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Teresa Reiter is head of communications at the European Forum Alpbach and a former policy adviser on foreign and European affairs, defense, migration and development cooperation in the Austrian Parliament.
VIENNA — Here is a wild idea: What if EU politicians stopped patting autocratic leaders on the back every time they won an election and made a new batch of empty promises?
After Serbia’s ruling Progressive Party won a resounding victory in parliamentary elections on Sunday, several European leaders lined up to offer their congratulations. No matter that no other party stood a chance. Or that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, the ruling party leader, controls the country’s institutions and media organizations and made use of the coronavirus crisis to further crack down on citizens’ rights and freedoms.
What is outrageous in a regime like Russia’s or Turkey’s is somehow considered acceptable when it happens in the Western Balkans. Former European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted his congratulations, saying the result “is proof of the citizens’ trust and your effectiveness” and urging Vučić to “make use of this success for Serbia’s European path and for the good of the people, also of the defeated. The more power, the more responsibility.” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was also among those giving congratulations.
For more than a decade, EU representatives have been following the same playbook. They preach the importance of EU values, democracy, the rule of law and human rights in the Western Balkans, even as the support politicians like Vučić, who treats those same values with blatant contempt.
What we call “failed states” are actually states that we have failed.
Vučić’s tightening control over Serbia did not happen overnight. It was built over the better part of a decade, during which he was embraced as the EU’s hope for a European Serbia.
Understandably, these mixed messages have contributed to the stalling of reforms and an erosion of trust in the EU among citizens in Serbia and elsewhere in the region, where Western governments have also turned a blind eye to undemocratic behavior in the name of political stability.
And yet, European leaders still look around in bafflement when countries make little to no progress on democratic reforms, and brand the region “a ticking time bomb” that is not ready to join the EU any time soon.
The reason behind this dizzying cycle is not such a mystery. It’s European hypocrisy.
“If the EU continues to portray an embellished picture of the situation in Serbia and uses a vague language, it will only contribute to further decline of pro-EU sentiments and further discourage genuinely pro-democratic and reformist forces,” Serbia’s opposition party Civic Platform, which boycotted the Sunday election, said in its report on the future of the enlargement process.
Their words should be a warning to Europe’s leaders. The danger that the EU will gamble away its credibility in the Western Balkans is very real.
Our double-faced Balkan policies will inevitably come back to bite us. Every time we choose stabilocracy over systemic transformation in the Western Balkans, we undermine our own investment in the region and our own security — not to mention the future of millions of Europeans in the Western Balkans.
What we call “failed states” are actually states that we have failed. Rather than complain about a lack of progress, or recycle old approaches into a new “Balkan strategy,” or pile on new criteria to accede to EU membership, the EU needs to rethink its entire approach.
Our leaders must go the extra mile and make the insistence on EU standards and values a fundamental component of bilateral and EU-Western Balkans relationships in every meeting with their counterparts in the region.
This, of course, will also require that they practice what they preach and be an agent for change in the Balkans, rather than throw their weight behind a political party or a single leader. Support should be reserved for pro-democratic forces fighting for individual rights and freedoms and transforming their country’s trajectory.
The EU shouldn’t be helping leaders like Vučić set in stone the status quo. Changing tack will require persistence, integrity and above all courage. But isn’t that a better example for the EU to set?