• 2020-05-08

Zagreb 2000 – Zagreb 2020

Author: Nataša Vučković

“We are meeting in Zagreb at a time when democracy is about to carry the day throughout this region”, was the opening sentence of the Declaration adopted at a historical EU summit in Zagreb in 2000. Times of great optimism, initiation of the stabilisation process and accessing EU financial aid, an open proposal for countries of the Western Balkans to join the European Union in line with the Copenhagen criteria. Twenty years later, on 6 May, the EU and Western Balkans Summit is being held in Zagreb at the end of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, to emphasise solidarity and cooperation in mitigating the social and political consequences of the pandemic, but also to highlight EU priorities in assessing reforms. Of course, this includes the prospects of further integration of the Western Balkans into the EU.

The fact that the Summit was not cancelled due to the current situation is, in itself, a positive sign. Moreover, in addition to the EUR 3.3 bn already allocated, the EU has announced a new investment plan for the Western Balkans for this autumn. In addition to supporting the economy, the plan foresees social development programmes with additional measures in the field of healthcare, education, social aid and youth programmes, therefore, the Western Balkans does not have reason to claim that European solidarity has failed. On the other hand, although the European perspective for the Western Balkans has been confirmed, the word ‘expansion’ has not been used thus far. The reasons for this omission are surely manifold, both in terms of the EU and Serbia. We should be more interested in our own side of the coin, at any rate.

Simultaneously, Freedom House published its annual report ‘Nations in Transit 2020’ at the same time as the Summit. This report indicates serious negative changes in democracy indicators. The countries belonging to one of the lower ranking regimes, ‘transition/hybrid regime’, teetering between authoritative and democratic regimes, are as follows: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Macedonia and Kosovo, and as of this year, Serbia and Montenegro moved from the group of ‘partially consolidated democracies’ to the transition/hybrid regime as well. It’s no consolation that only one EU member state, Hungary, is ranked alongside Serbia.

The eras of ‘democratic victory’ which took place 20 years ago, and the ‘crumbling of the democratic façade’ of which FH speaks today, have nothing in common. From the establishment of democratic institutions, we came to witness the dissolution of such institutions, primarily parliament, and from fair and impartial elections we now have electoral conditions that serve to obstruct political fair play. Going from free media, we now live in a society which allows for media censorship and a world where journalists are unjustly arrested. The one thing that remains a constant are the repetitive slogans frequently used by our leaders telling us how committed they are to leading us towards Europe. On the other side, we are bombarded by regular remainders from the EU that European values and reforms in the field of democracy, the rule of law, combatting corruption and necessary regional cooperation, are key to the success of regional countries in moving closer to the European Union.

The 2020 EU-Western Balkans Summit Declaration has corroborated this trend with a few major additions. Reaffirming strategic commitment to the EU will no longer be enough. ‘Commitment to a credible European perspective’ will be based on focused dedication to remaining on the path towards the European Union and clear communication with the public. In a nutshell, these instructions are clear and intended for all leaders and government officials sending mixed and ambiguous messages, Serbia undoubtedly belonging to this group. You must at all times, at home, in the media, in public speak about European values and the path towards the EU. Of course, the European Union expects us to implement its values and principles, as well as thoroughly and energetically implement its reforms. In this regard, this time the condition is as follows: an increase of EU assistance will depend on visible improvement in the areas of the rule of law and social and political reforms. Simultaneously, the EU demands respect for basic human rights, democratic principles and rule of law during the pandemic, as well.

Statements concerning unity and solidarity between the EU and the Western Balkans in combating the pandemic and its consequences, the announcement of the European economic and investment package for mitigating the consequences of the pandemic are extremely important. In the Declaration, the EU stated very clearly, that its support deserves public acknowledgment considering that it far exceeds the aid provided by others to the region or any individual country of the region. A clear message, primarily to the Serbian president and other officials who spoke about the lack of European solidarity, and continually underplayed the help provided by the EU, forgetting to tally all the programmes and specific projects implemented in domestic hospitals and laboratories over the course of the pandemic. And this time the EU clearly announced greater engagement and cooperation in combating disinformation and other ‘hybrid’ activities undertaken by third countries trying to jeopardise the region’s European future.

Many clear messages have been sent to all those paying attention, in particular, to their intended recipients. The words spoken by leaders and government officials create an echo on the international scene, and more importantly, they tend to linger for longer periods. Meaning, these statements may be put aside for a while, but they are not forgotten.

On the other hand, in the Western Balkans, we are justly disappointed by the fact that the word ‘expansion’ is increasingly less used. The revival of this process would encourage countries to implement reforms with more enthusiasm. This enthusiasm is often diminished by the EU when its passionate criticisms are unequally distributed among those who act contrary to European values, or put democracy, the rule of law and combatting against corruption ‘on hold’ until other important processes are finalised.

This is the text that reflects the views of the author and does not represent the views of either the Balkan Democracy Fund or the Embassies of the Kingdom of Norway in Belgrade.

The text was written as part of a project funded by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshal Fund of the United States (BTD) and the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway in Belgrade.


FCD blog