Juncker’s Dangerous Balkan Hopes

Juncker’s Dangerous Balkan Hopes

When it comes to the EU’s Balkan accession plans, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is staunchly insistent that the six candidate countries in the region will not be receiving preferential treatment. Stating that there “will be no fast-tracking” or fixed deadline, and that “we have to put substance over speed”, the realisation seems to have taken hold that seemingly insurmountable problems persist in the region that make the target date of 2025 untenable.

Indeed, Juncker seems to have gently moved away from his previous optimistic statement that EU accession for the region could become a reality from 2025. The Commission’s much-anticipated regional strategy meant to do just that by injecting new momentum into the bloc’s plan for eastward expansion and provide new incentives for EU hopefuls to pursue reforms with new fervour. Yet the Commission’s timeline is hardly long enough to ensure reform beyond mere superficiality.

Still, Juncker’s emphasis on the need for “real” (substantial) progress notwithstanding, Brussels is at risk of doing exactly the opposite – choosing form over substance. This is extremely dangerous for the EU. Until the EU’s Eastern neighbours can prove their mettle as future members, the Commission’s expansionary ideals remain an ill-advised approach threatening to exacerbate the Union’s internal strife and further erode cohesion and stability.

That this realization has taken hold in the European Commission is reflected in the entire narrative surrounding Eastern expansion. While the positive rhetoric is largely maintained, discussions have failed consistently to describe the Balkan’s accession in terms of positives guaranteed to the EU. Rather, it is framed as the lesser of two evils. Juncker unwittingly epitomized this sentiment when he urged that “If we are not prepared to enable our partners in the Balkans to join the EU, the [current political] situation could once again become worse.”

Explaining such defeatism is simple: for the EU, eastward expansion holds many more risks than opportunities. In the Balkan states, crime, institutional failings and corruption are rife throughout. Add to this persistent border disputes between existing EU states and a number of Balkan countries, beside a host of Balkan-to-Balkan territory debates with no real end in sight, and the picture becomes even clearer: an expanded EU is a very bad idea indeed.

Nonetheless, the same old rationales for EU expansions are being repeated almost reflexively. These include the promise of increased prosperity, stability, and peace for the region as a whole, and an overall enrichment for the bloc itself. But events throughout the Balkans have belied these lofty ideals as strikingly naïve. It is not just that the countries are not ready. Worse, they are not even willing to pursue reforms earnestly. Most disheartening of all, this includes the two most advanced countries in the accession process, Montenegro and Serbia.

Montenegro is currently ripping apart at the seams as gang violence skyrockets. The assassination of Dalibor Djuric, a prominent member of the Skaralji clan in the tourist town of Kotor, while in custody in 2016 marked a turning point in exposing the country’s mafia underbelly amid a thriving tourist scene. After a separate killing in Kotor left two men shot in the crowded city centre in broad daylight almost exactly a year later, opposition parties and NGO’s appear at their wit’s end calling upon the government to protect innocent lives. Even so, veteran politician Milo Djukanovic, who has overseen much of Montenegro’s deterioration, looks set to perpetuate the current corruption in this year’s elections. Djukanovic has hinted he will stand again for president, despite serving as either prime minister or president for 25 years consecutively.

Meanwhile, after controversial elections in April last year, Serbia, too, has slid into a devastating autocracy. After securing the presidency, former Prime Minister Aleksander Vucic has tightened his grip on Parliament and the judiciary through the Serbian Progressive Party. As he is focused on securing his power, the fight against transnational drug trafficking is being neglected. The recent arrest of a Serbian drug smuggling gang in Spain illustrates how these criminals are operating freely across the Balkans and deep into the EU, all the while Serbia’s rule of law is deteriorating. The country dropped two positions for overall rule of law performance to a dismal 76 out of the 113 assessed – all this from a country expectant of EU accession within the next decade.

If these conditions do not raise red flags by themselves, the EU needs only consider the disappointing experience of the previous Eastern enlargement whose consequences continue to leak into European politics over a decade later. Take the embrace of Hungary in 2004. The honeymoon period is long over, and yet the country slides further down international corruption leagues with every passing year. The latest Transparency International report gives Hungary a mark of just 45 out of a potential 100, a downgrade of 10 points since 2012. To put this into perspective, the average score for other EU and Western European countries is 66.

A similar story is being played out in Bulgaria and Romania, members since 2007. This year, Bulgaria took over the EU’s rotating presidency at a time when it was awarded the coveted title of “most corrupt” country in the whole of the EU. Indeed, with more than one in five adults thought to have given or taken a bribe, corruption is reaching “state capture” levels. The prosecution of corruption cases is deliberately sabotaged, as in Romania, where the country’s anti-corruption chief faces ousting as part of a controversial state-run justice system overhaul.

The precedent for premature accession hardly paints a pretty picture, as unworthy states of the past remain mired in crime and lacking in rule of law. There is no reason to believe things will be different for the six Balkan states. The EU should learn its lesson and realise that rushing accession for symbolic reasons spells disaster. The Commission must instead be realistic in setting expectations for the Balkan states if it has any hope for true regional reform.

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