Zagreb, 20 years later

Zagreb, 20 years later

By Ditmir Bushati*

In November 2000, the European Union in Zagreb presented the Stabilization and Association Process for the countries of Southeastern Europe. The adopted document emphasized the link between the progress of the countries of the region towards democracy, rule of law, reconciliation and regional cooperation, on the one hand, and the prospect of EU membership, on the other.

20 years later, in a document adopted this week at the Zagreb Summit, which virtually brought together EU and Western Balkan leaders, unfortunately, topics have not changed much. While from the group of countries part of the Stabilization and Association Process, only Croatia managed to join EU in 2013.

The topics have not changed much in 20 years. The gap between us and the EU has not bridged. However, the geopolitical context has changed.

The year 2000 marked the final stage of Central and East European countries membership to EU. At the same time, the triumph of liberal democracy, where former eastern communist countries eager for change were involved in a process of reform, democratization and economic transformation. At that time, it was difficult to question the “European standard” and the values of liberal democracy, and few would have thought that the process of “imitating” Western European countries from the former Eastern Communist countries would not be easily swallowed. Enlargement, despite being an unpopular topic, was faced by experienced politicians, as was the case with German Enlargement Commissioner Gunter Verheugen. Reform monitoring reports were read as holy scripts.

The Euro-Atlantic Alliance was also at the height of its understanding, projecting greater enlargement in its history and reducing Russian influence on European security architecture. Richard Holbrooke referred to the United States as a European power, not just a power in Europe.

The 2008 financial crisis, followed by the unprecedented refugee crisis coming from the Middle East, brought to the surface, in addition to economic and financial differences between the north and the south, differences over the values and liberal democracy between the west and the east of the EU. Brexit was also a blow to the European project. This situation was mirrored in the quality and speed of the enlargement process with the Western Balkans.

Paradoxically, today we have EU member states that are in the disciplinary process for violating the “European standard”, as well as candidate countries that, although they have been at the negotiating table for EU membership for years, have suffered democratic regress.

This is the main reason why the 2020 Zagreb document is similar to the one 20 years ago, except for the response to the Pandemic. The way how the EU will cooperate with the Western Balkans in response to Covid-19 can and should reshape the relations between them.

Despite the weaknesses of the EU’s policy towards the Western Balkan countries and the consolidation of the status quo in the region, accompanied by the lack of necessary economic development and demographic decline, due to emigration towards the most developed countries in Europe, the EU again remains an attractive pole for the countries of the region. The question lies in the effectiveness of this policy.

Therefore, the EU package of EUR 3.3 billion for the Western Balkans must be accompanied by an engaging and accountable mechanism that combines economic and social development with the progress of reforms in the field of the rule of law. There is no rule of law without economic development and there is no sustainable economic development without the rule of law.

In their book Why Nations Fail: The Origin of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, American scholars Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue for the link between the functioning of political institutions, on the one hand, and economic and social prosperity, on the other hand. Prosperity helps create functional and stable political institutions, which, in our case, are still lacking.

If after the fall of the Berlin Wall the idea that geopolitics was losing its importance prevailed, today the European Commission considers itself a “geopolitical commission”. Therefore, instead of simply “reconfirming the European perspective for the countries of the region”, the EU should win the geopolitical battle first and foremost in its own backyard, as its investment in the region is incomparable to other international actors. The EU should thus foster a sustainable model of economic development that comes hand in hand with political and institutional development, defining red lines for the “European standard”, which should not be allowed to transform into a line in the sand./ibna

*Ditmir Bushati is an Albanian politician and diplomat who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2013 to 2019. He previously chaired the Parliamentary Committee for European Integration.