Rule of Law in the Western Balkans; a comparison of the developments in Serbia and North Macedonia and the role of the Accession Mechanism
The transition from autocracy to democracy in the Western Balkans was not a straightforward one. For the Western Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – war and economic crises dealt blows to the democratisation process, which has kept the regimes from becoming consolidated democracies in their own right. International institutions regularly observe a lack of Rule of Law, as well as an increase in clientelism and corruption (Kmezić 2020).
In terms of authoritarianism, North Macedonia defied the trend of the region, having no nationalist and authoritarian parties comparable to the ones which had succeeded in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia. The political landscape in North Macedonia could instead be characterised by a high level of polarization between the SDSM (Social Democratic Union of Macedonia) and the VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) as well as the inclusion of Albanian minority rights (Bieber 2020).
Politics in Serbia since 1989 can be roughly categorised in three phases. Between 1990 and 2000, Slobodan Milošević with the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) was dominant. From 2000 until 2012, Serbia was led by various parties, which had been part of the anti-Milošević-coalition. From 2012 onwards “the Serbian Progressive Party” and its co-founder Aleksandar Vučić, a former ally of Milošević, have dominated, returning to an increasingly authoritarian path” (Bieber 2020).
Both North Macedonia and Serbia are now countries that initially made steps to overcome their contested past, but recent developments in both countries show that during the EU Accession Negotiations they took very different paths, illustrated by a comparison of the handling of the last elections. These different developments also raise the issue of the practicability of the design of the Accession Process.
Slow Progress on EU Accession
The European Union has long sought to advance democratic reforms in the Western Balkans. One of the strongest tools for reforms in the Western Balkan countries the EU has in its quiver is the Accession Process. The long performed method of “carrots and sticks” has been proven to be effective in reaching fundamental reforms in potential future EU-Membership countries.
While governance effectiveness has long increased under EU conditionality, in recent years the level of democracy in the region has been found to be stagnating and the process has taken on some criticism in academia as well as in the political sphere.
For example Richter and Wunsch (2020) argue that: “EU conditionality is not only unable to effectively counter state capture, but it has involuntary entrenched informal networks in the Western Balkans and enabled them to strengthen their grip on power”, so they see a linkage between EU conditionality and the consolidation of state capture in Western Balkan countries. Kmezic (2020) demonstrates a widespread form of state capture in the Western Balkan countries, which “hinders the region from effectively pursuing democratic transformation”, and a Commission Report (2018) states that “countries show clear elements of state capture”. Following that logic, it appears that overcoming the status quo and the implementation of fundamental reforms in the Western Balkan Countries is impossible.
I would argue that this rather fatalistic approach is not accurate, and that the EU Accession Process can be a decisive tool when it comes to the implementation and sustainability of reforms. This would however require some redesigning of policy priorities as well as the restructuring of the negotiation process. For example, negotiations need to take into account the willingness of the candidate countries’ leaders to orient themselves towards the EU, or not.
The recent example of the elections in North Macedonia and Serbia emphasizes this discrepancy.
Elections in North Macedonia and Serbia
Both North Macedonia and Serbia held elections in 2020, a year that will be remembered as one in which the world struggled with containing the coronavirus pandemic. The situation posed a challenge not only to national health systems, but also to democracy and liberty, providing undemocratic regimes with a golden opportunity to extend their power.
Elections in Serbia were called on 4 March 2020 and took place on 21 June of the same year. The election saw many irregularities, with allegations of media imbalance, pressure on voters (primarily those employed in the public sector) and an abuse of public resources. (Burazer 2020). On Election Day, the Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability monitoring mission (CRTA) observed serious irregularities in 8-10% of polling stations (Burazer 2020).
North Macedonia on the other hand faced an unprecedented crisis. After France had blocked the start of EU Accession Negotiations at the European Council in October 2019, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev resigned and called new elections. Parliament was dissolved on 12 February 2020, under the agreement that new elections would take place on 12 April, a date which then had to be postponed due to COVID-19. The centre of power and decision-making was then left in the hands of a technical government, which was able to rule by decree during a state of emergency. This left North Macedonia without a functioning Parliament for more than four months during a global pandemic, with a technical government left in charge of handling coronavirus measures, as well organising elections at the same time (Brändle 2020).
Parliamentary elections finally took place on 15 July and were generally deemed effective and genuinely competitive, and despite limitations on traditional campaigning, the election day proceeded smoothly (OSCE ODIHR 2020). With no Parliament, and only a technical government in place, democracy in North Macedonia had been left in a precarious position. A situation which could have easily lent itself to democratic backsliding. However, it appears that the institutions built in the last few years were strong enough to guarantee a democratic and smooth transition of power. The country now has a social democratic government, in coalition with the Albanian minority party DUI.
New Instruments for the Accession Process
Those two different developments also highlight two different speeds towards EU Accession. This makes clear that the former unrevised Accession Process was not fully equipped to deal accurately with such a situation.
In the light of the discussion around the creation of a new Accession Mechanism, EU Member States pushed for a renewal of the enlargement process. We in the S&D Group also proposed rigorous changes to procedure and content. In February 2020, the Commission introduced a new Enlargement Mechanism, which in its core has a strong focus on the topic of rule of law, but also on a mechanism that would deal with backsliding on reform implementations. This gives the Commission the power “that negotiations can be put on hold in certain areas, or in the most serious cases, suspended overall” (COM 2020).
For it to be an effective instrument, we as S&D also demanded that the reversibility of the negotiation process be strengthened by developing more specific and clearer benchmarks. In order to enhance the credibility of negotiations, we need to enhance the revision process and the corrective mechanism. Emphasis ought to be on political and financial conditionality, with a clear link to progress in implementing measures related to rule of law, corruption and organised crime, as well as human rights and media freedom.
The EU should use all instruments at its disposal to affect positive change in the Western Balkans, especially in the areas of justice and fundamental rights. While positive reinforcement must be given for developments in the right direction, it must also be possible to reverse the Accession Process when democratic backsliding occurs. Only with well-functioning accession instruments can the EU be the international player in advancing democracy that it seeks to be.
Bieber, F. (2020). The rise of authoritarianism in the West Balkans (1st ed. 2020. ed.). Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
BiEPAG (2020). The Western Balkans in Times of Global Pandemic. European Fund for the Balkans, April 2020. Retrieved from https://www.balkanfund.org/biepag-publications/the-western-balkans-in-times-of-the-global-pandemic .
Burazer, N. et. al. (2020). Serbian Election 2020; Erosion of Trust in the Democratic Process. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, August 2020. Retrieved from http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/belgrad/16460.pdf
Brändle, M. et. al. (2020). Democracy and the State of Emergency; New Upsurge of the Corona Crisis in the Western Balkans, Croatia and Slovenia. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Report four, July 13, 2020.
European Commission (2018). A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans: COM(2018) 65 final. Strasbourg, Feb. 6
European Commission (2020). Enhancing the Accession Process - A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans: COM(2020) 57 final. Brussels, 5.2.2020
Kmezić, M. (2020). Rule of law and democracy in the Western Balkans: Addressing the gap between policies and practice. Southeast European and Black Sea Studies: Illiberal Politics in Southeast Europe, 20(1), 183-198.
OSCE ODIHR (2020). Republic of North Macedonia – Early Parliamentary Elections, 15 July 2020; Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions. Retrieved from https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/north-macedonia/457408.
Richter, S. & Wunsch, N. (2019). Money, power, glory: The linkages between EU conditionality and state capture in the Western Balkans. Journal of European Public Policy, 27(1), 1-22.