Principles and Values: What Future Role in EU peacebuilding?

1. The EU in a complex polycentric world

In its 2016 Global Strategy, the European Union (EU) outlined its worldview, including its foreign policy objectives and challenges. Broadly, the EU Global Strategy stated that it sought to make Europe stronger: “an even more united and influential actor on the world stage that keeps citizens safe, preserves our interests, and upholds our values.” 29 To achieve this goal, the EU committed that, through its foreign policy, it would strengthen the resilience of states and societies by supporting good governance, accountable instbitutions, and by working closely with civil society.

In recent years, the EU has largely held a defensive position, confronting one crisis after another. These crises have included the impact of the global financial crisis of 2008-2014; considerable geopolitical upheaval, such as a deteriorating relationship with the United States since President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and an increasingly present and rival China and Russia on the international scene; the Syrian civil war; the terrorist attacks of 2014-2017, including the May 2014 Jewish Museum shooting, the March 2016 bombings in Brussels, November 2015 Paris attacks, the July 2016 Nice and December 2016 Berlin truck attacks, and the May 2017 Manchester Arena bombing; the migration crisis of 2015- 2017; the 2016 Brexit referendum, which shocked the very core of the EU integration process; and most recently the ongoing Covid19 pandemic of 2020.

For years, the EU has resembled a pendulum in search of equilibrium as it tries to navigate a Gramscian- like crisis whereby the old is dying and the new cannot be born. But today, as the crises continue, questions arise: has the EU been able to successfully adapt to these shocks? And why has the EU not been able to “give birth” to something truly new in the face of constant change? It is difficult to assess what the future will bring and experts are quick to explain that making predictions during times of crisis can be overstated. In recent months, the post-Covid19 environment has been described as one where there would be increasing multipolarity and competition globally at multiple levels (the economic sphere, political systems, and at the level of values); liberal democracy would be further challenged by rising authoritarianism and populism; threats that transcend borders would be amplified (e.g., pandemics, climate change, increasing inequality and corruption) while ongoing perennial threats (e.g. Iran, North Korea) would meet new ones (artificial intelligence, cyber-attacks, hybrid threats, increased disinformation campaigns). As a result, the global scene is set to become increasingly unpredictable. While a crisis is a call for action, the EU – faithful to realist conceptions of international relations – seems to have merely muddled through. But will this strategy of reaction be enough in a context of constant crisis, unpredictability, and dwindling financial resources?

2. Balancing the European pendulum

The EU sees itself as embodying a key message for the world, as a project that has brought unprecedented peace, prosperity, and democracy. But this project is being questioned today, inside and out of the Union; some even say that the EU has failed to bring peace abroad, questioning the very nature of the European Union, its core raison d’être. In a world that has become increasingly complex, multipolar, contested, and likely to enter another recession (at least in Europe), it is unclear who, at the European level, will ensure that the EU’s normative project – the promotion of democratic values and open societies, the respect of human rights and the protection of rule of law –remains at the heart of EU external action? The 2016 Global Strategy had already expressed the EU’s shift from a principled approach of external action to “principled pragmatism,” whereby principles would “stem as much from a realistic assessment of the strategic environment as from an idealistic aspiration to advance a better world.” 30

The European Commission, as guardian of the EU Treaties, has as its normative baseline the promotion of democratic institutions characterised by rule of law and the respect for human rights. But from Jean- Claude Juncker’s ‘political’ Commission to Ursula von der Leyen’s ‘geopolitical’ Commission, one could think that, in the face of the return of geopolitics, pragmatism has overtaken principles when its role should have been for a stricter implementation of the political conditionality. But a stronger normativity on the side of the European Commission implies a more compliant European Council, that is able to navigate policies that are in line with strategic interests but does not lose sight of the values- based EU. Depending on how it is implemented, the new EU enlargement methodology could be a case in point, bringing an added layer of legitimacy to the accession process by politically supporting (EU Council) the more technocratic assessment of necessary reforms (European Commission) in the region. The way the EU will pursue enlargement would “become more predictable, more credible – based on objective criteria and rigorous positive and negative conditionality, and reversibility – dynamic and subject to stronger political steering,” according to the European Commission’s communication on the new EU enlargement methodology. 31 The fact that this new methodology has allowed for the EU to present a face of unity on EU enlargement—its perennial problem—should not be underestimated.

3. The dangerous stillness of EU enlargement to the Balkans

The fatigued EU enlargement process to the Western Balkans, perceived as such by both the EU and the countries of the Western Balkans, is the result of at least four factors: first, there has been a lack of progress in the integration process, often hijacked by politics, whereby not enough of a tangible ‘European perspective’ was offered to the Western Balkan citizens since the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003; second, EU enlargement has been put on the backburner on numerous occasions as the EU has tried to traverse the different above-mentioned crises; third, EU enlargement has been largely process- based and not enough needs-based; and fourth, the EU’s working hypothesis since the Thessaloniki Summit, when the countries of the Western Balkans were offered a ‘European perspective’, has been that little has changed since then in the region. In that context, managing expectations both in the EU and the countries of the Western Balkans has become frustrating and has created greater illusions. Over the years, EU enlargement has been bogged down with mixed messages to the region, which has been consistent with the EU enlargement approach more broadly. For example, the European Council failed twice to give the green light to EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia, even after that country’s courageous move, in 2018, to change its name and end the 25-year standoff with its neighbouring Greece. For two years, North Macedonia faced intense resistance to EU accession talks from certain Member States, like France, which demanded a more robust enlargement methodology, and from the Netherlands. It was NATO, not the EU, that first embraced North Macedonia as its 30 th member. Only after that did the EU give its long-awaited green light to start its accession negotiations with North Macedonia in March 2020, together with Albania. But even then, the unity at the European Council was compromised by Bulgaria, which added a new potential hurdle to North Macedonia’s EU integration process. On Bulgaria’s request, a statement was attached to the March 2020 Council conclusions that, among other things, insists on scrapping references to the Macedonian language and to the existence of an ethnic Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. As a result, the planned initiation of EU membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania — a goal of Germany’s presidency of the Council of the European Union— has been postponed and was inherited by Portugal, which took over the presidency on 1 st January.

In recent months, the European Commission/EU has responded to the consequences of the Covid19 pandemic in the Western Balkans by most notably mobilising generous funding to help the region. Indeed, during the global pandemic, the EU has treated the Western Balkan countries as privileged partners by granting them access to several initiatives and instruments reserved to EU Member States. This has included joint procurement of medical equipment, exempting the region from the EU’s export authorisation scheme for personal protective equipment, ensuring the fast flow of essential goods, and access to the EU’s supply of testing material. More aid will come through the accession instrument and the investment plan for the region. But concerns are being raised over the lack of strict conditionality on the funds disbursed to the Western Balkans, and some want to ensure that the EU is not playing a geopolitical race of providing more funds than potential regional competitors, like China.

When Germany picked up the rotating Council presidency in July 2020, with fears of the EU is going into recession, the negotiation of the EU’s recovery plan and its next multi-financial framework were the main priorities. In that context and despite repeated EU Member State concerns, including Germany’s, of the geopolitical games played by the EU on Balkan turf, Germany did not have as ambitious a plan for EU engagement in the Western Balkans as the outgoing Croatian Presidency. While Germany has pushed for the effective opening of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, following the European Commission’s publication of the negotiation framework for the two countries, the German Council Presidency has not worked on revitalising the EU facilitated Belgrade-Pristina dialogue to the extent that it could and should. Indeed, Kosovo was not mentioned once in the programme of the German presidency of the Council. 32 This may have been another missed opportunity given the recent developments in Kosovo, like the change of government and President Hashim Thaçi being charged with crimes against humanity by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, the latest elections in Serbia, the recent appointment of former Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak as EU Special Representative for the dialogue, and the direct US re-engagement in the Kosovo status negotiations with an agenda that differs from that of the EU and Germany’s (namely one that could include a possible land swap between Belgrade and Pristina). The programme of the Portuguese presidency of the Council includes only one general sentence on EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, 33 likely pointing to the limited interest in this policy area.

4. Revitalising democratic reforms in the Western Balkans in the context of the EU enlargement process

Keeping the Western Balkans waiting indefinitely for EU membership is a dangerous approach. A more direct and engaging conversation on the format and shape of EU enlargement is needed, beyond the current EU enlargement methodology. Redefining the EU enlargement and EU integration processes in the aftermath of Brexit, Covid19, and the ensuing financial consequences of both, needs to go hand in hand with identifying and redefining the EU’s perspective on the specific problems in each Western Balkan country. In the current environment of constant uncertainty, prolonging the promise of EU integration as something that is always in the future is potentially more dangerous than providing a timeframe that is long-term and therefore unpopular and disappointing.

Political accountability should be built into the EU enlargement process, something the new EU enlargement methodology could facilitate. In that light, the proclaimed approach to EU enlargement, that is, the differentiation among candidate countries according to merit, will be key and should be reinforced. In addition, rather than proposing tentative timelines for EU accession to the Western Balkan countries, it would be more effective to outline specific, clear benchmarks and set firm deadlines. Given that the EU enlargement process is a long-term process, including the Western Balkan countries in the Council configurations that deal with the chapters of the acquis communautaire that they have closed, could keep momentum going for necessary reform. It could also facilitate political buy in as the Western Balkan counties, even with a status of observer (meaning no voting rights) would be able to contribute to the design of key EU policies.

The European Commission’s normative project in the form of political conditionality must go beyond reaching administrating benchmarks checking the legal approximation of rule of law reforms. Rather, it must concentrate more effectively on the implementation of laws and the cultural/organisational change in the public administration. In other words, the European Commission should focus on encouraging overarching laws that affect the governance, the rule of law, and the oversight of institutions in the Western Balkans, rather than being satisfied with tailor-made laws in these countries that regulate small time crime but give too much space for potential state capture and corruption. In response, when key reforms are made, the benefits offered to the countries of the Western Balkans must also be substantial and meaningful to the population. Much hope is put in the new EU enlargement methodology that it will be able to push the integration process in this direction.

The EU’s narrative on the Western Balkans remains tied to the obsolete notions of crisis and insecurity, despite the changes over the years in the region. A more positive narrative, one that accurately reflects the contemporary societal challenges and opportunities in the countries of the Western Balkans is needed. While developmental problems and democratic backsliding are present in the region, there is a new generation emerging in the Balkans that has not been confronted with war and its immediate consequences. This new generation may indeed embody the potential for change and this could be an impetus to redefine EU-Western Balkans relations. Engaging this new generation differently could be one of the lessons from the Covid19 pandemic. During the pandemic and particularly during the lockdown, a number of EU Member States experienced how local level authorities such as mayors and governors can play a potent role in organising and mobilising communities. This devolution of powers could also be applied to EU relations with the Western Balkans.

Moving EU-Western Balkans relations beyond the technocratic approach of the acquis communautaire, the EU should engage in peer-to-peer initiatives, whereby it intensifies its work with trade unions and citizens/activists, independent civil society beyond well-known CSOs and NGOs (especially government-sponsored/supported NGOs, the so-called GONGOs) that are usually located in big urban areas, and increase its work with local authorities. Although European Commission communications, including the 2018 Enlargement Strategy, 34 have repeatedly emphasised the EU’s commitment to support civil society and local authorities in partner countries to enhance governance and strengthen development outcomes, in practice these commitments have been fading away. In fact, the EU has not adequately taken into account local authorities as a key layer of governance in the EU enlargement process, neither in terms of their potential political role, nor in terms of their access to, or the level of, available EU funding for them. This gap was emphasised in the findings of the outsourced evaluation of Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA II), which stated that local authorities have not benefited from sufficient opportunities to implement actions through EU funding. 35 More specifically, think tankers in the Western Balkans point to the fact that local authorities have not had access to direct support funding, capacity-building facilities, or peer-to-peer exchanges and learning in the region or beyond. In addition, there has not been enough support to encourage partnership and stronger cooperation between local

authorities and CSOs, although they are the natural partners in the work for promoting and safeguarding local democracy, nurturing active citizenship and ensuring sustainable local development. Nevertheless, beyond money, what civil society needs and asks for directly from EU leaders is explicit political support. The European Commission, in particular, has a long-standing engagement with civil society actors in the region. At a time when CSOs are coming under increased pressure from national governments, it is important that EU institutions and its Member States, take a clear stand on the importance of alternative, including critical, voices during EU accession negotiations. While direct financial assistance to support civil society was allocated in the IPA I and II, political support has been lacking or decreasing, especially with regard to civil society development and the recognition of civil society’s contribution to increasing government accountability and the sustainability of socio-political reforms. A more bottom-up approach to the new EU integration process would ensure engagement from the local level upwards and support for more meaningful involvement of the civil society and local authorities as key actors for achieving sustainable socio-economic development. Importantly, deeper interaction at the peer-to-peer level between the Western Balkan countries and the EU would increase mutual understanding, people-to-people relations, and make accession less intimidating for both sides. There are numerous issues across the Western Balkans that could nourish such civic initiatives: environmental politics, LBGTQ+ issues, mobility and media freedom, to name a few. Sharing a continent also means that there are shared challenges linking the Western Balkan region to the internal EU agenda. They include the need for a Green New Deal; the fight against rising inequality; the opportunities that digitalisation can offer (the future of work has arrived before we were ready for it); and learning from the failures of governance as well as creating more resilience for better governance. Engaging with the real needs that touch the lives of the population in the Western Balkan countries and investing in economic development could reverse the brain drain caused by young qualified people fleeing these countries, due largely to rampant unemployment.

Engaging the Western Balkan countries on a broader range of policies and with a wider range of actors will allow the EU to identify local problems more precisely. Despite good intentions to offer tailor made solutions to challenges in the Western Balkans, the EU has a set toolbox and instruments to tackle sectoral and systemic administrative deficiencies in the countries where it is present. This, however, gives the impression that the EU is dealing with the Western Balkans as a block, when economic development, youth unemployment, air quality, and brain drain are problems that are challenges that affect all countries, affect each one of them in specific ways demanding tailored responses. which all countries face, they each face very specific challenges in and of themselves.

It is with this in mind that the benefits provided at various stages of the EU enlargement process should be substantial. They should include much more than just access to EU programmes, which are already granted in most cases. The enlargement process could incorporate such initiatives as gradually opening the European Structural and Investment Funds to Western Balkan countries to support the development of infrastructure, extend the use of the EU’s financial stability mechanisms to the region, or even enabling circular migration. These initiatives will be expensive, however, and the question to pose is whether an EU that has struggling to agree on its budget and entering a new cycle of economic recession in the (post-)Covid19 era will be able to afford an ambitious EU enlargement agenda. At the political level, the inclusion of Western Balkan political representatives in different EU bodies, especially the Council configurations, once a chapter of the acquis communautaire has been closed, could help move attention in the Western Balkan countries from the opening of chapters to their closure (when the benchmarks are met). Moreover, such an initiative could help the socialisation of officials working in the public administration of the countries in the region and reinforce the better understanding of the consensual spirit and common EU policies. In addition, it could contribute significantly to strengthening the sense of belonging, networking, making contacts, and transfer of experience from the Member States to the candidates.

At the same time, political accountability, as mentioned above in the context of EU action in the Western Balkans, and responsibility is a two-way street. The Western Balkan leaders also need to live up to the challenges that the European perspective and the EU integration process bring. The most testing conundrums in the Western Balkans are all of a political nature: state capture, weaknesses in rule of law governance and institutions, reconciliation, resolving bilateral disputes and questions of statehood. These will not be overcome without the political resolve and commitment in each of the Western Balkan countries, but also at a regional level.

In that light, it is unfortunate that the plans to create a so-called mini-Schengen that were first made public in October 2019 by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in Novi Sad did not go further. Initially, the idea seemed to be gaining momentum, especially after France blocked the start of membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania at the EU summit of October 2019. At a follow-up meeting in Ohrid, in November 2019, Vucic, Zaev, and Rama had spoken about the creation of a regional market based on the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people, as being key to economic growth and attracting foreign direct investment in the region. Other ideas included the recognition of each other’s professional qualifications, organising student exchanges, developing research and development projects, jointly fighting organised crime and terrorism, and responding to cross-border natural disasters. Regional cooperation in the Western Balkans is of course not new, but this locally instigated initiative could have built on previous work, like the Stability Pact, the Berlin process, the Central European Free Trade Agreement - CEFTA, to name a few, and shown that the leaders of the region are able and willing to take initiative.

Maintaining strong democratic institutions at all levels is the biggest challenge facing all EU Member States and the countries of the Western Balkans. The latest crisis facing Europe, the Covid19 pandemic and its consequences, will be a test to see if European leaders and societies choose retrenchment behind walls, houses, local and national borders, or if European bonds to help each other, debate, invent and organise better solutions on all these fronts will be re-energised for the long-term. These trying times can also be an opportunity for participatory democracy to become vibrant and for citizens to demand that their governments and parliamentarians launch bolder initiatives. The Conference on the future of Europe, which will hopefully include the participation of Western Balkan countries (at governmental and societal levels), could be an instigator for this feat. Pointing to and concentrating on the EU’s added value, especially its normative nature, while rebuilding EU credibility, will be more crucial than ever, starting by solidifying its action and partnerships with its closest and most natural partners, the countries in the Western Balkans.


Dr. Isabelle Ioannides is a Senior Associate Researcher in the Institute for European Studies and a Scholar in the Department of Political Science, at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). She currently works as a Policy Analyst in the European Parliamentary Research Service of the European Parliament, where she engages in policy development and research in support of the legislative oversight that Parliamentary committees and subcommittees conduct on EU external action. Her publications examine EU peacebuilding and statebuilding in transitional societies, including the governance of the security sector, and EU crisis management, concentrating on EU performance in the Western Balkans and the Middle East & North Africa region. She holds a PhD and a Masters of Research in international relations and security studies (University of Bradford, UK), a Masters of Research in political science (Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, France) and a Bachelors in foreign affairs and French literature (University of Virginia, USA).