EU, talk to your People: nothing such as the People’s will – the case of the Balkans.

Perspectives Internationales 20/04/2013 0
EU, talk to your People: nothing such as the People’s will – the case of the Balkans.

After Slovenia in 2004, the upcoming accession of Croatia to the European Union, expected by July 2013, constitutes a good opportunity to review the EU influence – or lack of – in the Balkans. To what extent has the European Union been able or not to stabilize – socially, politically and economically – the region? What are the limits to the Union approach, and what is the way forward? For Tugdual Le Lay, the EU action and influence in the region has been undeniable, but eventually limited to the role of catalyst, and dependent upon domestical constraints. This observation, he argues, should compel the EU to rehaul its approach, notably by reassessing its audience.

The entry of Croatia in the European Union (EU), expected to happen in July 2013 is a good opportunity to review the EU influence in the Balkans. What has the Union done? To what extent can one argue it has fostered post-conflict stability in the region? What can this tell us about the state of the Union?

With the entry of Slovenia in the European Union[1] in 2004 and Croatia most-likely to become its 28th Member State in July 2013, the Balkans States are one after another turning towards the EU. If others are expected to follow in the medium/long-run[2]; until recently though, such opportunities would have been qualified as far-from-granted prospects given the region’s complex political and economic situations [CEPS, 1999; Friis, 2000; Pippan, 2004].  To understand the process’ underpinning core dynamics, one might focus on the EU role in fostering Balkans post-conflict stability – a sine qua non prerequisite to EU-membership negotiation.

The definition of ‘post-conflict Balkans’ appears to be circuitous. In a region where the last legal recognition of a State proclamation of independence intervened no later than 2010[3]; and given that not all EU Member States have officially and diplomatically recognized this new State, it is still worth wondering whether or not we are yet in a pacified and stabilized Balkans. One might therefore focus on the EU ability to influence Balkans States on their way towards democratization, stabilization and peaceful crises resolutions. In the light of Kubicek’s [2003a] assessment, one might consider that “determining how crucial EU support actually has been and disentangling it from other factors[4] (…) are nearly intractable tasks”. Therefore, he notes often country-specific complex domestic variables are to be taken into consideration.

If it remains unquestionable that the EU has played some role in the region’s democratization, stabilization and socialization; one might however concede its impact has remained inconsistent and dependent upon domestic political realities.

EU’s role in the Balkans: incentives for democratization, stabilization and socialization

The outbreak of the Balkans conflicts created an opportunity to “kick-start the EU’s negotiating system and create windows of opportunity” [Scharpf, 1988; Friis, 2000] to foster stabilization that would otherwise have taken much longer: from 1999 onwards, democracy promotion becomes an integral component of the EU policy aiming at shaping other States’ domestic policies[5].

Kubicek’s theorisation allows us to highlight different paths towards the pacification/stabilisation of a region: if control[6] or contagion[7] are commonly acknowledged as rather irrelevant in the EU case he argues, much more credit is to be given to convergence or conditionality. Convergence implies a causal relation and suggests States are self-interested conscious actors in the ‘democratic wave’ process[8]. Conditionality is presented as the most powerful EU tool to promote stability/democratisation following the carrot and stick pattern: “linking (…) perceived benefits (…) to the fulfilment of a certain programme[9]. In parallel to conditionality, Schimmelfennig [2006] underlines the exclusive nature of EU socialisation process: ‘you stay out until you reform, and only then you will get in’. After having briefly mentioned the theory, one might now focus more closely on evidences about EU role in democratizing and stabilising the region.

The success of these strategies, one shall note, depends on the success of EU economic assistance and trade pacts towards countries. To promote democratisation the EU can be said to have succeeded in a number of areas: the EBRD has been financing numerous projects in most of the Balkans States to help to the democratisation and implementation of market-based economies[10]. Moreover, PHARE (later CARDS) are other EU-funded programmes dedicated to Justice and Home Affairs, infrastructure building, economic/social development and democratic stabilisation notably. Since the decade following the early-nineties outbreak of the wars, EU aid to Croatia amounted to over €370 Million in emergency and recovery[11].

The EU provided aids “while ensuring close links with (…) EU policies[12] argues Patten, former Commissioner for External Relations.  He goes even further outlining that “the prospect of EU membership is acting as a powerful anchor for reform” and fosters reforms within the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) – potentially paving the way towards ownership of EU acquis: since 1999 for instance, EU imports have increased by 40%[13]. The successful countries, i.e. those convincingly reforming under the existing legal frameworks, are entitled to sign Association Agreements – all Balkans countries since 2000 onwards.

Beyond the purely economic aspect, the EU has put a great emphasis on more political values such as the Rule of Law, respect of democratic and Human Rights (HR) principles – since 1991 particularly[14]. In concreto, development aid has therefore increasingly been dependent upon respect for HR.  Tull [2003] argues the EU played in that field a crucial role in Croatia, even before the SRFJ split due to the people’s profound hope of joining Europe. In Slovenia also he says, Yugoslavia’s dismantlement was synonymous to escaping from the Balkans to join the Union – a democratic sphere, respecting liberties with prospect for economic growth. To foster regional peace among States and therefore to increase the chances of sustainable peace and stability, the EU also reoriented its assistance towards the region by encouraging mutual recognition, and easing the return of refugees.

Tull argues the EU played a crucial role after the wars in Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina for leading peaceful reconstruction: it ‘forced’ a compromise between Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia by sending high-level delegations, promising huge aids while agreeing there would be no recognition by the EU of any secession – any but peaceful. The Badinter Commission’s role to assess and arbitrate states’ applications for recognition, although controversial to some regards, has to be flagged as one evidence of the EU commitment to democratic values and principles. The Commission indeed turned out to be against the first Croatian independence due to Constitutional shortcomings regarding minorities’ protection for e.g. This ‘ruling’ forced Croatian authorities to provide the necessary guarantees[15] – for a peaceful and sustainable State creation.

As put forward by Kubicek, “alliances, trade pacts and economic assistance are offered as means to encourage political liberalization or foster democratic consolidation”. The EU is therefore acting as a catalyst, once the domestic regime in place becomes receptive to EU influence by engaging in dialogue, institutional building and political conditionality.

EU inconsistent policies dependent upon national domestic preferences

“[The] EU acted as a powerful catalyst by providing an ‘elaborated structure of economic and social incentives’” argues Whitehead[16] to illustrate EU’s dependency on domestic changes. Indeed, it appears that countries prone to corruption, ethnic conflicts or religious and cultural instability are less aware or open to Western liberal values and therefore make EU task even more complicated – if not impossible this part will argue. It is therefore interesting to focus on different States: ‘reluctant democratizers[17]’ like Croatia and hostile democratizers like Serbia.

Kubicek [2003a] notes that under Tudjman’s rule from 1991 to 1999, Croatia was far from being a turned-towards-the-West type of democracy as “opposition was circumscribed, power concentrated (…) and minority rights not protected”. It is only at his death that Croatia went from being a pariah State to one committed to reform and EU membership. It is not that obvious, he therefore concludes, that the EU can take full credit for democratic changes: newly created States have often nationalistic concerns and are less prone to join any Union that would constraint their sovereign rights, especially in the case of the Balkans traumatized by the Yugoslav experience[18]. In other words, Tull confirms the EU struggled to insert itself in a very complex domestic political landscape. Europe failed in appearing to the Croatians as a strong power, failing to speak with a common voice after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Worse, Europe proved itself unable to solve the rising conflicts among nations and EU’s monitors in the Balkans were mocked as “ridiculous ice-cream men[19]”. The current failure of the Union to properly address the difficulties in Hungary under Orban’s ruling are another proof of the limits of EU policies to insert (impose) its values and priorities within a complex, almost unfriendly domestic context.

Some domestic variables such as the piling-up of ready-to-fight the Socialist Former Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ) forces during the early-nineties made any form of peaceful settlement nearly impossible – the EU becoming far less audible. Besides all those internal factors on which the EU seemed to have little or no control, it appears according to Tull that early-1991 was a moment during which EU policies were inconsistent: advocating the Right of the people to self-determination before discouraging all forms of unilateral declarations of independence[20]. In a nutshell, Hoffmann [1996] argues the EU could not deploy relevant diplomatic means to influence the crisis, could not appear united speaking with a common voice, were divided upon conditionality and the conditions related to recognition, and unable to use force reflecting the EU’s own flaws but also its incapacity to weight in an unfriendly environment. All these pitfalls obviously being an additional burden to the potential impact the EU could have had on domestic politics.

The example of Serbia, a ‘hostile democratizer’, is even more striking. During the nineties, the regime faced a war in Kosovo and Milosevic’s regime was clearly not open to EU influence, or to any kind of Western liberal values, rather turning towards Russia [Schimmelfennig, 2006]. The EU started a Regional Approach (RA) with Serbia since 1996 as well as a Stability Pact (SP) both incentive-based on the ‘stick/carrot model[21]’. Some general conditions were to be fulfilled to obtain the aid – linked to democratic principles, Rule of Law, protection of minorities etc. Progress was not only too slow but going backwards… which led the international community (among which the EU) to use punishment by applying sanctions on the regime before eventually preparing a military intervention.  From this example, one might draw some conclusions: not only the traditional incentives offered by the EU did not seem to appeal to Milosevic, but the sanctions applied by the EU notably were not the kind that would make him step down or reform. Under Milosevic, Schimmelfennig argues, domestic conditions could not foster compliance: power was concentrated, European values were disregarded by the regime as well as by elites[22]. Instead of negotiating with Europe, they saw themselves out of it. Such an observation confirms domestic costs’ role to the success of international socialisation; as well as the limits of a reward-based policies.

It is however interesting to note that after the regime changed in 2000, domestic conditions all of the sudden became very favourable to the EU. The costs to comply with EU requirements were not perceived as high anymore, given the democratic nature of the new government. Indeed, power was decentralised, some liberties were given to the civil society and the costs to comply with SP were not that high eventually. Moreover, with the winds of reforms, the EU echoed more easily in the domestic political landscape and the elite could identify itself to Western values as shown by the Yugoslav President Kostunica in Biarritz during an EU meeting: “The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is, and always has been part of Europe historically, economically and politically. Now we are back”. The implementation costs of full democracy, independent media and judiciary notably were low as these were the best guarantees the Party could bring to consolidate its own power and legitimacy: “No price is too high in exchange for the integration into Europe” confirmed Djindjic, then Serbian PM.

The inconsistency of EU policies in the Balkans pointed out in the Croatian and Serbian cases show the limits of EU influence in the Balkans. Both Croatian and Serbian examples highlight that domestic circumstances are decisive for compliance with European norms: external ‘sticks/carrots’ can only be incentives and catalysts; but they mainly depend on pre-existing positive domestic conditions.


As pointed out by Kubicek, “among international actors interested in [the Balkans] democratization, a leading role should be assigned to the EU”. By using a wide range of means – commitment to Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights, its economic power and more diplomatic leverages such as a possible EU-adhesion – the EU has proved itself able to provide the Balkans States incentives to reform towards greater stabilisation and foster democratization and socialisation.

However, conditionality only became an efficient tool once ‘normal’ (if that exists) relations among States were settled. It is even more relevant when changes and reforms are advocated in domestic political landscapes: EU influence in the region is positively correlated to the establishment of democratic governments, willing to reform and adopt Western liberal values. Indeed, it is only then that internal resonance and ownership appeared to be greater; as well as costs to comply appear to have diminished, making the costs/benefits trade-off tipping the scales in favour of EU influence.

At present of course, the environment is much more positive in the Balkans. It is therefore not a question about whether Montenegro, Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina will one day access or not anymore; but rather when exactly they will.

What the Balkans and more specifically the success of the Croatian application to become the EU’s 28th Member State show is the relative incapacity of the Union institutions to tackle the domestic issues. It is a question of being able to be heard at the national level. Incoherent policies, divided voices… all these are fundamental lacks that can structurally be corrected. What cannot however, unless there is a real political ambition to do so, is to determine who the EU is talking to.

The EU must come back to what it should have never stopped being: an institution bringing peace to its peoples, to its people. As long as the People will feel the EU is too distant, too undemocratic, too disconnected, too technocratic, too unaware of concrete realities, the Union is doomed to fail its mission. And the question of knowing how to address those issues is deeply related to that perception; intertwined, even.

The EU must inspire, must bring hope and confidence in the future; to institutions maybe, but first to its People. Only then will all sort of walls, inequalities and injustices fall down: as Thucydides once said, “The thickness of the wall matters less than the will to get over it”.

Tugdual Le Lay

Tugdual LE LAY comes from Brittany, Western France. After having tried to make a living out of basketball, he graduated from Sciences Po Paris in European studies. He also graduated with Merits from the London School of Economics in 2012. His interests including debating, European Politics and the fight against its democratic deficit, he ran the “Tug 2012” Campaign for President of the European Council against the incumbent, Herman van Rompuy. Defeated, he now considers a coming back.


CEPS, “A system for post-war South-East Europe”, Working Document No. 131, Centre for European Policy Studies, 1999

FEARON, “What is Identity (As We Now Use the Word)”, Manuscript, Stanford University, 1997

FRIIS, Murphy, “Turbo-charged Negotiations: The EU and the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe”, Journal of European Public Policy 7:5, pp. 767-786, 2000

HOFFMANN, “Yugoslavia: Implications for Europe and European Institutions” in Ullman, ed. The World and Yugoslavia’s War, Council on Foreign Relations, 1996

KUBICEK, “International norms, the European Union, and democratization – tentative theory and evidence” in Kubicek, The European Union and Democratization, Routledge, 2003

KUBICEK, “The European Union and Democracy promotion” in Kubicek, The European Union and Democratization, Routledge, 2003

PIPPAN, “The Rocky Road to Europe: The EU’s Stabilisation and Association Process for the Western Balkans and the Principle of Conditionality”, European Foreign Affairs Review, 2004

SCHARPF, “The joint-decision trap: lessons from German federalism and European integration”, Public Administration 66(3), pp. 239–278, 1988

SSCHIMMELFENNIG, Engert, Knobel International Socialisation in Europe – European Organizations, Political conditionality and Democratic Change, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006

SMITH, “The Use of Political Conditionality in the EU’s relations with Third Countries: How Effective”, European Foreign Affairs Review 3, pp. 253-274, 1998

TULL, “The European Union and Croatia – Negotiating ‘Europeanization’ amid national, regional and international interests” in Kubicek, The European Union and Democratization, Routledge, 2003

WHITHEAD, “Democracy by Convergence: Southern Europe”, in Whitehead, ed. The International Dimension of Democratization: Europe and the Americas, Oxford University Press, 1996 

[1] This article will refer to the ‘European Union’ by commodity, even if it could legally be known as the European Economic Community before 1992

[2] See for example EU ‘to delay decision on Serbia membership until March’, The Telegraph, 9th of December 2011

[3] Kosovo declared its independence in February 2008, legally claimed conform to International Law by the International Court of Justice in July 2010.

[4] Kubicek refers to domestic political factors

[5] See the 1999 Helsinki Summit communiqué

[6] Although some academics would tend to argue that by incorporating new Member States into its supranational sovereignty-restricted institutional framework, the EU actually gives itself the means to control state policy. See Kubicek [2003a] for greater details.

[7] Contagion refers to a ‘democratic wave’ where the attractive domestic democratic principles would flow/spread, nearly on their own or with the help of a catalyst, from a country to another

[8] Fearon [1997] identifies to types of convergence; an instrumental one where “you do X to get Y” and a more socialised form where States are convinced that “Good people do X”.

[9] Quoted from Kubicek 2003a

[10] Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia are members of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and recipients of investments.

[11] Around €300M were allocated to humanitarian assistance through ECHO. See Tull [2003]

[12] From a publication by the European Commission “The European Union and the Western Balkans – building the future together. See the note for further information about what concrete projects CARDS have been financing in the Balkans.

[13] The Poland and Hungary Assistance for Restructuring their Economies (PHARE) programme allocated funds to help Members to upgrade their infrastructures. Since 2000, Balkans countries receive funds through the Community Assistance for Reconstruction, Development and Stabilisation (CARDS) programme: nearly 2 Billion euros between 2002 and 2004 and more than 4,6 Billion between 2000 and 2006. This increase in trade relationships notably echoes then Commission President, Prodi in 2003: “It is time to build bridges in the Western Balkans, not destroy them. To open borders, not to close them. To restore relations and trade links, not to sever them.”

[14] Kubicek notes these concerns have been explicitly dealt with in European Council declarations, Association and Partnership and Cooperation Agreements, the Maastricht Treaty, the Lomé convention, and obviously in the Copenhagen criteria. See Smith [1998] for further details.

[15] The Croatian government adopted a draft “Consitutional Law on Human Rights and Liberties and on the Rights of Ethnic and National Communities or Minorities”

[16] Whithead [1996] quoted by Kubicek [2003a]

[17] Defined by Kubicek [2003a; 2003b]

[18] In some aspects very comparable to post-communist Eastern and Central Europe.

[19] See Tull [2003]

[20] There can be some consistency in that approach, given that you might be willing to advocate a peaceful separation as a better option than forced and violent wars… but from the Croatian perspective, it is also very much understandable how bizarre this political stand appears to be.

[21] RA limited its incentives to grater trade cooperation whereas SP offered the perspective of an adhesion

[22] Their focus was on Serbian greatness/hegemony over the region.

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