Social cohesion and managing diverse societies as pathways to European integration

Alessandro Rotta
Senior Adviser at OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities

The state of the art

The prospect of acceding the European Union has been, for decades, one of the main incentives for countries in South Eastern Europe to embark on deep reforms and positively transform their societies. True, the appeal of the EU has been uneven throughout the years and the accession prospect has not always displayed its transformational power very visibly in the Balkan context. Also, the apparent reluctance by some EU Member States to meaningfully engage in or support the process has had a detrimental effect on how credible accession prospects have appeared to publics and elites in South Eastern Europe. Yet, EU accession remains an ineludible strategic horizon for these countries and the EU continues to have more to gain from integrating the region than by leaving it at its doorstep indefinitely. Such necessity derives primarily from geopolitical considerations: South Eastern Europe is currently an enclave within the EU so its full integration, once the countries are ready, makes a lot of sense strategically and economically. But it is also a lesson from the past: challenges affecting the region cannot be contained geographically and are better tackled in an integrated framework and through a solid accession path.   

The recent re-haul of enlargement methodology, aimed at giving a stronger political steer to the process, and thereby making it more credible, dynamic and predictable, seemed to have appeased some of the concerns by Member States, in particular about the process being stricter and potentially reversible. The decision, in October 2020, to start accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, appeared to prove that the process was alive and could still serve the purpose of making countries in South Eastern Europe more prosperous and secure, helping them consolidate their democracy, while they got closer to the EU. In other words, the transformational power of EU accession and conditionality should still work, 17 years since the promise made at the Thessaloniki European Council.  Such a positive momentum however seemingly collided against Bulgaria blocking the start of EU membership talks for its neighbour North Macedonia due to disputes over history and language. This illustrated how the process is still prone to bilateral disputes impeding consensus and frustrating candidate countries’ genuine progress and legitimate aspirations.


Challenges to keep the process on track stem from Brussels’ consistency, Member States’ commitment and them sticking to a realistic and visible time horizon for the actual accession. Some challenges do however come from the region itself. The ability by some leaders and elites in the region to divert EU’s support, trading their presumed ability to offer stability with remaining in power, and of effective rule over democratic governance, has given rise to the phenomenon often termed  as stabilitocracy. The notion of ‘stabilitocrats’ describes local elites who while outwardly assuming a constructive role in guaranteeing regional stability and protecting purported EU interests, including by filtering waves of migration from and across the region, in reality disregard democratic standards and rely on informal networks and control of the media to consolidate their power.[1] The emergence of stabilitocracy represents a pejorative scenario compared to the pre-existing risk of so called mutual fictions, whereby, as the saying went, ‘the EU pretends to enlarge as the countries pretend to reform’. In this case, delays and lack of transformational effect would seem not only to consolidate the status quo in target accession countries, but to actually lead to democratic backsliding and to ingrain semi-authoritative practices. Such regress has been remarked by external observers, such as Freedom House, but also by the European Commission, which in several of its country reports, that form part of the latest enlargement package, records challenges to political pluralism and media freedom. Such regressive dynamics apparently flourish when the accession process is languishing or stagnates, whereas a more dynamic process would allow more stringent conditionality and stricter criteria, while at the same time opening up additional democratic spaces and ensuring civil society involvement. This would sandwich authoritarian leaning elites between Brussels’ conditionality and citizens’ and civil society demands for change. In order to be sustainable, the enlargement process needs to induce deep societal transformation and not just an adaptation of political structures. The European Commission acknowledged this in 2018: “All the Western Balkan countries must now urgently redouble their efforts, address vital reforms and complete their political, economic and social transformation, bringing all stakeholders on board from across the political spectrum and from civil society. Joining the EU is far more than a technical process. It is a generational choice, based on fundamental values, which each country must embrace more actively, from their foreign and regional policies right down to what children are taught at school.”[2]

This short analysis will now turn to a number of dimensions, which, partly based on the experience of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), could make societies in the Western Balkans more resilient and, potentially, provide important stepping stones on their way to the EU. Additional attention to such sectors by the EU may facilitate, within the existing policy framework, a smoother accession path by countries and societies.

Managing diverse societies

Balkan societies are inherently diverse. The legacy of the conflicts of the 1990s, and the resulting imperative to manage interethnic relations, has led to the establishment, throughout the region, of an array of constitutional, legal and policy mechanisms aimed at protecting minorities and enhancing their participation in public and political life. Such mechanisms are often modelled on very high standards but rely heavily on the political will of the majorities in any given context. Even where they actually work, power-sharing agreements, territorial and non-territorial autonomy regimes, and other forms of minority protection tend to segment society into parallel, non-communicating spheres, accentuating deeper fault lines and producing the paradoxical effect of estranging communities further. Such paradox is also evident in the field of education, as outlined below, where provision of mother tongue tuition results in segregating children from an early age. Moreover, resort by political leaders to exclusionist rhetoric targeting ethnic and other minorities as a means of galvanising support is an unfortunate and growing trend throughout Europe. This trend is aggravated in the Western Balkans by elites’ use of ethno-politics and revamped nationalism to appease discontented publics, divert attention from social and economic grievances, and consolidate their hold on power. In such terms, minority policies and politics, and interethnic consociativism can also be instruments of stabilitocracy. Minority politics do not operate in isolation and the best and most effective minority representation mechanisms are pointless if the overall political environment is toxic, the grip by parties on societies is pervasive and media disseminate a single narrative.

As noted in the HCNM Ljubljana Guidelines on Integration of Diverse Societies “successive High Commissioners have also learned that simply recognizing and accommodating minority culture, identity and political interests, and promoting the participation of all may not be sufficient to build sustainable and lasting peace.”[3] The approach identified by the HCNM to counter the unintended segregating effects of minority protection relies on a robust integration policy, based on a non-isolationist approach to minority issues and aiming at providing inclusion, effective participation and fostering a sense of belonging and mutual accommodation by all members of the society. This requires the involvement of all relevant actors and stakeholders and all levels of government, and should inform all relevant policy domains, from citizenship to participation, security and law enforcement, access to justice and media.

Educating to diversity

Education is an indispensable component of building diverse and cohesive societies. It can help dissipate stereotypes, teach tolerance, and improve understanding among communities. Given its relatively limited weight in acquis, the EU has not traditionally invested heavily in education in accession countries, and has not made it part of its conditionality. Yet, in 2018, the European Commission acknowledged that “[t]he role of education must be given a higher priority especially in terms of fostering greater tolerance, promoting European values and strengthening the cohesion of society.”[4]

The state of education in the region is grim, particularly in its failure to support and promote diversity management, perpetuating separation among communities. In several multi-ethnic countries, ethnically segregated education is often the norm, leading to widening divisions between communities, rather than mending them, and making the prospect of social cohesion across ethnic lines more distant. Mono-ethnic schools favour the teaching of monolithic and ethno-centric historical narratives, to the further detriment of mutual understanding among communities.

In such cases, major political and financial investments are needed to establish integrated and multilingual education systems at all levels, designed to provide equal access, opportunities and educational outcomes for all pupils, regardless of their majority or minority ethnic background. Education should also incorporate multiple perspectives and ensure that there is space for different children from different communities to interact inside and outside the curriculum, and to learn each other’s languages to bridge the divides. Particularly in parts of the region with a very young population, such investment in education is crucial to consolidate peace and promote positive societal transformation.

Contesting contested histories

The past is often painfully present in the Balkans. Contestations over recent or distant historical events, disagreements on appropriation of historical figures (to which country do they belong) have often colonized current debates, created and fuelled bilateral disputes, and entrenched positions. There is an obvious need to de-politicize history but also to foster an understanding that multiple perspectives on a single event are possible and often healthy. Such an understanding should extend from classrooms and students to leaders and diplomats, enabling an option to ‘agree to disagree’. This could avoid that elements of a distant (and unchangeable) past become the object of a political fight today.  

It is in particular important that the EU - itself stemming from a major reconciliation process, founded on and functioning by enabling different perspectives to coexist without hampering progress - doesn’t allow historical disputes and unilateral readings of history to block EU accession by candidate countries.

Streamlining diversity under COVID 19

As everywhere else, also in South Eastern Europe, the COVID-19 pandemic is still engulfing societies. Beside its dramatic impact on health and its death toll, its consequences are and will be dreary, particularly for the region’s economy. The EU has been at the forefront in supporting the region in tackling the challenges related to the pandemic, and has reallocated its financial assistance in view of the urgencies faced by these countries due to the crisis, both in terms of health and socio-economic needs.

As most observers have noted, the pandemic and its consequences have exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and divisions in many areas. Minorities in particular are disproportionally affected and face further exclusion due to language barriers, enhanced difficulties to access public services and education, as well as outright discrimination. It is therefore important that responses to the crisis, including long term ones, are based on some key principles, such as: upholding human rights, being inclusive and sensitive to language needs, and maintaining zero tolerance for discrimination and xenophobia. If well-conceived and designed, and if taking into account the specific needs of all members of society, measures to fight COVID-19 and its consequences may actually help strengthen social cohesion and build integrated societies.[5]

Mind the demographics

One of the elephants in the room when discussing political and social dynamics in South Eastern Europe is its demographics. Across the region, one of the reasons that populations are aging and decreasing is due to the ongoing haemorrhage of young people, often taking the shape of a brain drain and depriving the region of its best and brightest. Massive emigration, as well as the stated intentions by large shares of the population to leave their countries if they had an opportunity to do so,[6] is often attributed to economic factors and better opportunities elsewhere. However, it can also be seen as a symptom of dysfunctional governance and as an extreme form of protest against corruption, nepotism, and shrinking democratic practices. It is an indicator of limited trust in the capacity of domestic institutions and signals a form of disengagement from efforts towards political change and building a better society.

A realistic prospect of EU accession may mitigate some of these factors, but would still be, for populations in the region, too far off the horizon to actually work against the decision to emigrate. Meanwhile, policies favouring mobility and circular migration could help stem the bleeding.

What to do: in lieu of a conclusion

The road to the EU will be long. An increased attention and converging energies devoted by both candidate and potential candidates and the EU on the areas listed above (by no means an exhaustive list) may possibly make the road less bumpy.  


[1] On the definition of stabilitocracy see BiEPAG, What is a stabilitocracy?, March 2017; for a recent application of the concept also to illustrate the limits of the EU transformative power see Maja Kovačević, Limits of the EU’s transformative power and the Western Balkans, Medjunarodni problemi 2019 Volume 71, Issue 1, Pages. 26-49.

[2] European Commission, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans, February 2018, p. 2.

[3] OSCE HCNM, The Ljubljana Guidelines on Integration of Diverse Societies, p. 3. On the Ljubljana guidelines and on integrated societies becoming an element of resilience in the Western Balkans see Alessandro Rotta, Integrated societies as a vector of resilience in Sabina Lange, Zoran Nechev and Florian Trauner (editors), Resilience in the Western Balkans, EU ISS Report n. 36.

[4] European Commission, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans, February 2018, p. 7.

[5] On this see OSCE HCNM, Streamlining diversity: COVID-19 measures that support social cohesion, 17 April 2020.

[6] According to the Balkan Barometer 2020 43% of the respondents in the Western Balkans in 2018 would leave their country and work abroad if they could (Regional Cooperation Council BALKAN BAROMETER 2020 Public Opinion Analytical report, 2020).


The views, opinions, conclusions and other information expressed in this article are not necessarily endorsed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe High Commissioner on National Minorities (OSCE HCNM).