An overview of EU integration in the Western Balkans

In the history of EU enlargement, Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have generally perceived the EU integration processes as a success story instrumental to their democratic consolidation, with notable improvements in rule of law and minority rights (Freyburg & Richter, 2010: 3). However, even before, some CEE leaders demonstrated that member states can pursue an ‘illiberal state agenda’ within the EU while also contributing to the spread of EU-related conspiracy theories (with Hungary’s Viktor Orban or Poland’s Law and Justice party as the most notable examples). Expectedly, many questioned whether the union would be able to repeat its success story of démocratisation in the Western Balkans (Laurent & Scheppele, 2017). Still, the EU’s open-door policy towards the WB was initially met with near-unanimous support by both political elites and the public in the region, as the ‘European perspective’ provided a sense of direction and meaning following the violent collapse of Yugoslavia (Belloni, 2016). Hence, in the early 1990s, all six (now seven) successor countries (Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina) declared EU integration as one of their key strategic objectives. These countries (along with neighbouring Albania, but with the exception of Slovenia), have since become known as the ‘Western Balkan’ countries in EU-related correspondence. This label did not imply that these countries would be jointly accepted to the EU, as each had to independently meet the required criteria by aligning the thirty-five accession chapters of the European Union’s Acquis Communautaire with national legislation. Thus far, only Croatia has joined the EU (in 2013), while the rest of the countries have found themselves locked in similarly prolonged integration processes that remain far from complete, and which will likely not result in membership at least until 2025 (Grieveson, Gruebler & Holzner, 2018). Serbia and Montenegro have opened accession talks with Brussels, while the other candidates are yet to formally start synchronising their legislation with that of the EU.

In addition to the challenges experienced in their EU integration processes, all WB countries are also experiencing difficulties in their démocratisation processes. These observations are confirmed by analytical indexes of media literacy (Lessenski, 2018; 2019) and political stability in the WB countries.3 According to the democracy index, as of 2018, the former Yugoslav countries are categorised as either ‘flawed democracies’ (Croatia and Serbia) or ‘hybrid regimes’ (the rest of the countries).4 All these factors contribute to increasing popular disillusionment with the EU within candidate member states, the flourishing of pro-EU (yet not always fully democratic) regimes, as well as lack of clarity and consistency in the EU’s approach to the WB integration process (Bieber, 2018; Kmezic, 2019). At the same time, an increasingly lenient and ‘stabilitocratic’ approach from the EU towards the governments in the region, has made these governments strongly dependent on their pro-EU credentials for their political survival (Bieber, 2018; Stronski & Himes, 2019).

In the following sections, we demonstrate how a range of domestic and foreign actors, media and citizens themselves have fuelled Eurovilifying and Eurofundamentalist discourses including conspiracy theories and mythologised narratives regarding the EU and the EU accession process in Croatia and North Macedonia. In the last thirty years, supposed conspirators were ranging from local political parties, civil society associations (such as ‘Open Society Foundation’), to influential EU member states (UK, France, etc.) or the whole EU, as well as the USA, and other actors and forces, sometimes not so clearly articulated as ‘international players’.

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