For the past 15 years, Euro-Atlantic integration was supposed to drive the democratic transformation of the Western Balkans. Yet the prospect of membership in the European Union and NATO has proven insufficient for incumbent elites to undertake meaningful democratization, and the EU and the U.S., out of fear of instability and a failure to imagine alternatives, have turned into agents of the status quo. As a result, democratic politics has been in decline.
The EU now recognizes that the continuation of current policies will not deliver on the democratic promise, nor safeguard the stability of the six countries of the Western Balkans (WB6). Russia’s increasing assertiveness in the region has generated a sense of urgency among Western liberal democracies about a policy rethink. This momentum should be used for a truly transformational agenda for the WB6, an agenda that will have to contend with endemic corruption and state capture.
Several elements are coming together to make this a favorable moment for a reset of EU-WB6 relations. A sense of unease in EU capitals about looming instability in the region might translate into a more strategic and political approach. The European Commission will be under new leadership in 2019 and should be tasked with a comprehensive enlargement policy review. The U.K. might use Brexit to act outside the constraints of the EU in supporting the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration. The Commission’s WB6 Strategy adopted in February 2018 provides useful building blocks for a new approach and a diagnosis of what has gone wrong in years of declining democratic standards across the region. The EU, its member states, and other liberal democracies must refocus their efforts in the region towards democratic transformation.
A reset would also help reframe the enlargement narrative in favor of a transformation narrative and loosen the fixation on dates and deliverables. The moment of accession is not the end-point of processes of democratization and political and institutional reform, nor should it be the end-point of EU support and conditionality.
An enormous investment of resources, policy attention and political capital made over more than two decades is at risk; indeed, for the EU, failure to help the WB6 achieve their full democratic transformation would undermine the central narrative of Europeanization – of a societal, political, and economic transformation driven by the prospect of EU membership.