The traditional annual European Commission Report on the development of Western Balkan countries seeking to join the European Union (EU) hasn’t caused much buzz in the states it addresses. Although the evaluations are mostly concerned with either a shortage or complete absence of improvement in most relevant areas to join the EU, it’s difficult to establish who was less agitated about it, the politicians in power or the citizens.
This isn’t about the COVID-19 pandemic devouring all other topics. These one-of-a-kind “overviews of the current state of affairs” were not hugely important before either, but they have periodically succeeded in opening up public discussion on the slow pace of reforms and applying pressure on the region’s lethargic governments. After the lack of attention to this year’s reports, one could go so far as to say that currently there is no interest at all.
The feeling of profound discomfort
In order to understand this decline into irrelevance, we will dig deeper into the shortcomings that turned into their trademarks.
While reading the new reports and looking back at the older ones, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of profound discomfort. The problem doesn’t only lie in the low grades assigned therein, with the reports often listing raw facts, such as corruption, nonfunctional institutions, and the like. The primary source of this discomfort is based on a strong impression that the reports’ authors are frequently failing to mention key issues they set out to address.
One doesn't have to be an expert in Serbia's internal policies to figure out that the Serbian parliament was reduced to a mediocre reality show a long time ago.
For instance, in the chapter on democratic institutions in Serbia, the report notes that Parliament has been in session for just six weeks since the introduction of the state of emergency, which had “limited its capabilities to monitor the executive branch of power during this period.”
One doesn’t have to be an expert in Serbia’s internal policies to figure out that the Serbian parliament was reduced to a mediocre reality show a long time ago, where the ruling majority is routinely outvoting and diminishing the opposition parties, and not acting as a corrective against the government in power. Noting that the lack of sessions has limited the Parliament in performing any duties, except for the prolonged mechanical outvoting of laws under the supreme leader’s command, we are reminded of the nerd-type high school repetition of definitions, and not of a report produced by experts who are well-versed on the topic.
A different chronic issue these reports suffer from lies in the fact that we are witnessing plenty of instances of particularly earnest processes with potentially long lasting consequences being treated with ease and insufficient attention.
After criticism from the Venice Commission, a part on the freedom of expression in Albania notes that the draft amendments of the law on media have been reviewed. The report states briefly that the changes are not in accordance with international standards and may lead to an increase in censorship and self-censorship but maintains that Albania is still “moderately prepared to join the EU,” at least with regards to its freedom of expression practice.
Since this country is on the verge of introducing draconic fines for the “crime” of broadly defined “reputational damage,” it is unclear how it made its way into this category of states. The same applies to the rapporteurs who obviously don’t have a clue that the degradation of criticism presented in and control of the media provides the authorities with carte blanche to consolidate their positions.
Praise and contradiction
Analogous to this, the lack of reform of the election process in Montenegro — including the revision of electoral rolls, the misuse of state resources in party campaigns, the verification of signatures for candidates and similar basic elements — is briefly noted as a topic “that is still on hold,” as if it were some belated McDonald’s order, and not one of the key mechanisms that kept DPS in power for three whole decades.
The European Commission reports always list something praiseworthy, even though it could mean sliding into the realm of contradictions.
In the same manner, it is casually stated that there haven’t been any further developments in the investigation on the misuse of Montenegrin state money for partisan purposes, which was launched back in 2012. A somewhat harsher wording may be put forth on the tenth anniversary of the absence of any action taken in this regard but experience teaches us that we shouldn’t get our hopes up.
Thirdly, an impression is created that, no matter how much the plutocrats and oligarchs ignore last year’s recommendations, the European Commission reports always list something praiseworthy, even though it could mean sliding into the realm of contradictions.
This is how North Macedonia is praised for its market economy improvements, despite the prevalence of undeclared work, an informal economy, and smuggling. Kosovo is “moderately prepared” to fight against corruption, although it’s mentioned that it is widely spread, and that a job at the civil service can only be obtained through individual contacts.
Serbia has achieved “some improvement” in the fight against corruption and organized crime, although members of mafia clans are killing each other in broad daylight, while the upper and middle partisan echelons are virtually above the law.
However, the biggest problem of all reports lies in the fact that they aren’t investing any efforts (from their fragmentary observations) in drawing conclusions on the condition of countries considered or are in any way trying to present their core issues in proper terms.
For example, in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, descriptions such as “absence of improvement,” although stated item by item, fail to even suggest the scope of the state’s institutional paralysis and it being turned into feudal estates of the political class.
Annual findings of getting stuck in quicksand, with no serious EU initiative to deal with the quicksand or at least label it as the primal problem, have been divested of any meaning.
The neglect toward the constant poisoning of the public opinion means reducing inter-state relations to paperwork and protocols without regard for real life.
The European Commission report grades Serbia well for its regional cooperation, naming improvements such as the so-called “Mini Schengen” zone but simultaneously ignores the reality of these relationships. There are currently no proper relations with Croatia, nor Bosnia and Herzegovina, and even Montenegro, while the inflammatory rhetoric of Serbian ministers is accompanied by incendiary headlines from government-controlled tabloids.
The neglect toward the constant poisoning of the public opinion means reducing interstate relations to paperwork and protocols without regard for real life.
The reports seem divested of reality, both due to their inability to present the real big picture but also because we are reassured each time that governments and state heads who are doing their jobs poorly will not suffer any significant consequences.
Even though many of our leaders have carelessly plunged into autocratic tendencies and corruption, we are still witnessing their cordial handshakes with enlargement commissioners, after which they are given a free hand to wink at the camera and cynically accept responsibility for the actions they will never be held accountable for.
Therein lies the most profound problem of all: The European Union doesn’t want to have off-balanced, problematic statelets in the Western Balkans but still finds their leaders quite satisfactory partners, even though those leaders are the ones who are keeping these states in their present condition to begin with.
As long as this is the case, the EU is going to constitute one of the root issues, the consequences of which the Union lists year after year.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.