Strengthening the rule of law in the Western Balkans: Why should the EU care?

One of the main conditions set by the EU for aspiring members in the Western Balkans is to strengthen the rule of law, but the success of these efforts has so far been relatively limited. Drawing on a new study, Tena Prelec (Doctoral Researcher, University of Sussex) explains some of the major challenges that exist in the region and outlines why promoting the rule of law should continue to be viewed as a key priority for the EU.

Many of the most pressing rule-of-law related issues are deeply embedded in the political, economic and social structure of the countries of the Western Balkans. Tackling them is no easy matter and requires multi-faceted solutions: the coveted trophy of fostering better governance cannot be achieved within a few months’ time, nor even in a five-year period (such as the length of an EC mandate). Instead, it needs a strategy that will skirt short-term victories in favour of long-term gains, while providing clear benchmarks, fair reward and punishment, and the use of uncompromising language in calling out abuses. The Balkans in Europe Policy Group study “Strengthening the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Call for a Revolution Against Particularism” sets out a wholesome strategy addressing the matter from an institutional, political and sociological perspective.

But, why should EU member states be interested in this topic? From a practical standpoint, it is understandable that European Union leaders and officials are sometimes reluctant to prioritise painstaking work that would only bear fruit in the long run, preferring to focus on maintaining stability (or the appearance thereof) and on more achievable successes. On top of the clear benefits for the Western Balkan countries, however, there are a number of pragmatic reasons – next to a host of loftier ones – why the European Commission, and indeed all the member states of the European Union (including the ‘outgoing’ UK), should be interested in ensuring that a comprehensive revolution against state capture and corruption takes place in EU accession countries.


A first immediate consideration relates to curbing organised crime and drug trafficking that stems from this region. In particular, Albanian gangs have been climbing up in the ranks of foreign organised crime groups active in Western Europe. The UK’s National Crime Agency estimates that they are now the third most active group in cocaine smuggling (up from eighth place in only three years), warning that criminals from the Balkans in general “continue to dominate within the wholesale cocaine market, with a presence in all major cities and operating supply networks reaching back to source and transit countries”, having formed direct relationships with suppliers in Latin America. Furthermore, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) calculates that the total value of illicit heroin and opium trafficked from Afghanistan via the Balkans route to Western Europe amounts to $28bn a year. Countries with weak rule of law provide an environment that is more conducive to the growth of organised crime groups.

Migration and populism

A further considerable reason is to discourage migration from new member states: a phenomenon that is often used by populist parties to drive support to illiberal anti-immigrant rhetoric. An often-overlooked issue is that, in the decision to emigrate, rule of law may trump (or at least accompany) economic motives. The example of Croatia is instructive in this sense. After joining the EU in July 2013, Croatia experienced a sharp increase in emigration: from 12.8k citizens leaving the country in 2012, the number basically tripled to 36.4k in 2016. A 2018 survey by Index found that the four principal motivations for leaving the country expressed by the respondents are all related to deficiencies in the rule of law and in the perceived presence of ‘backward’ values (“because of corruption”; “because of primitivism, religious backwardness and nationalism”; “I do not want to feed thieves and parasites”; and “because of the thieving HDZ (the senior ruling party)”), while we find the economic interest (“low salary”) only on the fifth spot. Similarly, MojPosao found that the desire to live in a country with a more fitting “worldview and moral values” (67% of respondents) is a more prominent reason than the prospect of better-paid jobs (56-58%).

The motivations highlighted by the citizens leaving Croatia are very similar to those that were shown to be dominant in other countries of the region. In Serbia, for instance, ‘active diaspora’ members (i.e. those interested in the political process of their home country) have been found to be interested in returning to their home country, but only on the condition that a more meritocratic system will allow them to be free from political influence. This new wave of migrants is no longer nationalistically-oriented, holding markedly more progressive views than earlier diaspora communities. In other words, endemic state capture and corruption is driving away the more progressively-minded parts of the population. This bodes ill for the electoral competition in years to come, increasing the danger of populism and nationalism in accession countries. Conversely, if the trend was to be overcome, this would motivate citizens to stay in their countries, while luring back a portion of those diaspora members. Medium- to long-term, it would help prevent problems of illiberalism as encountered in some EU member states today.

Foreign actors and doing business

There is, furthermore, the business perspective: there is evidence that orderly Western investors are put off by the lack of rule of law in the Western Balkans. Improving the conditions of rule of law would also ensure a better business environment for these investors to operate – opening up new business opportunities for member states. Finally, and related to this, the presence of foreign actors in the Western Balkans (such as Russia, China, Turkey and the UAE) is closely connected with an informal, top-down and non-transparent way of conducting business deals. It has by now been acknowledged that the EU needs to step up its game in order for this space not be filled by these actors; however, the most sensible action to undertake to tackle the root of the problem is to promote transparency and the rule of law, as the use of clientelistic networks aids and abets the presence of actors who are happy to play political games and pay bribes, while inhibiting those who cannot and do not want to operate in this way.

This article draws on a study co-authored by Tena Prelec, Jovana Marovic and Marko Kmezic: Strengthening the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Call for a Revolution Against Particularism

Note: This article originally appeared at The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) blog and is reproduced with permission.

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