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Rule of law is not a panacea for the Western Balkans | December 2019

Rule of law is not a panacea: Resolving post-war inter-ethnic conflicts is central to Western Balkans stability and cooperation

*This article was originally published in Finnish in the fall 2019 edition of foreign affairs magazine Ulkopolitiikka.


Author: Alban Dafa

The October 2019 ‘non-decision’ of the European Council on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania demonstrate an urgent need for the EU to reform its enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans.

The EU has focused its enlargement strategy and conditionality policy on the rule of law. This important, yet elusive, criterion has been seen as a panacea. The hope of the EU has been that rule of law reforms would lead to regional peace and stability and thus greater regional integration. Central to this model has been the reform pace of each individual country rather than regional cooperation. Inevitably, important regional issues have been either sidelined or considered within the limits of this state-centric enlargement agenda.

Lack of reform momentum, an increasing trend of concentration of power, and unresolved post-war regional disputes call for a strategic reorientation to ensure that the Western Balkans are peaceful, stable, and prosperous. Whilst maintaining the strict criteria for rule of law progress, the EU must consider its enlargement policy through a regional rather than state-centric lens by prioritizing regional problems as prerequisites for peace, stability, and prosperity.

The conditionality policy has sought to improve governance and reform justice systems. Yet chronic parliamentary boycotts in Albania, Serbia, and Montenegro, as well as entrenched clientelism and the increasing power of business-political elites suggest that the reforms have failed.

There are two major issues with the current EU strategy on the Western Balkans: the first is structural and the second strategic. It is structurally contradictory that the EU promotes rule of law reform through close cooperation with regional leaders like Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia, Edi Rama of Albania, and Milo Đukanović of Montenegro who preside over corrupt institutional structures. Furthermore, it is strategically misguided for the EU to prize rule of law over regional cooperation on trade, infrastructure investment, and good neighborly relations. The inevitable consequences of this policy choice have been unemployment, poor economic opportunities, and corruption which feature prominently and constantly throughout the region.

The World Bank has suggested regional economic integration to facilitate transition towards a sustainable growth model. Despite nominal agreement on the need for regional integration by Western Balkan leaders, unresolved ethnic and socio-political conflicts have precluded substantial integration initiatives.

The EU’s policy approach on regional issues has either been technical and conditional or left to the will of Western Balkan leaders. The Pristina-Belgrade dialogue has been focused on technical agreements under the ‘normalization’ process rather than on a comprehensive settlement. Meanwhile, in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina no meaningful attempt has been made to build a coherent state structure and reform the current ethnocentric governance.

A regionally based approach for Western Balkans enlargement would require the EU to work on two main tracks. First, it is necessary to pursue a vigorous regional diplomatic agenda focused on securing a comprehensive settlement between Serbia and Kosovo and a substantive constitutional reform that fosters inter-ethnic integration and cooperation in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Second, institutional structures which are central to the establishment and success of the Regional Economic Area – Regional Cooperation Council and CEFTA (Central European Free Trade Agreement) – need to be reformed. CEFTA needs to be an effective inter-governmental organization regulating regional trade matters, whereas the RCC would have to undergo structural reforms to effectively manage the implementation of regional investments, energy and transport infrastructure projects and coordinate with the EU Commission. Investment in the energy, transportation, and digital markets must be prioritized to facilitate both regional and EU integration.

Without addressing these critical issues, regional and EU integration will be elusive. Attempts to create a Regional Economic Area to increase trade, investment, mobility, and connectivity will come to naught if latent post-war conflicts are not comprehensively addressed through binding agreements based on human and civil rights. Addressing the current ethnic and interstate conflicts will facilitate cooperation on trade and investment within the region, and provide a stable and conducive regional environment for foreign direct investments.

The EU and its member states consistently underscore the European perspective of the Western Balkans. Accession of Western Balkans countries is a strategic investment in the EU’s own political, security, and economic interests. But the EU has yet to take full advantage of the trade and investment opportunities that a market of 20 million – with great needs for infrastructure and investment – has to offer.

Putting regional post-conflict disputes on the top of the enlargement strategy would secure peace and stability for future generations and ensure the European strategic orientation of the region. The EU is uniquely placed to succeed in this endeavor given its existing cultural, economic, and political ties to the region.