitutional crisis in Bosnia underscore the need to keep the region’s fading European perspective alive. 

EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels to discuss transatlantic relations and the Western Balkans.

 

Internal issues must be resolved

The underwhelming return on investment of the €700 million that the EU has diverted towards resolving the region’s rule of law issues, however, naturally requires a strategy rethink in Brussels. The recent ECA report highlighted one particular policy shortcoming, the EU’s reluctance to use the stick as well as the carrot with its future members. 

France, in particular, has had a major hand in redesigning EU Enlargement rules to include serious financial penalties and to incorporate the biggest stick of them all, the idea of “reversibility” of all EU accession processes. Paris had to force a very reluctant European Commission to incorporate the reversibility concept, which may well be the only tool that actually delivers results. 

The trouble is, it’s difficult for Brussels to come down too harshly on rule of law foibles in the candidate countries while several EU member states are struggling with the same. Poland and Hungary’s shortcomings are well-known, but they’re not the only offenders. In Slovakia, the “historic” anti-corruption crusade promised by the OLaNO party when it swept into office in 2020 has emerged as another point of contention.

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Bratislava’s anti-graft investigations have been soured by suggestions that the government is wielding undue influence over which targets law enforcement pursue and using the crackdown for political ends. Indeed, a troubling pattern seems to be shaping up of accusations against prominent figures connected to opposition politics, from central bank chief Peter Kazimir to businessman Miroslav Vyboh to former police chief Milan Lucansky, who suddenly died in his prison cell, ostensibly by suicide

Slovakian prosecutions have come under particular scrutiny for their dependence on flipped defendants; a prominent judge in the country recently cast aspersions on the methods by which confessions are exhorted and subsequently relied upon as elemental evidence, noting that “in a state governed by the rule of law, the purpose should not sanctify means”. Trust in OLaNO (SPELL THIS OUT) seems to be fading both among party cadres—one former minister recently quit the movement after losing hope that it would address corruption honestly—as well as the general public; OLaNO founder Igor Matovic is now trusted by just 14% of the population.

Elsewhere, Slovenia also appears to be backsliding on its democratic progress under rightwing premier Janez Jansa, with the European Parliament recently passing a resolution criticizing “the state of EU values” in the country for the first time. In particular, concerns have emerged over whether Ljubljana is suppressing dissent under the cover of Covid-19 restrictions. The Slovenian government has also been accused of gaining control over the main public broadcaster by insisting on airtime for its representatives and cutting critical segments from its shows, while the sluggish pace of appointments to the European Public Prosecutors Office has also provoked ire among MEPs.

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Crucial juncture ahead

These rule of law concerns only exacerbate tensions in Europe after a turbulent period marked by everything from Brexit to the pandemic and its associated economic downturn. To make matters worse, other political forces are looking to capitalize upon any potential weaknesses by fragmenting the continent further and insinuating themselves into its fabric. 

Given that the Western Balkans have served as a key target for such tactics and serve as a gateway to the rest of the world, it’s no surprise that the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, recently called a European future without them “inconceivable”. Of course, the political status quo in several of the candidate countries is incompatible with the bloc’s basic tenets – but this contradiction is nearly impossible to resolve while several EU members are similarly out of step with the group’s core values.  

As a result, Brussels must shine the spotlight on those countries which are refusing to fall into line and do what it takes to calm the crises on its own turf. Only then would it be able to react to the recent ECA report by crafting a more effective strategy towards promoting the rule of law in the Western Balkans.

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