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EU integration and party politics in the Balkans

Integration / ISSUE PAPER
Corina Stratulat

Date: 02/09/2014
Democracy has become the lingua franca of the European Union’s enlargement to the Balkans. The notions of free and fair elections, robust rule of law, effective public administration, healthy civil society, and free media are by now the distinctive features of that vocabulary, which has expanded with every previous round of EU widening. Yet for all the eloquence of democratic words exchanged for more than a decade by the Union and the countries of the region, the eloquence of democratic action in the Balkans still seems inadequate.

Throughout the region, popularly elected leaders consistently fail to meet the democratic standards set by the EU and, more importantly, they fall short of their voters’ expectations. Distrust in representative institutions and disengagement from political life runs dramatically high among the people of the Balkan countries, and this generalised sense of dissatisfaction is starting to breed cynicism also towards the idea of a better future inside the Union.

But if Balkan governments are the common source of disappointment both for the EU and the electorates in the region, and if political parties are not mere appendages but the very backbone of democratic government, to what extent is the Union’s democratic agenda in the Balkans concerned with the condition of political parties?

The five country case studies included in this paper suggest that the issue of political party development and interaction in the Balkans is not systematically addressed by the democratic conditionality for accession. The EU meddles in inter-party relations and party links to society in the aspiring countries of the region but it does so mostly in reaction to specific problems, largely indirectly through the interpretation of conditions by domestic actors, and not always with long-term positive consequences.

Whether it pits insiders against outsiders in a party system, whether it makes or breaks governing coalitions, and whether it fosters the (de)politicisation of policymaking, this study shows that the interplay between EU integration and national politics in the region is both consequential for the quality of Balkan democracies, as well as reminiscent of the Western and Central and Eastern European experience.

To guarantee lasting peace and the sustainability of the democratic transformation in the Balkans, the EU should get interested in party politics in the Balkans. The European Commission should devise and treat well thought through standards of democratic performance of political parties and party systems as any other formal accession requirements. More attention and support should also be given to boosting political party activism and citizen’s engagement with political life in the Balkan countries.

Given the similar ways in which the EU integration process impacts political party dynamics in the member states and the aspiring Balkan countries, investing in finding solutions to common worrying trends – such as the party-society gap or political party monopolies – is a sensible course of action not only for the sake of the Balkan polities but also for the future of European democracy.

Read the full paper here

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