“Again, this still remains the technical part of the negotiation process, while the political one at the EU level, unfortunately, still has primacy.”
A more active engagement of the European Union (EU) in the Western Balkans is urgently needed, and keeping the region at a decent distance is not good for reforms, but also for the credibility of the Union and its transformative power, said the director of the Politikon network Jovana Marovic.
Nine members of the European Union have invited Foreign Minister Josep Borrell to hold a strategic debate on the Western Balkans and their prospects at a meeting of foreign ministers in April.
In the second half of this year, Slovenia will take over the presidency of the EU Council, which, as Marovic said, will affect the messages that will be heard from the EU level.
“But, apart from supporting the enlargement process and the efforts of the Western Balkans in approaching the EU, I do not expect significant progress,” Marovic told the MINA agency.
As she stated, the European Commission (EC) is currently working on guidelines for the application of the new methodology in the process of negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia.
Marovic said a lot would depend on that framework in practice, especially when it comes to whether the new instruments will be stimulating and to what extent it will help speed up reforms in key areas related to the rule of law.
“Again, that still remains the technical part of the negotiation process, while the political one at the EU level, unfortunately, still has primacy,” Marovic said.
Hence, as she stated, blocking the opening of negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania was a message for the rest of the Western Balkans.
“Persistently keeping the region at a decent distance is not good for reforms, but also for the credibility of the Union itself and its transformative power, which is increasingly questionable,” Marovic said.
According to her, authoritarian regimes in this area are most responsible for such a thing.
“But it is obvious that what the EU can currently offer the region is not a sufficient framework for democratization, and that its more active engagement is urgently needed,” Marovic said.
Asked whether the integration of the region’s countries had slowed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said the pandemic had shifted its focus from many important topics, including the Western Balkans, although enlargement policy has not been among EU priorities for some time.
“Since the publication of the new methodology in February last year, we have faced many ups and downs in EU policy towards the region, which have been influenced by numerous reasons,” Marovic said.
According to her, the pandemic is a justifiable reason for slowing down the integration process, but the primacy of the political in relation to decision-making on the principle of merit is certainly not.
Answering the question whether she believes that the pandemic “created space” for greater influence of other actors in the Western Balkans, Marovic stated that the lack of EU engagement in this area is an open door for the influence of other actors, which they skillfully use.
As she said, large infrastructure projects, the amount of direct investments, the number of companies they own are signs that their presence in the Western Balkans is significant and that they should not be expected to decrease in the near future.
“This presence now carries with it great risks precisely because of the weak state of the rule of law in the countries of the Western Balkans, which these actors use by imposing their conditions, which again and most often further undermine what has been done in democratization,” Marovic said.
Asked how much the situation in the Western Balkans, especially Montenegro, has changed since the last enlargement debate in August 2019, she said that several countries in the region held elections last year and this year, which brought some more or less earthquake changes.
As Marović stated, the most important are certainly those in Montenegro and Kosovo.
“These changes are connected with the new mood of citizens and their increasingly noticeable hunger for change and calls for countries to fight with ubiquitous corruption, organized crime, clientelism and nepotism,” said Marovic.
With such a vote, she said, citizens are judging the power of previous ruling elites and sending a message that they are increasingly aware of their roles in democratization.
“However, the change of government is only the initial step in eliminating undemocratic practices and cannot automatically and necessarily lead to certain decisive changes, because potential problems, such as unstable support or growing nationalism, can be a big obstacle,” Marovic said.
However, as she stated, such awareness of citizens is pleasing and encouraging and is an important control and corrective factor.
“As for the state of reforms in the Western Balkans, I do not notice a significant difference and progress in the last two years,” Marovic said.