The willingness to resolve bilateral disputes, foster reconciliation and strengthen rule of law in the Western Balkans has never been at a lower level. On the one hand, the EU’s carrot and stick policy approach has offered no incentives for a while now, and the latest decision against opening negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, despite the fact that at least one of the countries has delivered what has been requested, has once again called into question the credibility of the enlargement policy. Indeed, the fact that North Macedonia has been played by the EU after having resolved the decades-long issue cannot be a stimulating factor for the resolution of other outstanding problems in the Balkans. On the other hand, Western Balkan autocrats are not very interested in the abovementioned processes if the EU membership is not on the horizon, while other power structures that could trigger change are either experiencing a creativity crisis or spend their energy on particularistic interests. In such conditions, democracy suffers the most, as even the processes that have brought about certain positive changes influenced by EU’s policy of conditionality are now experiencing a trend of reversibility.
In an effort to reduce the damage it has caused primarily to North Macedonia, but also to the entire Western Balkans, France has recently come up with a proposal to overhaul the accession process. Although good when it comes to its principles, this proposal still envisages a gradual accession to the EU and allows member states six times more opportunities to veto and block a country on its European path. Furthermore, it is problematic that the French proposal changes the overall structure of the accession process, as this is certainly not fair to countries that have been negotiating membership for some time. In addition, the document itself does not deal with bilateral disputes and does not adequately respond to the challenges with regard to the rule of law. While the proposal is yet to be considered and developed at EU level, the following issues need to be tackled by the new methodology:
- Preventing a primacy of political gains over merit-based decision-making in the EU;
- Establishing a clear policy of penalization and sanctioning based on the results of the rule of law reform or a lack thereof: accession should be based on precise and specific annual priorities in the area of rule of law and their fulfilment should represent a basis for incentives and sanctions.
When it comes to the countries of the Western Balkans, although they have never experienced democracy as such, thirty years since the establishment of a multiparty system, it is time for change to occur from within and not primarily under external pressure. For this to be possible, a number of preconditions need to be met, as highlighted in “Legacy Issues and the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Slow Progress and Countless Obstacles”. However, establishing a culture of lawfulness is a prerequisite. Citizens need to have sufficient knowledge, interest and trust in order to influence the rule of law and apply its principles on a daily basis.