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Sunday, 3 May 2015

Global approaches to rule of law promotion in the Western Balkans

Jonathan Scheele (SEESOX Associate; Senior Member, St Antony's College, Oxford)

On 11 March 2015, Pierre Mirel, former Director for the West Balkans in the European Commission, and Erwan Fouere, former EU Head of Delegation in Skopje, gave a joint seminar, chaired by Richard Caplin. They spoke on the experience of EU promotion of Rue of Law (RoL) in the Western Balkans and the new EU Member States.

Pierre Mirel began by recalling a recent report highlighting the mass nature of corruption in the Western Balkans and the priority that young leaders across the area gave to RoL – “the first challenge”. Comparing the current enlargement process with that of the fifth enlargement[1], he stressed that the E’s “new approach” made a significantly greater effort to tackle issues of RoL, corruption and public administration reform. Following the fifth enlargement, corruption levels in the new Member States remained high and the Stockholm programme was beginning to look at RoL issues inside the EU. Even though Croatia’s enlargement negotiations included a chapter on RoL, it was opened far too late in the process.
Thus the new approach – a condition for opening negotiations with Montenegro – required RoL to be tackled first, on the basis of detailed action plans and a measurable track record, with progress in other areas of the negotiations conditional on progress on RoL. This was an approach based on detailed examination of concrete elements and should prove a strong tool in RoL promotion.

However, it only applied once accession negotiations were opened, not in the run-up to them. He pleaded for adoption of a similar approach by all governments, backed by ownership of the reform process by civil society, through the involvement of NGOs in developing government action plans. A further weakness is the absence of any clear basis in the EU acquis for Public Administration Reform. This was another area where strong civil society involvement was vital. There was no room for the naivety shown in the fifth enlargement, where the strong political consensus in favour of accession led to an underestimation of the lack of real reform of judiciaries and public administrations.

Erwan Fouere pointed out that the post-conflict societies of the Western Balkans still faced issues from the past that were not yet put to bed. Any approach to RoL needed to focus less on institutions and more on a coherent set of values. Three years down the orad with the new approach, the picture remained pretty bleak, with the latest reports giving a list of all the possible ills that could affect society. Where did the fault lie?

Certainly with the countries, where the vested interests of political elites, a lack of political will and populist tendencies combined to hinder progress. But on the EU side, its weakened leverage, as in Macedonia and Bosnia, had had a direct impact on country performance. Enlargement was no longer a popular issue within the EU, while some Member States – such as Hungary – were hardly setting the best example, especially in a situation where the EU seemed to lack the political will to address the situation. This seriously affected the EU’s transformative power in the Western Balkans.

He also noted that the EU was no longer the only player in the region. Russia was being much more assertive, with a substantial increase in Russian embassy staff in many of the capitals.

What more could the EU do? He felt that a more prescriptive approach was needed, underpinned by a more effective way of ensuring that a “track record” actually means something, with adequate financial and human resources devoted to effective implementation. The EU needed to show more determination – and even greater intrusiveness, while promoting a much more active role for civil society. The media has a bad record in the region and the EU also needs to do much more to support it. He pointed to the current situation in Macedonia, where a wiretapping scandal highlighted corruption and election rigging; the responsible EU Commissioner had visited Skopje, despite warnings, and had simply kept quiet. This was interpreted as giving licence to act with impunity.

Change – and reform – are only possible with pressure from the international community. The EU’s approach on RoL is good, but its method of implementation – and the language of its progress reports – need to change, if it is to regain its credibility in the Balkan region and beyond (e.g. Ukraine).

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These were two complementary presentations, warts and all, of the EU’s approach to RoL promotion in the Western Balkans. The challenge remains to establish and sustain a constituency within each country that can support international efforts to promote reform. The EU needs to re-establish the credibility of the accession perspective and of its real commitment to ensuring implementation of its shared values; but it will not succeed unless internal ownership of reform can be sustained.

[1] 2004 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia) and 2007 (Bulgaria, Romania)

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