The role of human rights in the accession of the Western Balkans

by Emma Myhre

In 2018, the European Commission adopted a strategy for enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans(1). It presents that the EU holds its doors open for more member states, with the condition that the state satisfies EU accession criteria. In the Western Balkans this remains a struggle, and human rights concerns have become subject to compromise. There are several important dynamics that come into play, some of which will be discussed in this article.

In order for a country to become a member of the EU, it must fulfill the Copenhagen criteria(2). These are based on common European values, including democracy, human rights, rule of law, and a market economy. In past EU negotiations, such as those with Montenegro and Croatia, human rights concerns have been of central importance. Several institutional advancements were made to strengthen the role of human rights in the EU’s enlargement policy(3). However, several scholars point out that the EU’s attempt to spread its democratic values in the Western Balkans has had an underwhelming effect. This becomes particularly evident when compared to the Central Eastern European states that joined the EU in 2004(4).  

There are many ways of looking at the limited impact that EU conditionality has had in the region. Evidence shows that the EU has prioritized concerns related to security rather than those related to human rights and democracy(5). However, the lack of pressure on human rights concerns in the Western Balkans – such as the rule of law and media freedom – is astounding considering recent experiences with Poland and Hungary. Worth pointing out is that the EU has significantly more leverage over accession candidates compared to member states, raising the question even further of why the EU has not aimed for more strict accession policies regarding human rights in the Western Balkans.

Some argue that accession candidates are more likely to adopt EU rules when there are credible incentives and low adoption costs(6), especially when it comes to questions of national identity. However, some cases might display a different image. Serbia, for example, has shown a strong commitment to accession and has been willing to compromise on highly sensitive cases, such as cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal and Kosovo(7). Perhaps it is more relevant to look at media reforms and independent institutions. To continue with the example with Serbia, it is evident that the Serbian government has been more reluctant with these reforms(8). Such institutional changes would challenge the country’s power concentration, seemingly running more strongly counter to the government’s incentives. This perspective suggests that questions of national identity matter less than questions of government authority.  

The EU has shown willingness to accept the slow progress in terms of media freedom and democratic institutions. It has strong incentives to keep Serbia and other countries in the region on the path to accession and keep its political leverage. Concerns such as the refugee crisis and a more aggressive Russia urge the EU to make compromises(9). It may want to prioritize security concerns over more consistent conditions for accession in regards to human rights.

In the coming year, the EU will be faced with tough dilemmas. The union is in a position where it struggles to find a balance between enforcing human rights concerns without losing its political leverage over the Western Balkans that are on the path to accession. Crucial will be to take human rights seriously to avoid painful repetitions of the problems posed by Hungary and Poland, and aligning EU incentives with those of the Western Balkan governments and peoples.