EU Enlargement and State Capture in the Western Balkans
In 2018, the European Union (EU) enlargement process in the Western Balkans is at a crossroads. EU leaders have recommitted themselves to the process, but Western Balkan states in the membership queue are hobbled by the capture of the state by elites who favour rent-seeking and ethno-nationalist appeals over economic reform, media freedom and the rule of law. The EU’s renewed commitment is perhaps surprising given the democratic backsliding that has happened since 2010 in EU members that were once the front-runners of post-communist reform. In Hungary and Poland, the ascendance of rent-seeking elites who use ethno-nationalist appeals to legitimize the concentration of power has undermined liberal democracy—and in Hungary it has destroyed it. I argue in this chapter that for the EU there are nevertheless substantial geopolitical benefits including regional stability and democratic reform that motivate continued enlargement to the Western Balkan states. And for the candidates, there remain vast geopolitical and economic benefits of membership that continue to motivate at least uneven democratic reform, but sometimes falter also because the EU struggles with expertise, consistency and legitimacy in the pre-accession process. The conclusion reflects on how the illiberal turn inside the EU may shape enlargement going forward.
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