Cleaning up both the EU and Western Balkans8 November 2019 | 12:27 | EUobserver
A recent New York Times investigation into EU-funded corruption related to agricultural subsidies , The Money Farmers: How Oligarchs and Populists Milk the EU for Millions shines a spotlight on one of the most troubling cases of a member state gaming the system.
The case of Hungary is notable for several reasons. Prime minister Viktor Orban openly opposes the EU's policies and values while benefitting handsomely from its money.
Under his leadership, Hungary has moved in a fundamentally illiberal direction as he has captured large swathes of the economy.
Moreover, the rightward turn in Hungary is part of a global struggle over core political values – between independent rule of law and authoritarian rule; between rights-based systems and exclusionary nationalism; and between accountable, citizen-driven governance and strongman rule.
The timing of the Times' investigation provides a chance to highlight another recent development on the continent that underscores the importance of dealing with the EU's present seeming inability to safeguard liberal values – the EU's decision, forced by French president Emanuel Macron, to delay the opening of membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia, even though they both had met the EU's own requirements for doing so.
There are a number of reasons behind this decision, most notably Macron's stated interest in improving the EU's own internal governance before welcoming new members.
On the one hand, this sounds sensible, and if implemented could ensure a stronger Union to which western Balkans countries could aspire.
Six out in the cold
On the other hand, the amount of political will that must be summoned to generate a fundamental change of direction in the aircraft carrier-sized EU, and the amount of time that this will take, in effect shuts the door on enlargement indefinitely, thereby opening space for the remaining western Balkan EU hopefuls (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia) to at best continue to regress in their own domestic reform efforts, and at worst increasingly align with other powers eager to fill the vacuum, most notable Russia, China and Turkey.
This is more than an economic issue – it touches directly on Europe's security and deserves the attention of all who favour continuation of the trans-Atlantic alliance and its values.
Since the Macron decision, much has been written that has been critical of the ability of the EU's enlargement policy to effect real change among membership hopefuls.
However, there has been little substantial analysis of why so much money and effort in the Balkans has failed to result in the political and economic transformation needed to prepare candidates for full membership.
The Times piece goes a long way to explaining the dynamics in the Balkans, many of which are similar to Hungary's post-1989 trajectory, yet made even more dangerous due to the legacy of the wars of the 1990s that killed around 130,000 people and displaced millions.
Temptations to wanna-be-oligarchs exist in every country and can only be prevented or prosecuted by an empowered, impartial and independent judicial system; an independent media free from tacit pressure or direct and violent threat; and a political system based on accountability and genuine representation rather than patronage.
All of these factors have proven to be quite frail and shallowly-rooted in several of the newest EU members states; in the western Balkans they are even more fragile.
The Times piece notes that there is little stomach in Brussels to address the $65bn [?57.8bn] goody bag of agricultural subsidies that national governments are able to spend as they see fit, especially at a time when it is undergoing its own democratic stress test, evident through the rise of an illiberal right and Brexit.
However, the only way the EU in Brussels, and EU-supporting parliamentarians in the members states, can ever ensure the endurance and strengthening of the Union is to take steps to acknowledge and remedy the legalised self-dealing that is present throughout all 28 members states, but has had such spectacularly negative impact on the states with the weakest democratic checks and balances and economic vigour.
The impact of more transparency and a broader distribution of EU subsidy programs could in addition improve the bloc's standing among its own increasingly eurosceptic citizens, in the short-term through demonstrable housecleaning, and in the long-term through less blatant income inequality.
A genuine effort to address this problem – in the agriculture sector but also throughout the EU structural funding pipeline - could then have the added benefit of demonstrating to the six western Balkan countries just what they need to do internally to prepare for membership, while simultaneously denying these countries EU funds that, history has shown, will primarily serve to prop up elites and an illiberal status quo contrary to the interests of the EU.
A genuine anti-corruption, pro-transparency movement grounded in the recognition that the way in which the EU's own euros are spent (and who benefits from them) matters, could kick-start the process of addressing core weaknesses within the EU, while at the same time demonstrating the reform requirements of prospective Balkan members.
This will not be simple; as we increasingly hear in the region, "turkeys don't vote for Christmas."
However, there is no reason the EU's own self-improvement cannot happen in tandem with simultaneous efforts in the western Balkans. In fact this would lend credence to the EU's favoured notion, "partnership," by demonstrating to EU hopefuls that they must do as they do, not as they say.
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