Opening remarks by Pierre Mirel, RAD Dean in 2015

It gives me a great pleasure to welcome you to the first seminar of this third cycle on “Building democratic institutions”. As a close observer of your countries, I feel very honoured to learn and share experiences with you.

I would like to make remarks along three main topics: first, on this cycle’s four seminars; second, on ‘liberal democracy’ and third on reforms in your countries and their European integration.

Some remarks on the four seminars

This first seminar is about ‘Good governance and the achievements of democratic transitions in the WB’. As we all know, this is a difficult process which requires stable and functioning institutions, from parliament to judicial systems. It requires effective RoL and good governance, including public administration reform. The key words here are i.e.: independent and professional judiciary, human rights protection, effective anti-corruption policies and transparent financial management.

And above all, how to ensure implementation and enforcement of the numerous laws adopted? And, to that aim, how to get the different law enforcement bodies working together? What matters is to put effectively in place “checks and balances”.

We know too well from opinion polls that citizens’ trust in judiciary or administration is rather low. This is confirmed by the 2015 report called “Anti-corruption reloaded” presented by SELDI. SELDI is the Southeast Europe Leadership for Development and Integrity initiative on anti-corruption and good governance. It was set up by CSOs from all WB countries.

Their report is alarming. It puts the emphasis on administrative corruption as a “mass phenomenon”. It claims that there has been “a tangible deterioration of the assessment of the spread of corruption among magistrates since 2001”.

Good governance related policies are therefore essential, first and foremost for the citizens, to ensure that their rights are respected, and for investors who need transparency and security. At the same time, these are key conditions for candidate countries on their path to the EU, under the so-called chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental rights) and chapter 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security).

The second seminar, in Croatia, will be about local democracy. A key topic indeed as democracy starts locally, in municipalities. Unfortunately, so does corruption too, very often, through public procurement, concessions or construction permits, as highlighted by the SELDI report. Hence the equal importance of the RoL and good governance at local level.

The third seminar, in Skopje, will be about the role of media and the status of media freedom in the WB. Some governments seem to consider that the EU gives too much importance to the media. Why are media so important?

They are essential because of the tendency of executive power to exercise its authority, too often, without appropriate control. This is the result of weak parliaments, in some cases, and of judicial systems, in general. In other words, because “checks and balances” are not in place. It gives therefore to media a special role to play. Media freedom is dealt with in the EU accession process under chapter 23, as part of fundamental rights.

The last seminar will be on the role of State and non-State actors, civil society organisations in the first place. A number of governments are allergic to civil society organisations! Their attitude is not sustainable. CSOs, or NGOs, are more important than ever. For three main reasons: First, to contribute to proper “checks and balances”. The SELDI report is an excellent example: which other organisations could be as trustful and neutral as CSOs on corruption in the region?

Second, to ensure high quality of legislation, through appropriate consultations with governments and parliaments, and to contribute to its enforcement monitoring;

And third, to work with NGOs, emerging under a worldwide trend whereby citizens trust much less classical democratic ways of expression (such as traditional political parties and parliamentary debates). A growing number of citizens privilege more direct and spontaneous views on political decisions. And they do it through their own, brand new sometimes, organisations.

We could debate at length whether this is a positive development or not. It is largely the result of a general feeling that traditional institutions do not reflect citizens’ views anymore. It is also due to the growing role of internet communication and social networks. In any case this is a new, essential factor in building democracy which cannot be ignored anymore.

That leads me to my second set of remarks on ‘liberal democracy’

The four topics I have just gone through constitute, in my view, the building blocks of “liberal democracy”, as enshrined in the EU Lisbon Treaty (article 2), following the well-known Copenhagen criteria established in 1993. They largely guided Central European countries on their path to the EU. The EU transformative/soft/normative power was effective indeed in the 5th enlargement process.

I would however argue that the EU transformative power was effective mainly due to the wide consensus across society and to the strong political determination to translate promises into actions for joining the EU rapidly and at any cost. In other words, the best norms cannot change/reform, by themselves, a country whose political class, and society at large, are not ready and willing to use them fully.

And the 5th enlargement took place in a unique period of time, the post-1989 peaceful order, characterised by 4 essential factors: economic growth, a strong business community support, optimism in the future, and the tacit acceptance by Russia. One tends to forget these factors when comparing Central Europe and the Western Balkans.

Times have changed, obviously. A deep economic crisis affects the EU and impacts on your region. Anti-enlargement sentiments prevail in several EU member states. In addition, your countries bear the heavy legacy of a painful past, of ethnic problems and, in some cases, of “unfinished states” as academia call them.

However, for me, the main difference with the 5th enlargement is that the political elite do not always seem ready to abandon its current, short term, privileges and gains for the expected long term benefits of EU membership. In other words, it is not always ready and willing to translate commitments into radical reforms which would build up democratic institutions and achieve transition towards ‘liberal democracy’.

As a result, reforms are slow, which feeds the rhetoric of sceptical member states, leading to the vicious circle of ‘enlargement fatigue’. It also creates a despairing situation as citizens are tired of an endless process.

And the challenge of establishing ‘liberal democracy’ is greater these days when emerging powers such as China and Russia not only question its principles but aim at putting in place a non-liberal political system. All the more so when the Prime minister of an EU member state claims that “not every democracy is necessarily liberal” and defends an “illiberal democracy”.

Europe is well placed to know that alternatives to ‘liberal democracy’ are authoritarian regimes with growing intolerance, which may lead to conflicts. And indeed ‘illiberal’ does not connect with ‘democracy’ as Chancellor Merkel put it during her recent visit to Budapest!

The EU is going through the bigger crisis ever. Actually, Europe as a whole is not just going through a crisis, but instead through a profound economic and societal mutation. Traditional political structures and leaders have not yet been able to integrate this mutation in their programmes fully. They do not provide guidance and hope.

As a result, populism and spontaneous citizens’ movements are on the rise.  This is not a reason to fall into disillusionment. As Europeans, we know too well that, in the globalised world, our future lies more than ever in a strong EU based on “competition, cooperation and solidarity”, to use the famous motto of Jacques Delors. This is all the more true when emerging countries struggle to find their natural place and where some re-emerging countries challenge the post-1989 order.

Back to the Western Balkans, what to do then?

First of all, observing the political scene closely since several years, I have somewhat the feeling that, in the face of deep economic problems, political class resist rarely the temptation of blaming the ‘others’: the political opposition, the media, civil society organisations and neighbouring countries, as well as the European commission and the EU!

Isn’t it high time to reverse the trend? Isn’t it urgent to build up a wide consensus and to show political determination for boosting reforms? Not just in the WB but in the EU as well. And actually when leaders decide to overcome the past or walk on new paths, such as with the historic dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, they reap the benefits of their brave decisions.

Second, good governance and achieving democratic transitions depend on you too. You have high positions. You represent the emerging political elite. You bear therefore a great responsibility in the successful transitions of your countries towards democratic institutions, market economy and regional cooperation.

Third, some positive developments occurred in 2013-2014 from an EU integration point of view: Croatia became a member; the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo paved the way to the opening of negotiations with Serbia and to an SAA with Kosovo; accession negotiations were opened with Montenegro; Albania received candidate status.

Is this enough? Obviously not! And this is my fourth point. The region is facing huge problems, socio-economic in the first place, with high unemployment and limited investments. It bears also the legacy of the past with a number of bilateral issues and minorities problems. This fragile situation calls therefore for a stronger EU engagement based on the following points which I am pleading for in my personal capacity:

Action plans for chapters 23-24, to be prepared by all the countries, after screening. It would speed up reforms and create citizens’ confidence;

Road maps to be set up for adopting the most important internal market directives/regulations in order to boost trade and investment, as part of the SAAs approximation clause;

National economic reform strategies to be drawn up, as part of ‘economic governance’ priority. This is underway. It has to be complemented by large investments programmes, notably on transport infrastructures;

Strong emphasis on youth through a large post-graduate programme and a young leaders one, funded by IPA; as well as on civil society through twinnings between professional organisations, whether farmers associations, chambers of commerce, etc…;

EU engagement to facilitate the resolution of bilateral issues;

a new narrative on enlargement for the EU member states.

This seminar offers you a unique opportunity in sharing views and forging networks. And I would like to pay tribute to Sonja, to Irena and to all those who set it up.  I wish you a very successful seminar!