18 March 2019 – Naim Rashiti’s address (edited talking points) to Members of the European Parliament (AFET and LIBE Committees) on ‘Beyond Accession: Irreversibility of the Rule of Law’
Ten challenges to the irreversibility of the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans
1. Accession and EU integration form the key basis for reforms in the Western Balkans
Rule of law reforms are very unlikely to happen in the Western Balkans outside the framework of EU accession and perspective. Leaders of the WB have learned how to closely link all domestic and regional agendas to EU integration. Citizens have come to the same conclusions. Macedonia will soon test this hypothesis.
2.There is a growing gap between the EU and the Western Balkans in understanding and expressing the meaning of the reforms. Some years ago, there was agreement between the EU and WB on what the reforms entailed. Now differences are much greater. The EU and Western Balkan countries now interpret the reforms, their meaning, assessment, implementation and impact differently. This is an issue of serous concern; we see these disparities in Serbia, Kosovo and Albania.
In some cases, implementing the reforms only on paper aggravates the situation. Western Balkans leaders have learned how to deceive the EU. At times the EU officials know they are being misled and that they are subject to some difficult political agendas (related to stability, external factors, Kosovo Serbia dialogue, etc.) that continue to shift priorities.
3. This is the reality of the Western Balkans. Both, resolution of political and sensitive conflicts/bilateral disputes and the reform agendas have to progress in parallel. Some countries can do this, some do not want to do this and other countries cannot do the both in parallel. The pace of progress on both agendas, however, has been very slow and likely to continue slowly in the future. By and large, key leaders of the Western Balkans have failed, and will fail to deliver to the EU and their own citizens.
Macedonia showed it could do both. This is the best example you can get from the Western Balkans; there is no better model.
Serbia does not want to do both. The leadership uses the political agenda to undermine reforms and RoL. If the EU does not position reforms at the very forefront of the EU agenda in relation to Serbia, it will soon be too late. Keeping chapters 23 and 24 open throughout the negotiations will not work. There is an expression in Serbia which illustrates the reality – the more chapters Serbia opens, the less democratic the country becomes…
Albania can do some of the key reforms, but not fully at this stage, and there is opposition to changes of the status quo. There is strong opposition, some from inside the government, but most from the opposition and organised crime. If the government, however, is not given support this time the progress will likely reverse.
Kosovo is stuck, in relation to the state consolidation agenda, on the dialogue with Serbia, and in relations with the EU. The elites in the government and the opposition are not prepared to transform the governance. It is vital for Kosovo to conclude peace with Serbia and move on to a new chapter of state building. In the case of no deal, the governing elites will continue to govern for much longer in the same way. In the case of a comprehensive deal with Serbia, the prospect of becoming a candidate country would bring more real change inside Kosovo. Our assessment is that it will be easier to sell a compromise than manage the status quo.
Kosovo fulfilled all of the visa liberalisation requirements, but with the EU failing to deliver, some regress on the reform agenda is noted.
4. Citizens do not see the benefits of reforms yet.
Only citizens of Montenegro have been affected positively by reforms and negotiation of accessions chapters, though there is a growing discontent nowadays with the government.
In Serbia, in some ways they are back to the dark era of the 90s with regard to fundamental rights, rule of law and media freedom. The difference between then and now is that there are no active conflicts and people have more money. Salaries are better and the economy somehow improves.
The Serbian leadership which has failed to deliver to the EU and its citizens faces a choice; will the president crack down on the weekly protests or will he reverse the immense control he has established over all aspects of public life in the country?
In North Macedonia some hope has returned. Yet, the government needs to show tangible results and benefits of the reforms. The test is approaching and the government will need a concrete agenda to maintain people’s support for the reforms. To do so, the country need to starts the accession talks soon.
In Kosovo citizens increasingly have an interest in resolving issues with Serbia. Polls and people’s views are affected by the discourse and conflicts between political actors. There is huge discontent with the governance and there is growing disfranchisement of the citizens from the institutions. A decade after independence, public services remain very poor, education weak and access to justice remains difficult.
Disfranchisement and the growing gap between people and institutions/elites, throughout the region, risk the much-needed social cohesion to implement reforms. Political and societal cohesion are vital for reforms. There are three ways to describe the reform agendas taking place short of the political and social cohesion in the Western Balkans:
- The government uses the reform agenda as a tool to fight against the opposition,
- The opposition (former governments) oppose the reforms fearing loss of control over the segments of rule of law institutions and informalities they had established while in the government and fear of repercussions.
- The reform processes that have become a contentious agenda between the government and the opposition with a real opposition from both sides.
5. Populism driving toward ethnic nationalism and conflicts- Populism in Europe means becoming anti EU and campaigning against migration. In the Western Balkans populism means becoming nationalistic, driving ethnic policies and rhetoric of conflict. What former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski did between 2008 and 2016, Serbia and Kosovo risk emulating in the case of no agreement, or in the absence of a continued and consolidated dialogue, which seems unlikely. Tensions are visibly growing on either side of the border.
Some WB leaders have made good friends within the EU. Member States that are against enlargement insist on the fundamentals, RoL reforms and standards. Those who undermine their own RoL standards support the enlargement. Some WB elites look to the latter, i.e Hungary, for support and cooperation.
6. Forms of state capture: governing and corrupted elites have money to obtain power. Twenty years after the conflicts, governments and elites have become wealthier. State institutions are no longer poor, elites are rich and governments have lots of money to buy and obtain public support. Salaries of public servants, judges, professors, teachers have become solid. Civil servants have become loyal to the governing structures and help them maintain the status quo. Those factions will not threaten the government and will not pursue any change or reform, unless a larger section of society i.e. the middle class rise up and demand reform.
7. The large financial support EU gives to the governments to implement and support reforms is however very little. The money Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, N. Macedonia get from EU is very little in comparison to the money the governments have in their hands. The EU money, in their view, is slow, rigid and with delayed public benefit. With the political economy in place, the elites are attracting a lot more money that partly goes to their governments and partly to their pockets and associates. It works very well, in practice.
8. To achieve societal transformation in the Western Balkans, as the EU credible enlargement perspective notes, the approach should change too. EU funds and programmes should reach societies, students, universities, NGOs and citizens’ groups who are capable of change. The local demand for reforms should be supported by encouraging the pressure to grow and come from the bottom up. Without the funds and support, EU values cannot be embedded in these societies. The funds ought not to to the governments that do not want to implement reforms. And it is not only about how much money; it is also about consistency of the policy and approach.
9. Kosovo’s EULEXshouldfully depart and leave space for a new initiative that is not just a similar initiative repackaged under a different name. The EU should engage a strong and concrete undertaking, like the PRIEBE mission for all countries. The report stemming from the PRIEBE mission was comprehensive, concrete, simple and action-driven. It was made public and earned the support of all, which secured the success of the agenda.
10. EU pull factor works well when there is one.
Kosovo successfully implemented reforms related to the visa liberalisation process. Macedonia and Albania are doing a lot to push the agenda forward for the EU accession process. Yet, with the slackening pull factor of the EU, and with the growing disconnect of citizens together with the elites who have not yet seen real benefits of the reforms, one can conclude that Western Balkans societies have a long way to go to irreversibly become solid democracies, but together with the EU we have to fight to maintain and sustain the progress made so far.
I finish where I started with this note; the real reforms and societal transformations will take place in the Western Balkans, only with a strong EU pull factor for the region.