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EU’s ‘new approach’, democratization and the problem of stateness in the WB

The current “business as usual” policy of enlargement, or the first scenario of the Balkans in Europe Policy paper, deals with the advantages, and pitfalls, of the EU’s capacities to foster stalling democratization in the Western Balkans.  Any analysis of the potential for enlargement policy turning around the weak record of democratization in the Balkans has to take into account the innovations of the ‘new approach,’  when compared to the previous policy of enlargement; and the kinds of problems encountered by the EU during this wave of enlargement, particularly the challenges of contested statehood in the Balkans.

Revisions of enlargement conditionality

The EU’s ‘new approach’ has transformed the standard policy of enlargement, which was previously applied to candidates in Central and Eastern Europe. The tools of enlargement have been revised according to the lessons learned from the previous rounds of enlargement. They also reflect the growing concerns with the difficult, multi-layered, post-communist, post-conflict and post-nationalist transformation across the Balkans.

Already, in 2006, the Renewed Consensus on Enlargement, which followed the opening of accession negotiations with Croatia, alleged the application of ‘strict conditionality at all stages of the negotiations,’ and announced that ‘difficult issues such as administrative and judicial reforms and the fight against corruption will be addressed at an early stage.’

This shift triggered new measures to put pressure on the new candidates in the waiting room of enlargement. The changes were first put into practice during the negotiations with Croatia: a new chapter on judiciary and fundamental rights was extracted from the old chapter on justice and home affairs; a system of benchmarks were introduced to open and conclude each negotiating chapter; and pre-accession monitoring was invented to supervise the country’s track record of implementation before the ratification of the accession treaty.

The experience of Croatia has brought other innovations, which have, overall, consolidated the ‘new approach,’ and informed the framework of negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia. Rule of law chapters will be the first opened, in order to allow the maximum time for the establishment of a track record of reforms. Interim benchmarks will be introduced, in order to allow the EU to bring up specific urgent issues, when they arise, during the negotiations. Finally, a suspension clause will be added to ensure balanced progress between the negotiated chapters.

New innovations - clear conditions, the prioritization of the areas of rule of law and the monitoring of the process of implementation have also spilled over in EU relations with other Balkan countries - Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Indeed, new measures have by and large addressed some of the most problematic aspects of EU conditionality, namely EU’s lack of clarity on the expected reforms; the use of low thresholds in the assessment of candidate’s compliance; ad-hoc and vague monitoring; and a progress of relations that is independent of the country’s compliance with the EU’s set of criteria.

Domestic challenges in target countries

By the 2000s, countries in the WB have certainly moved on, vis a vis the vicious circle of nationalism, violent ethnic conflict and authoritarianism that had locked their distinct path of transition. Exclusionary nationalist politics have abided, and increasingly, yielded to more pragmatic parties, betting their fortunes on the process of EU integration. The major transformation of nationalist politicians and sectors of the political spectrum into EU advocates is a big achievement across the region. The other big achievement is that EU membership has increasingly become the consensual goal of the electorates, who now evaluate their politicians according to promises and progress shown in the process of EU integration.

Despite the increasing consensus on the goal of accession, what has not changed is informal resistance of domestic elites to reforms that challenge their control on power, and different nuances of the captured state.  This is shown in stagnant indicators of rule of law – corruption, political-subservient judiciary, weak state institutions and low trust of citizens in their own institutions–which have remained about the same, or worse, during the last decade, since the EU has applied its enlargement instruments. Obviously, WB elites have been reluctant to respond to EU conditions on the area of rule of law. In this sense, EU innovations that come with the ‘new approach’ have hit the nerve and hone conditionality precisely where it has not worked.

EU conditionality, however, even in its revised ‘stricter’ shape, works through existence and the strengthening of domestic conduits of reform: 1) reformist domestic elites should be able to prioritise EU requirements and 2) functioning state institutions should be able to coordinate and conduct reforms on the ground.

In the context of the increasing consensus on enlargement, it is easier for the EU to energise domestic elites and party machines through the carrots it offers. Poor- functioning state structures, however, are much more difficult to tackle and require more elaborate strategies.

Indeed, functioning state capacities have shaped new divisions between states who are able to respond to EU and those who cannot. Consolidated, even if not fully, efficient states  – Serbia and Montenegro already in the process of accession negotiation, and Albania lining up to be next in the queue – have been able to coordinate policy solutions around the EU goals. Stricter EU conditions, and the offer of EU rewards, can enforce political commitment to painful reforms by neutralising those institutional and political veto players, who are interested in keeping the status quo.

Less consolidated states that lack an agreement on the borders of the political community – Bosnia, Kosovo and to some extent Macedonia – have it more difficult to reach the will and capacities to conduct necessary reforms. In these states, politics are ensnared in endless conflicts over who belongs to the state, and how to serve the interests of particular groups and interests within the state. The functioning of the “carrot of membership” requires some unitary state authority able to steer particularistic interests and coordinate divided state structures. Contested states should, therefore, be treated as a different category in need of a different set of solutions oriented to first and foremost build up a hierarchical state authority.

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