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In economic and democratic terms, EU accession towards Eastern Europe is a great success. However, implementing laws is not sufficient: eventually they need to be founded on shared democratic values. Former Dutch ambassador for Macedonia Simone Filippini reflects on the progress of this candidate country.
By Simone Filippini
Who doesn’t recall the images of December 1989? Images of crying and celebrating inhabitants of East and West Berlin on the day the Berlin Wall fell after having divided the Western and Eastern parts of German’s historic capital for nearly 30 years? The fall of the Berlin Wall provoked euphoria in the entire western world, in particular in Europe. Finally the countries of Central and Eastern Europe would get back their legitimate place in the European family. And of course, membership of the European Union (EU) would be part of their future. The decision to grant all the former socialist countries EU candidate status in the early nineties only constituted a logical next step; the spirits were high. All were convinced that, although the candidates had to work on democratization and state building, these were part of their – European – genes and they would catch up quickly to fully join the European community and embrace its values. Yes, we can!
Unexpectedly, the heritage of 50 years of communism turned out to be a profound and persistent influence during the accession process. In-depth transformation was felt necessary to create a truly democratic political and governance culture, meeting European standards. Since 2004 twelve states have joined the European Union. All in all we should be proud of what has been achieved. In less than 20 years poor, undemocratic and badly governed countries transformed into democratic states with proper government structures and (relatively) high economic growth, well on their way to create prosperity for their citizens. Enlargement also offered extensive opportunities for EU member states’ businesses. It is justified to conclude that both in economic and in democratic terms the accession process has proved a great success, underscoring the strength of EU so-called soft power. At the same time, however, we have to acknowledge that democratization - not so much the formal part of it, but rather the internalization of key democratic values - has taken much longer than we thought it would; it is still an ongoing process in the member states that acceded since 2004. Citizens in the old EU member states perceive this transition as overly sluggish and have lately shown little patience for reports revealing democratic deficiencies. They want to see countries they can trust and rely on, countries that share their values and respect fundamental rights. The accession of Romania and Bulgaria has done tremendous damage to public perception toward enlargement as a positive process. Stories about widespread corruption and fraud; shady political practices; and a lack of respect for fundamental human rights, especially when it concerns the treatment of minorities and vulnerable groups, have undermined public confidence.
EU citizens had expected that, during the accession process, the EU would be able to guarantee that new members would play by the rules and share our democratic values. They are disappointed and have become increasingly skeptical whether the EU can make the necessary difference.
What about Macedonia?
This is all the more important as the EU is not yet off the enlargement hook. With the Western Balkans actively aspiring membership and the follow-up states of the former Yugoslav Federation banging its doors, the EU faces a next level of challenges. First in line was Macedonia, a small country with 2 million inhabitants north of Greece that gained its independence in 1991 in a bloodless detachment from Serbia-dominated former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, it immediately became immersed in old feuds with Greece, which claims the name Macedonia constitutes a threat to Greece’s national integrity and security. The Kosovo war of 1999, spilling 300.000 refugees into the Northwestern part of Macedonia, contributed to fueling discontent among ethnic Albanian citizens as to their perceived secondclass position in society. In 2001, after a number of violent clashes between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Macedonians, a civil war could only be prevented by a massive intervention by the international community, led by NATO, the USA and the EU. Macedonia actively worked on getting its act together again and applied for EU membership in March 2004. In December 2005 the EU rewarded its efforts with a candidate status. Since then the country has strived to get a date to start negotiations. And although in its progress report of October 2011 the European Commission for the third time in a row gave a positive recommendation, the Greek-Macedonian name issue stands in the way of further progress.
Although, as stated, Macedonia has again received a positive recommendation regarding the start of accession negotiations, the Commission has become more critical of the country. Things do not seem to be automatically moving into the right direction. International human rights watchdogs, as well as institutions following progress on basic freedoms and the rule of law have recently expressed growing concern. Concerns about the directions the third Gruevskiled government is taking, are augmented by perceived nationalist tendencies, symbolized by the project Skopje 2014. This costly scheme involves constructing not only long-overdue government buildings, but also a number of sensitive religious buildings, and a substantial number of monuments of Macedonian heroes. Some of these monuments are contested by neighboring countries. Moreover, in practice the government has shown an uncompromising stand on the name issue, feeding into people’s deeply engrained fears of losing identity and fertilizing the breeding ground for populism, if not nationalism. The government is also perceived to slowly but surely increase its hold on society and to put fundamental freedoms at risk: freedom of the press is on the decline, people report increased anxiety related to freedom of speech, and confidence in the government institutions, including the judiciary, is extremely low. Moreover, heavy investments in the Ministry of Interior over the past years have benefited in particular intelligence and security forces, including the secret service. Government behavior in a number of aspects reminds groups of Macedonians, who still have vivid memories of the former socialist Republic of Macedonia, of their communist past. They claim they recognize the approach.
Confronted with these realities the EU and the USA, strong partners in promoting EU membership, sometimes seem at a loss. Despite the best of intentions, a well elaborated framework to stimulate and measure progress, huge financial support, and generous technical assistance, Macedonians have become less inclined to accept - justified - criticisms and suggestions on improvements, while their readiness to listen and work according to the Commission’s advice has decreased. The government seems to have hardened in its resolve to do whatever it feels is right, even if that is contrary to what might be conducive to further progress on the path to EU membership. They now prefer to blame the EU for being hypocritical and applying double standards, by favoring present member states even if they do not act according to the rules, instead of trying to deal with the EU Commission’s suggestions in a constructive manner.
As a consequence, the question has come up whether with all its present carrots and sticks the EU is on the right track. If countries underperform, especially in regards to the values and norms put down in the European Charter that serve as fundaments of European unity and the EU members’ identity, is there a way to move them (back) on the right track? Should we not to a certain extent reconsider the accession track and formulate answers to the new challenges that loom with a new group of countries in the waiting room, countries whose history and geography require specific and custom-made approaches? Let us not forget the lessons learned from previous rounds. Although enlargement is a process of technical alignment on the one hand, it is one of high intensity political involvement on the other. Or at least it should be. Reality teaches us, however, that, due to a mass of other urgent and time consuming challenges, not least the economic and financial crisis, EU attention is to a certain extent deflected from other processes in need of active political attention. Neither is it helpful that bilateral interests of one member state sometimes are allowed to prevail over collective interests, in this case the building of a truly democratic, stable and prosperous southeastern flank of the EU.
Some will point to the existence of a special Commissioner for Enlargement to argue that the process gets full political support. And certainly, the intentions are there. But are we really looking into the individuality of the challenges and risks the (potential) candidate poses and designing fresh and creative approaches on the basis of that analysis? Or do we prefer to hide behind the substantial technical accession ‘diesel’ and pretend that we are actually taking an active approach? Of course, in Southeastern Europe the EU is confronted even more than before with the extent to which it can influence societies in future member states. How can it influence true internalization of democracy in a population, encourage assertive citizenship, effectively promote tolerance and real political diversity, stimulate a real rule of law, or influence the stand of people regarding diversity? When to apply the carrot, how and when to apply the stick? These are all very topical questions.
Get off the beaten track
We have to take this issue seriously. Indeed, we cannot help countries that do not want to be helped to help themselves. But enlargement of the EU is not a one-way street. We cannot expect countries located in a historically troubled region, burdened by past and present feuds, to solve their own problems. This is our own backyard; we have a huge vested interest in peace, prosperity and stability in Eastern Europe. And whether we, politicians and citizens in present member states, like it or not: these countries want to and will become members. In a growing EU we have to acknowledge and respect real diversity to be able to survive. Moreover, transformation of societies takes time. Let’s face it: we will not be able to shape all newcomers exactly after our own image. At the same time, precisely because of this diversity we will have to clearly define a bottomline and hold on to it. No compliance, no membership; period.
For solutions, let us look beyond governments, whose governance style does not always reflect the values of the general population. Let us think of ways to stimulate assertive citizenship, to sharpen the critical minds of people, to educate and encourage potential but often neglected key influencers like youth and women. And we need to continue to stand up in defense of fundamental rights, to show the EU’s teeth on these issues and not let governments get away with anti-democratic behavior. Future EU citizens should see that we mean business if we talk about fundamental rights and European values, and that they have our full support fighting for them. A reinvigorated approach implies an open mind and sincere discussions on both the EU and the candidates’ sides, honest reports and clear rules of the game; constituting a level playing field for all candidates and present member states. Only if we lead by example we will be credible to others. And in this regard the present EU has a world to win.
is the Dutch Consul-General in Miami, responsible for the promotion of Dutch- American relations in 10 Southeastern States and the Dutch Caribbean. Between July 2007 and August 2011 she was the Dutch Ambassador in Skopje, Macedonia. Simone has been a member of the D66 National Board (international portfolio) and has been part of several Committees of the party.
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Dit artikel verscheen in idee nr. 6 2011: The rule of law
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