From Zagreb to Zagreb: Twenty Years of Stagnation at Political Reform

20 maj 2020 14:07

On May 6th, twenty years after the first one, leaders of the EU and of the Western Balkans states, the so-called ‘WB6’, reconvened at the second Zagreb Summit that took place online due to the pandemic. In 2000 the EU offered them the Stabilisation and Association process (SAp), consisting of Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAAs) and membership negotiations as steps towards membership. While Croatia joined in 2013, the unstated ambition was that by now WB6 would have also joined or in a firm path towards it, an expectation based on the fact that former Communist countries that joined in 2004 did so in fifteen years.

Two decades on, all WB6 are not even halfway to membership. Between then and now, they are either implementing their SAAs or negotiating very slowly. Yet meaningful political reform required under political criteria has been largely stagnant. Fragile and fragmented parliaments and short-lived governments as democratic institutions; insufficiently free and fair elections; threats to free speech and media freedom; violation of numerous human rights; inefficient public administrations; serious lack of rule of law marred by corruption, crime and weak judiciaries; and bilateral political issues as far as negation of the very existence of a neighbouring state. The list is long, basically showing that political reform at best been stagnant and at worst regressing, deepening a path dependency manifested by need for international intervention to solve endless deadlocks because of petty, narrow interests of powerful political actors and individuals.

There are remarkable contrasts that are symptomatic of stagnant political reforms. One is political and bureaucratic barriers to inclusive participation in EU-sponsored regional initiatives in a context of their mushrooming. Another is openly undermining a neighbour’s statehood on the world stage, combined with formal commitment to a dialogue bound to lead to its recognition. Another is an aggressive de-recognition campaign internationally, open talk of delineating borders along ethnic lines and tacit violation of free trade arrangements inciting retaliatory countermeasures, in a context of formal commitment to good neighbourly relations and free trade. There is also open denial of past human rights violations in inter-state relations and neglect of current ones domestically, combined with a formal commitment to the highest human rights standards in front of the EU. These and many others have been seriously hampering any political reform that would show real commitment to regional or EU integration. The message for the EU is a serious credibility problem vis-à-vis the mission of upholding European values and principles, for societies electing leaders much more zealous in manipulating their democratic polities’ rules of the game than in political reform they so humblebraggingly promise the EU and their citizens.

Given this background of political stagnation, this year’s summit served as an occasion to endorse changes to the EU enlargement policy to be launched by the European Commission in its June Enlargement Strategy. Such policy novelties are overwhelmingly in the approach to its implementation, not its content. Two decades on, the EU still offers WB6 ‘partners’ something as vague as a ‘European perspective’, a status given to post-Soviet countries, through the Eastern Partnership, an arrangement absent the intention of full membership. One may see in this a risk of the enlargement policy moving away from the SAp, an arrangement with the explicit intention of membership. Moreover, by omitting any reference to a potential timeframe of membership, the EU backtracks from the approach, proclaimed in 2018, of taking in the region in three rounds: Montenegro and Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Instead, thanks to domestic pressures against EU enlargement that led to the ‘new methodology’ proposed by the French President Macron, these changes make the enlargement policy bereft of time-boundedness that has in the past greatly incentivized reforms in accession countries.

Moreover, in addition to SAA implementation and accession negotiations going somewhat in parallel, another change is Member States’ extensive direct involvement in the reform process and enhanced decision-making role. Given the unanimity rule, getting all the 27 agreed on a vast array of issues in all areas will certainly make the business of joining the EU much more cumbersome and time-consuming. It will also risk further politicizing decision-making by opening the door to MSs to make decisions based on their narrower, domestic interests, dynamics, and sensitivities, even election cycles. Adding to this an inevitably weakened role of the European Commission as the most competent, objective and neutral driver of the enlargement policy, the result might well make full EU membership much more unpredictable and uncertain for each WB6 state.

Zagreb 2020 was to mark a milestone anniversary of Zagreb 2000, which – by giving a shot at writing the history for the Western Balkans in advance, as the now EU, through its politics of summitry, has been doing for itself during its own coming into age – ambitioned an epochal leap from nations governed in fragile, unfinished states to postnations. Given ethnically-divided and competing pasts – and lacking a regional, let alone a European, public political space and values – it is a formidable task to shape a common political future in the EU for Western Balkans. So much so that it risks being perceived as a highly uncertain choice between fundamental change inspiring irreversible political emancipation and fatiguing stagnation marred by the lure of nationalisms that could propel us into yet more decades of instability reminiscent of the obscure war-torn pasts. All in all, in the eyes of most Albanians, Bosnians, Kosovans, Montenegrins, North Macedonians and Serbians, the gulf between the potentiality and actuality of this task seems as broad and as deep as ever. Perhaps a more important question is for how long we will remain EU’s backyard or, worse, an arena of competition for political and economic influence among other global powers in an increasingly multipolar world in an age of populism.

Two decades on, are we condemned to keep ‘travelling within Zagreb’ only?

*Views expressed are only of the author.


In cooperation of two web portals, Remarker and Sbunker, a series of analysis will be published in the upcoming period in order to promote a critical debate on the current situation in the region of the Western Balkans. 

After last messages received from one of the most influential members of the EU, France, the region has faced one of the greatest challenges in the last 30 years, when countries in the Western Balkans began their difficult path, first into conflicts and then in the process of democratization and european integration. 

The goal of Remarker and Sbunker is to support better understanding of the current trends in the countries of the Western Balkans and raise the awareness on necessity of european integration process, straightening the process of democratization and the rule of law as necessary preconditions for permanent peace and stability in the region. 


You may find the Albanian version here and the Serbian version here.

20 maj 2020

Artan Çollaku