EU facing a challenge in the Balkans that is largely of its own making, writes Toby Vogel

The sources of the latest crisis lie in the EU’s unwillingness to confront nationalist leaders determined to cement their power by wrecking the progress the region has made since the end of various armed conflicts in the 1990s
Source: Alamy

By Toby Vogel

Toby Vogel is a co-founder and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council based in Brussels.

01 Dec 2021

The immediate challenge comes from the Bosnian Serb leadership under Milorad Dodik, who announced a walk-out from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s central institutions, including the armed forces.

Dodik was triggered by the imposition of a genocide denial law by the international community’s high representative in the country, Valentin Inzko, in July. Dodik’s separatist agenda, largely backed by Belgrade and Moscow, is in sync with the segregationist agenda of the main Bosnian Croat party, the HDZ, backed by Zagreb.

Together, the Serb and Croat push to further hollow out Bosnia’s already weak central institutions constitutes the most serious challenge to the constitutional order put in place by the 1995 Dayton peace accords.

Instead of pushing back against Dodik and the HDZ, EU diplomacy has done everything it can to accommodate their demands, in concert with the United States.

EU-led talks on electoral reform are largely designed to ensure that the Croat seat on the three-member Bosnian presidency goes to the nationalist HDZ.

And during a visit to Sarajevo, Mostar and Banja Luka last week, enlargement commissioner Olivér Várhelyi stated explicitly that the genocide denial law was up for negotiation as well, alongside the issue of whether the central institutions or the sub-state entities should be in charge of state property (another core demand by Dodik).

"Since the EU took leadership of the “international community” in Bosnia some 15 years ago, the underlying theory that the pull of eventual membership in the EU would drive the country’s democratic transformation has been thoroughly discredited"

Várhelyi’s stunning admission that the EU is willing to find a “compromise” on the genocide denial law - that is, letting Dodik get away with denying that genocide took place in Srebrenica in 1995 - points to a larger issue: the EU’s lowest common denominator approach to the Balkans is shaped by its own illiberals, above all Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who put Várhelyi in his job with assistance from Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Orbán visited Dodik in his hometown of Laktaši in early November, at the height of the secession crisis; and opposition figures have told the Democratization Policy Council that EU diplomats this week tried cajoling them into accepting changes to the election law by pointing to several EU capitals that might be happy with the country’s break-up.

Since the EU took leadership of the “international community” in Bosnia some 15 years ago, the underlying theory that the pull of eventual membership in the EU would drive the country’s democratic transformation has been thoroughly discredited.

The intervening years have produced ample evidence that the membership prospect is insufficient to drive meaningful reform: incumbent elites have learned to game the policy and play its implementers, while out of fear of instability and a failure to imagine alternatives, the EU and the US have turned into agents of the status quo.

President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia and Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania have exploited this dynamic with great skill to cement their power.

The decline of democratic politics across the region has not, so far, prompted the EU to reassess its strategy and ask why the membership prospect has failed to produce more democratic accountability in the Balkans.

"In the absence of a principled defence by the European Commission of the EU’s foundational values, the European Parliament should take a leadership role to protect the EU’s enlargement policy against subversion by Orbán and his allies"

Both the European Commission and the European External Action Service lack a culture of robust policy review, which has opened space for ad-hockery, bureaucratic inertia, or indeed policy freelancing.

Whenever a crisis occurs (such as the large-scale migratory movements of 2015) or is engineered by bad-faith actors (such as various secession threats by Dodik), the EU defaults to a transactional mode focused on the short term, reinforcing existing power relations on the ground and siding with the spoilers.

The EU’s fixation on superficial stability and its distaste for reassessing its policies combine with the Commission’s deep-seated obsession with process over outcome. These are the conditions that hand the EU’s illiberals, who have now turned into the most ardent advocates of enlargement, disproportionate influence over the EU’s relations with its neighbours and the process of admitting new members.

In the absence of a principled defence by the European Commission of the EU’s foundational values, the European Parliament should take a leadership role to protect the EU’s enlargement policy against subversion by Orbán and his allies.

MEPs of all, groups should come together to demand accountability from those in the Commission and the External Action Service whose actions empower illiberals across the Balkans. This is not a party-political issue but a question of fundamental values - and of good policy.

Weakening the rule of law and democratic politics of future members, or even indeed simply neighbours, is not in the EU’s interest.

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