Despite its endeavours, the EU’s enlargement policy has proven incapable of preventing the Western Balkans from slouching towards stabilitocracies. To avoid the traps of further stabilitocracy entrenchment, this chapter puts forward recommendations and critical reflections on the EU’s role in the region, suggesting ways it could address the flaws in the design and implementation of its enlargement policy so that its democratisation and rule of law objectives are more effectively pursued.

4.1 Flaws in EU democracy promotion

The country case studies in Chapter 2 have outlined several cases in which the EU has unintentionally contributed to stabilitocracy formation. The technical approach has been the most prevalent flaw, ranging from an inability to harmonise the interests of ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, structural weaknesses in the EULEX mission in Kosovo, and the inability of technical safeguards to counter blurred boundaries between branches of power in Montenegro, to progress reports on democracy and rule of law reforms being overly focused on technical issues in North Macedonia, and the revised methodology being too technically fixated in Serbia.

The EU’s leader-oriented approach equally fuelled semi-authoritarian trends in its concentration on presidents and representatives rather than on state institutions, civil society and other stakeholders in Bosnia and Herzegovina in general, and within the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia more particularly. This leader-oriented interaction frequently coincided with undue praise for national leaders, as shown in the case of Serbia.

The EU’s failure to act upon backlash proved prevalent as well. The EU was unable to call out on unlawful use of personal data and voter surveillance during elections in Albania, showed itself hesitant to ‘name and shame’ politicians responsible for democratic backsliding in Serbia and adopted a softer diplomatic language in its annual reports than facts on the ground have necessitated.

Last but not least, the lack of timelines to meet the EU benchmarks and its adverse ramifications for the accession process were highlighted in the cases of both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.

4.2 The revised methodology: a panacea for enlargement?

The EU’s revised accession methodology, implemented only recently in negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro, held the premise to strengthen the enlargement process and the EU’s democratisation agenda. While it might be too early to provide general conclusions on its impact, the Commission’s country reports of these two countries allow us to engage in preliminary reflections. Although the revised enlargement methodology introduced the first ‘political’ IGC with the Serbian authorities, it nevertheless left the Serbian public in the dark on EU expectations, as did the visits of Commission President Von der Leyen and outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The ambition of the revised methodology for both sides to ‘show more leadership and live up to their respective commitments in public, while coming in more directly on matters of concern’,[163] has thereby so far not materialised. The methodology as such has not yet brought about constructive adjustments to the EU’s leader-oriented approach.

Furthermore, the introduction of the revised methodology has not yet led to substantial changes in monitoring which would diminish the negative effects of the EU’s technical approach. The country sections on North Macedonia and Albania highlight how the EU continues to monitor formalistic progress instead of substantive political changes. Other analyses confirm that the EU’s 2021 country reports still constitute a tick-box exercise and fail to grasp the situation on the ground, suggesting that the specification of the concepts of rule of law and democracy in the EU’s monitoring benchmarks needs further improvement.[164]

4.3 Incremental improvements or a full overhaul of the process?

There is still a shared belief among EU officials that the methodology could positively affect the functioning of enlargement. They highlight that combining the revised accession methodology with other instruments in the region, like the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans and the Covid-19 funds, could potentially yield a fertile ground for human and political capital to safeguard democratic institutions in the long run.[165] However, the question is whether continuous incremental adjustments to the accession process alone, of which the revised accession methodology is the latest example, will make the consolidation of democracy in the region more effective.

Our initial assessment shows that fixing the technical process is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the EU accession process and its democratisation agenda towards the Western Balkans. Or, as succinctly put in the conclusions of an expert meeting in Thessaloniki in October 2021,[166] ‘In the absence of political will, the best designed mechanism will continue to not be able to deliver.’

Therefore, throughout 2020 and 2021, research institutes have floated ideas for a more substantial overhaul of the accession process that would significantly affect the more-for-more (or carrot and stick) principle on which the conditionality mechanism in EU accession is based. The idea is that creating interim integration objectives would alter political cost-benefit calculations and foster enhanced political will to engage in democratisation reforms.

As reflected upon in the Serbia country section of this report, the European Policy Centre Belgrade (CEP) together with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) propose a model of staged accession, breaking up the accession process into four phases in contrast to its current binary ‘in or out’ set-up.[167] Not only could this lead to reinforced safeguards for concerned member states, but for the candidate countries it would equally fast-track some of the benefits of accession that in the current policy loom only as a spot on the eventual enlargement horizon. Even with this proposal, it remains to be seen whether incumbent governments ruling by stabilitocracy will be sufficiently motivated to change course, as well as whether the absorption capacity of the WB6 allows for the processing of enhanced funding with adequate safeguards for misuse in place. Nevertheless, the proposal carries serious potential merits that could provide enlargement with much-needed new impetus.

4.4 Recommendations

Although some may warn that enlargement is over, this report considers such a conclusion premature.[168] Sidelining enlargement has risky implications as it could spur already growing instability in the region as well as third-power influences with potentially serious repercussions for the EU. Moreover, at least theoretically, the potential to improve the functioning of conditionality in the accession process is vast. While this report has described several weaknesses in the design of EU policies, most identified flaws relate to their implementation. Put simply, better implementation still has the potential to lead to better outcomes.

Rather than rejecting the enlargement process at large, the report brings forward several recommendations to further enhance the functioning of the process as its stands. At the same time, this report acknowledges the current impasse in enlargement, with both a lack of momentum on the EU side as well as generally low political appetite for decisive reform in the WB6. Therefore, the report also articulates recommendations on a) exploring alternatives for the current accession methodology and b) wider engagement beyond enlargement.

Regarding the overall political steering in the accession process and the implementation of the revised accession methodology, this report considers that the revised accession methodology has more potential than its first months of implementation have shown. More efforts to enable enhanced political steering, monitoring and reversibility would show that the EU is sincere in its democratisation agenda. Specific recommendations in line with this overall recommendation are outlined below.

When it comes to the EU’s leader-oriented approach, the lack of public communication on the reform challenges creates a gap in information and expectations for citizens in the WB6. This is important as the EU should not give the impression it is imposing reforms, which would risk backlash after membership is obtained. Rather, it needs to ensure popular support for the process by engaging with WB6 citizens. While we acknowledge the need for EU institutions and member states to pursue a functional working relationship with WB governments, the public appraisal of non-existent or surface-thin reform by EU leaders is detrimental to the effectiveness of the enlargement process and the credibility of the EU. We make the following recommendations:

Press conferences to local media could be organised more frequently after EU interlocutors (EU heads of delegation, ambassadors of EU member states, Commission representatives, MEPs, etc) have paid formal and informal visits to the WB6. This goes for IGCs as well as more ad-hoc exchanges.

EU interlocutors, especially heads of state and/or high-profile representatives of EU institutions, could be more sincere in their public assessments of the state of play of reforms, while refraining from generalist comments that lack substantive assessments, in line with the ambitions of the revised accession methodology. They ought to make it clear that accession negotiations are in fact not negotiations, as joining the EU means accepting all its rules.

EU interlocutors could continue to search for creative solutions to engage in more direct dialogue with citizens in the WB6, e.g., through stepping up engagement with civil society organisations and think tanks in the region.

EU interlocutors might more often consider critically scrutinising public statements from local government representatives on the contents of the country reports or closed-door meetings with EU counterparts. If public statements from incumbent leaders to domestic audiences go against messages from the EU as conveyed in country reports or closed-door meetings, EU interlocutors should not hesitate to speak out.

When it comes to the specification of the concept of the rule of law, the EU’s technical approach, and the lack of timelines and acting upon backlash, this report identified several shortcomings in the country reports of the European Commission. We thereby formulate the following recommendations:

Technical reporting is no simple calculation. Commission reports should be factual, but technical assessments should be combined with central conclusions making a sincere overall assessment of the pace and vastness of the reform efforts made in the WB6. The monitoring of progress could be more holistic, enhancing the centrality of assessments that go beyond mere rule adoption.

The inclusion of third-party indicators related to the status of democracy, good governance and the rule of law in candidate countries and potential candidates in the EC 2021 Communication on Enlargement is a welcome development. Such indicators should also be included in individual country reports, not only showing the annual score but also providing insight into the development of scores over time. A better insight into the change of Commission scores on levels of progress and preparation over time would likewise be welcome.

More tangible and practical recommendations on how to reach given benchmarks could be made, while benchmarks themselves could benefit from enhanced specification. As outlined in the country section on Albania, the EU would do well to formulate clear and strict standards for reforms that seek substantive and sustainable institutional and regulatory changes.

The EU should hold the WB6 accountable for the (lack of) progress on the basis of timelines set by themselves. It needs to better communicate what it expects and what happens if timelines are not met.

Making country reports available in local languages would help to counter waning attention for the annual country reports among politicians, civil society and media in the WB6, and could empower civil society organisations, the general public and other relevant stakeholders in the monitoring of reforms. In addition to literal translations, executive summaries in local languages could be provided, using understandable and relatable language, not written with policy as the starting point of the reflections (e.g., ‘in chapter 20, country x made moderate progress’), but with understandable language and tangible examples at their core. Infographics on levels of progress and preparation that are currently being made by think tanks could serve as an example for infographics to be included in Commission reports.[169]

For the same purpose, EU delegations and member state embassies could search for creative pathways to promote country reports upon their publication. Public media campaigns through advertorials in written (online) media, television, radio, etc are all viable options for a more visible promotion of the country reports.

The EU needs to reconsider its credibility on the rule of law issue, both internally and externally. It is important that future EU Commissioners responsible for enlargement cannot be questioned with regard to their own commitment to the rule of law. Reports about alleged undue political influence in the European Commission that would downplay rule of law assessments in the WB6 should be noted with great concern.

Regarding proposals made by think tanks for a further overhaul of the accession process and engagement beyond enlargement, we articulate the following recommendations:

The EU and its member states are advised to seriously consider a renewed enlargement procedure, such as the model of staged accession proposed by CEP and CEPS. On the one hand, it introduces an effective incentive structure for the applicant states throughout the accession process from the early to the final stages, to engage in credible and comprehensive reforms. On the other hand, it retains safeguards in relation to existing member states’ concerns over further enlargement by dispensing with their legitimate fears that new members with veto powers may experience backlash in terms of rule of law and could potentially further undermine the functioning of the Union. Fast tracking the benefits of enlargement by introducing multiple accession levels has the potential to alter the political calculations of incumbent governments in the WB6 and show the benefits of enlargement for societies at large. By making the accession perspective more tangible, this approach could raise EU credibility in the region and potentially even restore positive momentum to the European project itself.

The EU and its member states are advised to step up their foreign policy game in the WB6 beyond mere enlargement in coordination with international partners like the United States. Especially in countries with a low accession perspective and simmering security challenges, a firmer political approach with a stronger toolkit, including instruments such as targeted sanctions, could enhance the EU’s impact.

The EU could look for enhanced cooperation with the WB6 in policy areas beyond EU enlargement. Novel and existing EU instruments and investments could provide for a renewed geopolitical engagement in the region, leaving it less dependent on the influence of third actors. Exemplary in this regard is the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans, wherein the decarbonisation of economic structures in the WB6 could lead to a more diversified energy sector, reducing energy dependency on third actors. Considering further engagement beyond the EU’s enlargement policy could potentially establish a more stable region and strengthen ties between the WB6 and the EU.

The EU is advised to explore pathways to creating more local ownership for reform processes in the WB6, e.g., through requesting the matching of EU financial support with an equitable level of funding from incumbent governments, as discussed in the Albania country section of this report.

Regarding the role of The Netherlands, the efforts of The Hague in the promotion of the rule of law and media freedom are not going unnoticed. During the latest Belgrade Security Forum, the Netherlands was praised for its critical and at the same time constructive stance. However, there is a fine line between taking a critical but constructive view on reform progress and being an unconstructive veto player. For the Netherlands specifically, we make the following recommendations:

The Netherlands has made good efforts to establish a reputation as an engaged member state. The visit of Prime Minister Mark Rutte to Albania and North Macedonia in November 2021 is the latest example. The Netherlands would do well to continue engaging in efforts that could solidify bilateral relations and signal that, despite its critical position, the country is concerned with the future of the WB6.

The image of the Netherlands as a critical but fair member state in the accession process is structurally undermined by its past position on visa liberalisation for Kosovo. A better investment in articulating its current position could lead to enhanced understanding and perhaps resolve (some of the) Dutch concerns. The Council would do well to reassess whether requirements for visa liberalisation have been met. Moreover, the Netherlands could potentially invest more support through its bilateral support programmes – called MATRA[170] – to contribute to the resolution of these concerns.

Political will is an important element in making enlargement succeed. Within the Netherlands, a majority of parliament and the population are hesitant about further EU integration and accepting new member states – often based on simplified presuppositions. The Dutch government could make more effort to inform the public on the enlargement process in general and the current negotiations in particular.

European Commission, “Enhancing the accession process…”.
See for example: Srdjan Majstorović, “BiEPAG’s Experts React: EC 2020 Progress Report on Serbia,” BIEPAG, October 2021.
Interviews with EU policy makers, October 2021.
Michael Emerson, Milena Lazarević, Steven Blockmans, and Strahinja Subotic, “A template for Staged…”.
Gjergi Vurmo, “The EU and the Western Balkans – Serving the purpose of enlargement,” BiEPAG, September 20, 2021.
See European Policy Centre, “Serbia’s progress and preparation for EU membership,” October 22, 2021.
See, “NFRP/Matra: Grants for strengthening democracy and the rule of law in Europe,” accessed November 22, 2021.