Through its enlargement policy, the European Union (EU) seeks to foster democratisation in six southeast European countries that aspire to become EU members. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia (in short, the Western Balkans six or ‘WB6’) have all been, albeit in different stages, in a long accession trajectory since 2003 that has since lost both efficacy and political momentum. Particularly in the spheres of democratisation and the rule of law, reform processes remain deadlocked or only move slowly.[1] A recent report from the European Court of Auditors firmly criticised EU investments in rule of law reforms in the Western Balkans – pointing to the absence of progress in the region and thus questioning the overall sustainability of EU financial support.[2]

Due to the lack of democratic consolidation in the WB6, more and more attention is being paid to the negative effects of EU policies. Several recent analyses argue that the EU unintentionally contributes to the formation of so-called ‘stabilitocracies’ in the region: Countries with obvious democratic shortcomings that nevertheless claim to work towards democratic reform and offer stability.[3] The paradox with such stabilitocracies is that the EU becomes increasingly dependent for its democratisation agenda on governments that have little democratic ambitions, and which largely simulate reforms to keep EU counterparts happy and reap the benefits of the special enlargement relationship.

Factors that contribute to the phenomenon of stabilitocracy formation include the insufficient application of EU conditionality, party political relations, and the legitimisation of incumbent governments through intensive cooperation with the EU. One consequence is that pro-democratic forces in the enlargement countries increasingly doubt both the intentions and the ability of the EU to promote deep and sustainable democracy. There may be some merit in their assessment, as the democratic impasse in EU enlargement cannot be seen in isolation from democratic decline within the EU itself. The fact that the rule of law is under threat in several EU member states also fuels hesitation among member states towards new enlargement rounds.

Notwithstanding differences among the WB6, the lack of reform progress in the region at large has not gone unnoticed by EU institutions and member states. The 2021 European Commission (EC) enlargement package, an annual update of the state of play regarding reforms in individual countries, provided the most detailed assessment ever of the state of democracy and rule of law. The European Parliament (EP) adopted a detailed resolution on EU relations with Serbia in 2021, which included strong language on deteriorating media freedom and negative public statements made by the country’s leadership. The European Council has moreover denied Serbia the opportunity to open new negotiation chapters in 2020 because tangible reforms have not been pursued. Think tanks, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and investigative media within the EU and the region itself have continued to draw attention to democratic deficiencies in the WB6.

In order to counter some of the dynamics that contribute to stabilitocracy formation, France furthermore called upon the EU to revise the accession methodology in 2019. The subsequently adopted revised methodology enhances political steer, emphasises the possibility to halt or even reverse negotiations, gives more attention to democracy and rule of law, and incentivises more engagement from EU member states.[4]

1.1 Main questions

This report examines the extent to which the EU contributes to the formation of stabilitocracies in the Western Balkans, asking whether the revised methodology holds enough potential to address the issue. Four main questions thereby form the core of this report:

To what extent does the EU unintentionally contribute to the formation of stabilitocracies, and in what way?
What challenges and opportunities do think tanks in the Western Balkans see in the EU’s role in promoting democratisation in the different countries of the region?
What preliminary conclusions can be drawn from the recent application of the revised accession methodology with regard to the EU’s ability to foster democratisation in the WB6?
How can the EU further address flaws in the design and implementation of its enlargement policies in such a way that its democratisation and rule of law objectives are more effectively pursued?

Notwithstanding the significance of local political developments in the current state of enlargement, our main aim is to provide constructive recommendations for enhancing the functioning of EU policies. As such, this report predominantly focuses on EU policies rather than internal developments in the WB6.

1.2 Methodology and structure of the report

The second chapter of this report provides a literature review of the effectiveness of EU enlargement policies on issues of democratisation and rule of law promotion. It specifically delves into the literature on stabilitocracies, EU transformative power, and the functioning of conditionality and state capture in relation to the WB6 and EU enlargement policy. For the purpose of this study, we define effectiveness as the EU’s ability to foster democratic transformation in line with the values enshrined in Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty and according to the Copenhagen Criteria, most notably those in the political area.

The third chapter comprises six country-specific assessments. They examine the way in which EU strategies and policies, and their implementation, can unintentionally have negative effects and what factors determine whether the EU approach is constructive or not in those cases. The aim is to gain a better understanding of the interaction between EU policy and (the lack of) reform in the WB6. The chapter builds on earlier research conducted by the Think for Europe Network.

The fourth chapter draws parallels between the individual country studies and provides a preliminary assessment of the effects of the EU’s revised accession methodology. It also identifies further adjustments to be made in EU strategies and policies and their implementation, thereby also reflecting on several proposals for an overhaul of EU enlargement that research institutes have made in the past year. Chapter 4 builds on research conducted for the other chapters, but also on several interviews conducted with EU policymakers and law makers for the purpose of this study.

This report was written by Wouter Zweers, Giulia Cretti and Myrthe de Boon (all from The Clingendael Institute), except for Chapter 3, which was written by the Think for Europe think tank network.

See: Marko Kmezić and Florian Bieber, “The Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans. An Anatomy of Stabilitocracy and the Limits of EU Democracy Promotion,” The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, March 1, 2017, 95; Florian Bieber, “What is a stabilitocracy?” The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, May 5, 2017; Solveig Richter and Natasha Wunsch, “Money, power, glory: the linkages between EU conditionality and state capture in the Western Balkans ”Journal of European Public Policy 27, no. 1 (2020): 42.
European Commission, “Enhancing the accession process – A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans,” COM(2020) 57 final, February 5, 2020.