Unless they get a date for the start of negotiations or if it is set, North Macedonia and Albania will still pay the price of the EU’s unpleasant experiences with former Soviet bloc member states. These countries, which have long gained EU membership, formally fulfill all the principles of representative democracy. They regularly organize multiparty elections, respect political pluralism, and maintain the freedom of economic initiatives.
However, the rule of law and the independence of justice have eroded. The old European democracies point to the endangered media pluralism, disrespect for the rights of minorities, favoritism of nepotism and oligopoly, that is, groups close to the government. Hungary and Poland are unpredictable as troublemaker states in common European policies.
Which of the ambitious intellectuals in 1989 like Havel, Michnik, Rupnik could have foreseen such an epilogue? Today the unity of the emblematic Central Europe to the strategic concepts and values of “Old Europe” is seriously disturbed. When questioning democratic and liberal values in this way, it may be productive to evoke the roots of European values. From Herodotus and Hesiod, who were the first to use the name Europe, from the cosmopolitanism and justice of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, from the universalism and ecumenicalism of Christianity and projections by Carlo V and Podebrady, through Leibniz, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Bentham, Coudenhove-Kalergi, Monet, Schumann, Adenauer, Delors, Cole… all of these animators of the European idea dreamed of European values and of the united and functional federal construction of the old continent.
For them Europe was a spiritual entity, a kind of conscience for living together and solidarity. The European was not defined either by racial affiliation or linguistic identity or by nationalism, hatred or vengeance. What makes Europe essential is the persuasive spiritual temperament, the constant passion for adventure and organization, the creative curiosity and suspicion of all imperatives and dictates in the sense of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum. It is a romantic cross-section of Europe and a European idea found only in the epic visions of Europeans of the previous century. But Europe is also complex. Its centuries-old temptation is to overcome the antagonisms, the imperial dreams, the demagogues and populists, the manipulators and the criminals, the authoritarians who abuse the legal system and the government. Europe does not exclude religion, the European idea is secular, but does not oppose conservative visions of “Christian prosperity”, particularly present in Central and Eastern Europe. It does not mean that “if God does not exist everything is allowed”.
Europe’s wealth is its diversification manifested through the wealth of cultures, traditions, ideologies, regions. The biggest mistake is trying to make these differences homogenous. Europe’s unity is implemented through multiculturalism and pluralism. Europe showed its openness and pride when it opened to post-communist countries. Towards the Western Balkans Europe was tougher. That’s why our emotions and temperament are mixed. For the average Balkan, Europe is a symbol of power and progress, of prosperity and democracy, but also a kind of historic courtesy of double morals. The slogan seems to be correct that people forget the good things and only remember the bad. In the Balkans you will always come across people who criticize the “Old Lady”.
There is no doubt that Europe has disappointed countless times, but it has never forgotten the Balkans. Perhaps more often the Balkans reminded Europe of its own tragedies and dramas. From a financial and technical point of view, the EU has initiated a number of initiatives, created positive effects in a number of domains, demonstrated friendly solidarity and political tact. Just recall the poverty of the Greeks in the 1970s when Skopje was a land of abundance, the Bulgarian “one red” or the “Romanian beggars”. Europe has done a lot for the countries of former Yugoslavia. It is challenging, at times exaggerating the corrective effects and disciplining of politicians aware of the temperament of our homo balcanicus.
But let’s take a look at ourselves. Let’s recall our past mistakes, transition leaders, domestic and fugitive populists and demagogues, masters of manipulation, corruption and crime. Will we continue to look for the discrepancy between wealth, cosmopolitanism, and the depth of the European idea as its lucid fathers and capricious leaders of the European Union have today? Will we be angry that Europeans are still treating the Western Balkans as a kidnapped part of Europe, unable to join the “queen”? The countries of the Western Balkans today are in a similar situation of expectation and uncertainty as they were in the countries of Central Europe after 1989.
This nonsense resembles an unknown game where players reveal rules during the game. As they progress in line with the rules, the response of the Eurocrats is encouraging. Such was the case with the signing of the Prespa Agreement. The euphoria of the Europeans was greater than that of the domestic politicians who created this event. Several MEPs also endorsed the nomination of Prime Ministers Tsipras and Zaev for the Nobel Peace Prize. The word Euroscepticism has disappeared from the vocabulary of even the most pessimists in modern North Macedonia. And we got closer to Europe, crossed the Rubicon, that forbidden river for the little Macedonia, and justified the expectation of compensation.
But similar to the experiences of the Central European countries of the nineties, the European medal proved to have another side. If there is little oversight, a supposedly cognitive reflex on a bilateral plan for Bulgaria’s threatened identity or an internal EU problem for its functionality as judged by French President Macron, the red lights are currently on, the ramp is lowered and the game is nervously stopped. Does the danger of new barbarians from the Balkans at the door of Brussels, as Tzvetan Todorov wrote, bothers European leaders so much? The state of insecurity imposed by the “powerful tutors” of Brussels and Paris is transforming into an overreaction, in which the aspiring states are the biggest victims. In this way, this game becomes a constant stretch.
What could the mighty Frenchmen have against us besides the usual Balkan weaknesses, which were even greater for Bulgaria and Romania? Are we not paying the tax on our excessive pro-Americanism? The lessons learned and disappointments of Europeans from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe summarized by former French President Sarkozy: “We give them money and they prefer the Americans.” Under the tide of dubious democracy, a new dilemma is often raised in Europe: is a reversible process of democracy possible than in historic 1989? Is Hungary, which was avant-garde in 1989, not avant-garde in negative direction in 2019?
Viktor Orban proclaims himself the author of illiberal democracy. According to Fareed Zakaria, it is a multi-party regime where elections are free, but the ecosystem of political liberalism such as power sharing, power control, rule of law is dry and anemic. It is true that there is no censorship in Hungary, but there is no opposition media either. Economic pluralism is difficult to function, free competition and entrepreneurial initiative are getting away with nepotism. Orban may not be qualified as a fascist, but he perverts and destroys democracy in his own country.
It’s a similar story in Poland. And there is the threat of power-sharing “in the name of the battle against traditional elites”. Although the European Commission had threatened to show a red card to Kaczynski’s party government, Orban had said he would veto the sanction as full consensus was needed. Europeans have realized that former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who is now safe in Budapest, has followed in the footsteps of Orban and Kaczynski. Any average Eurocrat would ask himself: who guarantees that one day he and his apparatus will not regain power and establish the old regime. At the same time, Serbia led by Vucic is not far from the so-called “Illiberal democracy” and his closeness to his Hungarian mentor. When we add to this all the court games of the leading EU leaders, we can only hope that they will remember the spirit and mystery of the EU fathers and give us a date for opening accession negotiations.
Nano Ruzhin is a professor of political and social sciences, former Ambassador of fYROM to NATO, and was the presidential candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)