2.1 EU impact in the Western Balkans: transformative power or transformative flaw?

The EU’s promotion of democratic reforms in the WB6 is based on the assertion that it disposes of ‘transformative’ power: the power to foster reforms in countries’ administrative, legal, law making and policymaking domains as part of the accession process. EU transformative power results from the attractiveness of the EU itself, both in economic terms and as a norm-setter.[15] This power is reinforced by the vast economic, political and cultural linkages between the EU and the WB6.[16] EU transformative power would be especially strong as a result of the EU membership perspective that countries in the accession process – at least in theory – enjoy.

EU transformative power is wielded through a mix of mechanisms comprising conditionality, socialisation and persuasion. The main mechanism through which the EU promotes democracy in the Western Balkans is conditionality. The EU rewards countries that comply with its conditions by offering a mix of attractive economic incentives and the promise of closer integration, with full membership as the final reward.[17] The EU can also induce domestic reforms through social learning; this means that Western Balkan countries would comply with EU conditions because they perceive EU norms as legitimate. Lastly, the EU can employ its economic and soft clout to persuade third countries to live up to EU conditions.[18]

In spite of the EU’s asserted transformative power, since the beginning of the accession talks in 2003 the expected democratic transformation of the region has not become reality. In fact, independent indicators suggest that the democratic level of at least some countries in the region has deteriorated in the past decade,[19] suggesting that the EU’s transformative power has proven weak.

The literature identifies state capture as the major impediment to democratic reforms in the Western Balkans.[20] Vested interests are often noted as significant impediments to implementation of EU rule of law conditions that would undermine the clientelist dynamics which keep WB6 political leaders in power.[21] In fact, EU intended reforms would threaten the rent-seeking interests of domestic leaders who would see a reduction of their power and grip over society – and perhaps even risk criminal conviction and imprisonment, such as happened in the case of the former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader.[22] As a result, Western Balkan governments often express willingness to comply with EU membership conditions, but in practice adopt partial or simulated reforms through ‘tailor-made laws’[23] that do not decisively alter democratic shortcomings. The EU has thus become increasingly dependent for its democratisation agenda on governments that have little democratic ambitions.

A crucial precondition for the EU’s transformative power is its inner coherence. However, ideological divides between member states increasingly hamper the EU’s ability to develop a common understanding and purpose of how the EU should move forward and on what value base. On the one hand, a group of member states continues to attach strong value to the EU as rule-based order, based on the democratic values enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). On the other hand, illiberal forces more concerned about national sovereignty and alleged traditional Christian European values have come to the fore, resulting in significant deterioration in the rule of law.[24] Such divisions directly translate into the functioning of EU enlargement, as they hamper adequate decision making. As a result, member states have diverging takes on the Copenhagen Criteria and the importance of rule of law and democratisation for candidate countries. Illiberal developments within the EU also directly harm EU credibility in setting democratic and rule of law standards, making candidate countries doubt their legitimacy. This is an important contextual factor when it comes to the flaws in EU enlargement that are outlined below.

2.2 Eight flaws in the EU enlargement policies

EU transformative power is not only less effective than expected in the WB6, but, on top of that, is also believed to unintentionally contribute to the consolidation of stabilitocracies. As Richter and Wunsch argue, ‘EU conditionality is not only unable to effectively counter state capture, but … has involuntarily entrenched informal networks in the Western Balkans and enabled them to strengthen their grip on power.’[25] The EU’s reinforcement of undemocratic tendencies in the Western Balkans is believed to be partly the result of several shortcomings in its approach to enlargement. We identify eight flaws as listed in Table 1.

Table 1
Eight flaws in the EU enlargement policies
Eight flaws in the EU enlargement policies

First, the EU approach towards the Western Balkans to promote democratic reforms is technical rather than political. Instead of tackling the political dynamics of corruption and clientelism and fostering a societal and political transformation, Brussels has predominantly provided financial and technical assistance to the WB6 governments to transpose (on paper) the EU acquis. Instead of contributing to deep political and societal transformations, this has led to thin-surface norm adoption which does not alter the political realities of the region.[26]

Second, the EU has been criticised for lack of clarity when it comes to the nature and scope of rule of law. Rule of law is a fluid concept which is not precisely described in EU treaties but reflected mostly in general EU principles or values enshrined in the Lisbon treaty.[27] The Copenhagen Criteria require candidate countries to establish democratic institutions and respect the rule of law; but translating them into specific benchmarks is not straightforward.[28] The EU’s acquis for example does not set out how countries should precisely arrange their judiciary in order to abide by the general principle of having a functioning independent judiciary in place. The lack of clarity also applies to media freedom for which there are only a few common regulations in the EU acquis.[29] This undermines the enlargement process because, in absence of a clear definition, the EU fails to stimulate and monitor compliance with the rule of law conditions.[30]

Back in 2012, the European Commission tried to address this problem through the so-called ‘New Approach’ by enhancing its role as a monitoring body of the rule of law developments in candidate countries through a benchmarking system that provides more detailed assessments and recommendations of the steps to be taken to ensure the adequate transposition of chapters 23 and 24 of the EU acquis.[31] Yet, such benchmarks are still considered rather general, unclear and lacking sufficient adaptation to specific country contexts.[32] They also lack outcome-related indicators that would better allow for tracking implementation. This gives ample discretion to Western Balkan governments on how they choose to frame and present their reform achievements.[33]

Third, the EU often proves incapable of adequate reporting. The country reports issued by the Commission focus on the formal adoption (on paper) of EU acquis rather than its implementation and enforcement. Even though reform benchmarks have been adjusted to measure progress beyond mere legislative requirements, the reports still fail to grasp democratic setbacks.[34] Instead of outlining backlash, they usually claim there was ‘no progress’. Experts also criticise the Commission for shelving structural points of criticism only in the main text of these extensive reports. An overall assessment of reform progress or open criticism on Western Balkan leaders obstructing rule of law reform is generally lacking. The dilution of the actual situation in the WB6 misleads both EU and WB6 citizens.[35]

Fourth, acting upon standstill or backlash remains a problem. There is a general lack of determination within the EU to publicly name and shame Western Balkan leaders who fail to progress in rule of law reforms.[36] In their public engagements, EU and EU member state representatives, including from the Commission itself, do not resonate the findings of Commission reports regarding lack of progress. This discrepancy creates a communication gap that Western Balkan autocrats easily exploit to frame their version of the facts to their citizens. The EU is also reluctant to use available instruments to act upon rule of law backlash, such as the ‘imbalance clause’. By triggering it, the EU can suspend negotiations in the other chapters.[37] Instead of doing so, the EU has generally continued to offer financial support to the WB6 governments, thereby financially supporting stabilitocracy development.

Fifth, the EU regularly fails to reward progress because it is unable to find common understanding among its member states. Without the engagement of member states, it is hard to see how the accession process can foster adequate integration into the EU. However, compared to the 2004/2007 enlargement round, the introduction of intermediate veto points for member states at all stages of the negotiating process has increased the risk of abuse.[38] Member states have not shied away from using their power over (alleged) bilateral issues such as borders or minorities, which are unrelated to the accession criteria. Such blockades have strong adverse effects on the EU’s credibility and Western Balkan citizens’ attitudes towards EU membership.[39] Member states have also used their veto power over (alleged) reform progress concerns. A deviation from Commission assessments does not by definition imply undue political expediency of individual member states but indicates a lack of trust in the neutrality of such reports. As both former Commissioner Hahn and Commissioner Várhelyi have faced criticism for downplaying rule of law issues, such a lack of trust may not be fully misplaced.[40] However, the failure of EU institutions and member states to develop a common understanding of reform progress in the WB6 further undermines the credibility of the enlargement process.

Sixth, in its relations with the WB6, the EU adopts a leader-oriented approach, facilitating frequent interactions between high-ranking officials from the EU and its member states on the one hand, and representatives of WB6 governments on the other.[41] EU officials have publicly praised their WB6 counterparts despite a lack of progress or even backlash in democratic reforms. Notorious was the statement of former European Council President Donald Tusk who called Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić a ‘soulmate’ and ‘strong patriot’.[42] German Chancellor Angela Merkel even praised his ‘very good reform record’.[43] Such endorsements have a much stronger effect on citizens than the country reports issued by the EU Commission, for which attention has generally waned. Local, politically influenced media can easily frame such high-ranking interactions as if the government is working to grant its citizens a future in the EU. As such, the leader-oriented approach indirectly reinforces and legitimises the position of Western Balkan leaders who use the EU’s public endorsement to reinforce their grip on society.

A seventh flaw – concomitant of the sixth flaw – relates to the negative influence of party-political affiliations. Over the past decades party political families in the EU have formed party ties with their counterparts in the WB6. In North Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE is, for example, an associate member of the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) while the SDSM is an associate with the Party of European Socialists (PES).[44] Party political support has positively contributed to the professionalisation and networks of local parties. However, it has also resulted in seemingly unconditional support for WB6 parties even if they display non-democratic behaviour when in power – a dynamic that can be observed within the EU as well. This becomes problematic when it creates perverse incentives for EU politicians to defend Western Balkans autocrats in front of clear displays of undemocratic tendencies.[45] Moreover, party ties provide Western Balkan autocrats with undue public endorsement that they use to consolidate their power at home and gain citizens’ support during elections.[46]

Finally, the enlargement process does not provide clear timetables to carry out reforms and align the Western Balkans with the EU acquis. The Western Balkan governments set reform timelines in their action plans, but the EU does not hold them accountable for meeting such timelines. This lack of interim deadlines leaves the EU unable to exert time-pressure on the governments of the region to carry out necessary democratic reforms.[47] At the same time, it prevents the EU from acting upon non-compliance such as by withdrawing financial support and putting negotiations on hold.[48] A final target date for eventual membership remains unrealistic and would divert attention from the necessary political and institutional transformation.[49] However, without interim deadlines, the prospect of EU membership remains indefinite and the process does not create sufficient incentives for governments to comply with conditionality, leaving the EU unable to monitor progress and hold governments accountable.

The EU is hesitant to set target dates because they may have negative side effects. Incumbent governments could use the reform pressure as an excuse to bypass normal legislative procedures. In Serbia, for instance, in 2015, the government used the excuse of the required transposition of EU acquis to adopt more than 57 per cent of parliamentary acts under an urgent procedure.[50] In this way, the government could sidestep wider consultations in parliament. Rather than improving the quality of democracy in the region, this further undermines the transparency of legislative processes. Also, time pressure could lead to mere adoption of reforms on paper instead of implementation to achieve a real political change.[51] As such, introducing more tangible timelines would need to be done with concern for potential negative effects.

2.3 Conclusions

This chapter has outlined how flaws in the mechanisms of EU democracy support in the Western Balkans contribute both directly and indirectly to undemocratic tendencies in the region and to the formation of so-called stabilitocracies. EU strategies and policies have been quite effective in fostering the formal adoption of EU laws and reforming institutions on paper. Yet, they have not managed to bring about decisive democratic change able to alter domestic dynamics of clientelism and corruption in the WB6. In different countries, elements of state capture create unfavourable conditions for the EU to spur democracy, as incumbent governments face high domestic costs for the adoption of EU rule of law conditions.

This chapter has shown that domestic undemocratic tendencies can be reinforced by several flaws in the EU’s enlargement policy. To arrive at a more tangible understanding of how EU policies to promote democratisation and the rule of law play out in practice, the next chapter takes a country-by-country approach. It assesses specifically whether the EU’s revised accession methodology could be effective in addressing the shortcomings identified in this chapter.

See footnote 3.
Marko Kmezić and Florian Bieber, “The Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans…,” 95; Florian Bieber, “What is a stabilitocracy…”.
European Commission, “A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans,” COM(2018) 65 final, February 6, 2018, 3.
Marko Kmezić and Florian Bieber, “The Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans…”, 4.
Alban Dafa et al. “The Western Balkans and the COVID-19: Effects on good governance, rule of law and civil society,,” Think for Europe Network Policy Brief, July 2, 2020.
Beáta Huszka, and Tania Lessenska, “Viral vulnerability: how the pandemic is making democracy sick in the Western Balkans,” ECFR, December 8, 2020; Alban Dafa et al. “The Western Balkans and the Covid-19…”.
See Freedom House, “Nations in transit 2021 – Serbia,” 2021; See also: V-Dem institute, “Autocratization Turns Viral – Democracy report 2021,” March 2021, 19.
Misha Popovikj, “Why the EU and North Macedonia should not rush reforms,” Clingendael Spectator, February 23, 2021.
Vlado Apostolov, “Zoran Zaev – North Macedonia’s Fickle Reformer,” BalkanInsight, June 1, 2021.
See Craig Turp-Balazs. “In Kosovo, an electoral earthquake,” Emerging Europe, February 15, 2021.
The term was originally coined by Mark Leonard in a 2005 article for the Centre for European Reform. See Mark Leonard, “Europe’s transformative power,” Centre for European Reform, February 1, 2005.
Bieber, Florian and Nikolaos Tzifakis, “Introduction: the influence of external actors in the Western Balkans,” in The Western Balkans in the World – Linkages and Relations with non-Western countries, ed. Florian Bieber and Nikolaos Tzifakis (Routledge, 2020), 5 – 10.
Zhelyazkova, Asya, Ivan Damjanovski, Zoran Nechev, and Frank Schimmelfennig, “European Union conditionality in the Western Balkans: external incentives and Europeanisation, ” in The Europeanisation of the Western Balkans, ed. Jelena Džankić, Soeren Keil and Marko Kmezić (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 20.
See for example the Nations in Transit reports by Freedom House.
Solveig Richter and Natasha Wunsch, “Money, power, glory …”, 42.
Maarten Lemstra, “The destructive effects of state capture in the Western Balkans. EU enlargement undermined,” Clingendael Institute, September, 2020.
Kmezić, Marko, “EU Rule of law Conditionality: Democracy or ‘Stabilitocracy’ Promotion in the Western Balkans?,” in The Europeanisation of the Western Balkans, ed. Jelena Džankić, Soeren Keil and Marko Kmezić (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 105.
Gjergji Vurmo. “Tailor-made laws in the Western Balkans – state capture in disguise,” Centre for European Policy Studies, May 11, 2020.
See Luuk Molthof, Nienke van Heukelingen and Giulia Cretti, “Exploring avenues in the EU’s rule of law crisis,” Clingendael Institute, August 2021.
Solveig Richter and Natasha Wunsch, “Money, power, glory …”, 2.
Wolfgang Nozar, “The 100% Union: The rise of Chapters 23 and 24,” Clingendael institute, July 2, 2012, 2.
Antonaeta Dimitrova, “The EU’s Evolving Enlargement Strategies. Does Tougher Conditionality Open the Door for Further Enlargement?,” Freie Universität Berlin, MAXCAP 30, July 2016, 9.
See section 4 under “Media freedom, the EU accession process and political signalling” in: Wouter Zweers and Dragana Bajić, “Declining media freedom and biased reporting on foreign actors in Serbia,” Clingendael Institute, July 2020.
Zhelyazkova, Asya, Ivan Damjanovski, Zoran Nechev, and Frank Schimmelfennig, “European Union conditionality…”.
Zhelyazkova, Asya, Ivan Damjanovski, Zoran Nechev, and Frank Schimmelfennig, “European Union conditionality…”; See also: Sena Marić and Dragana Bajić, “EU’s Benchmarking within Chapters 23 and 24 in Accession Negotiations with Serbia - Effects and Challenges,” European Policy Centre, March 20, 2018.
Ardita Abazi Imeri, Aleksandra Ivanovska and Amela Hrasnica, “Reforming from the Bench, Marking Offside - (In)Effectiveness of the EU Benchmarking Mechanism in the Western Balkans,” European Policy Institute, October 24, 2018, 37-39; and Simonida Kacarska and Ardita Abazi Imeri, “Effective Benchmarking for Concrete Rule of law Reforms in the Western Balkans,” TEN, October 9, 2019.
Simonida Kacarska and Ardita Abazi Imeri, “Effective Benchmarking for Concrete…”.
Sena Marić and Dragana Bajić, “EU’s Benchmarking within Chapters …”, 6.
For more detailed information on the Commission’s country reports, see the BiePAG blogs on Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, published just after the 2020 Enlargement package of the European Commission.
Kmezić, Marko, “EU Rule of law Conditionality: Democracy or ‘Stabilitocracy’ Promotion in the Western Balkans?” in The Europeanisation of the Western Balkans, ed. Jelena Džankić, Soeren Keil and Marko Kmezić (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 99.
Simonida Kacarska and Ardita Abazi Imeri, “Effective Benchmarking for Concrete…”.
Toby Vogel, “Beyond Enlargement, Why the EU‘s Western Balkans Policy Needs a Reset”, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, April 2018, 16.
See: Zosia Wanat and Lili Bayer, “Olivér Várhelyi: Europe’s under-fire gatekeeper,” POLITICO, October 5, 2021.
Solveig Richter and Natasha Wunsch, “Money, power, glory …”, 43.
Wouter Zweers, “Between effective engagement and …”.
Marko Kmezić and Florian Bieber, “The Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans…”, 4.
Wouter Zweers, “Between effective engagement and …”.
Solveig Richter and Natasha Wunsch, “Money, power, glory…”, 53.
Stephan Renner and Florian Trauner, “Creeping EU Membership in South‐east Europe: The Dynamics of EU Rule Transfer to the Western Balkans,” Journal of European Integration 31, no. 4, July 2009.
Andreas Eisl. “How would the EU accession procedure really improve?,” Jacques Delors Institute, March 2020, 6.
Wouter Zweers, “Between effective engagement and …”, 9.
Solveig Richter and Natasha Wunsch, “Money, power, glory …”, 43.
See for example Misha Popovikj, “Why the EU and North Macedonia should not rush reforms,” Clingendael Spectator, February 23, 2021.