Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel was, for years, the driving force behind Berlin’s – and EU’s – policies in the Western Balkans. As Merkel is exiting the scene, the region is still years away from EU integration, and some of its countries even took a turn away from their stated objectives of becoming consolidated liberal democracies.
Merkel’s approach: support for “stabiliocracies”
Less than two weeks before Germany’s general elections, Chancellor Angela Merkel embarked on a farewell tour in the Balkans. She met Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in Belgrade, and a day later she was in Tirana for talks with the prime ministers of the Western Balkan countries. Merkel's visit to the attracted a lot of attention by both domestic and foreign public, while questions arose about the success or failure of her policies in the Balkans and what kind of future the region expects after her departure.
At the end of the Merkel era, most countries in the Western Balkans have the same goals and similar problems: they want full membership in the European Union and at the same time they face a bunch of domestic challenges, from weak economies to corruption, lack of reforms and ethnic tensions. In recent years, Angela Merkel has advocated a policy in the Balkans that puts the interests of the German economy and stability above democracy. Stabiliocracy is the name for the support that Western democracies provide to the regimes of peripheral countries that carry out undemocratic practices, but still provide a certain stability in the domestic and foreign policy sense.
"Serbia and the countries of the Western Balkans have a long way to go to join the European Union, but Germany's goal is for them to do that," Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Belgrade at a joint press conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
The integration of the Western Balkans would be of central geostrategic interest for the EU. Hesitation in EU capitals is used by other world powers such as Russia, China and the Gulf countries to increase influence in the region and sow skepticism towards the EU.
The policies of Germany and the EU are therefore strongly reflected in domestic circumstances, and it is now being analyzed what Merkel’s departure from the political scene will mean for the region, and whether any significant changes can be expected in that sense. Germany is not only one of the most important economic partners for the region, but also a country whose voice is seen as crucial for the process of European integration. To that should certainly be added a personal tie that the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, had with Angela Merkel, which was very often the reason for sharp criticism of the opposition.
Germany's interests have not changed during these years, and it is expected that they will remain unchanged in the following period. Germany will remain interested in a stable Western Balkans, which does not produce problems, that a very important migrant route is under control, and at the same time there is a high growth of the German economic presence in Serbia.
The cost of betting on Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić
Perhaps the key question after the departure of Angela Merkel is whether and to what extent the attitude of the entire EU towards Serbia will change now, specifically towards the rule of Aleksandar Vučić. There is a strong belief in Serbia that Merkel was Vučić's main support in the EU, and that it was therefore difficult to fight an equal political struggle with him in Serbia.
Merkel appreciated Vučić’s constructive approach towards the Kosovo file, and his attitude during the migrant crisis. The Serbian leader constantly points out that she returned that service by supporting Serbia. However, their meetings have become less frequent in the past few years, and therefore the farewell trip can be seen as an unequivocal show of support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans.
When Angela Merkel leaves the chancellery chair, an era of not only German, but also European policy towards the Balkans will end. During the 16 years of her tenure, various phases and strategies have been identified that guided the Chancellor's Balkan policy. Her visits to Belgrade may be seen as benchmarks for these phases.
During the first visit, in 2011, she withdrew support for then-President Tadic who subsequently lost power just a few months later. Her visit in 2015 was marked by strong support for the commitment of then-President Nikolic and Prime Minister Vucic to EU accession, after accession talks opened in 2014, as well as reviving the process of normalizing relations with Kosovo through the Brussels agreement signed the same year.
Since then, the opinion has prevailed in Berlin that if anyone can convince the citizens of Serbia that a compromise should be made regarding Kosovo, then it is President Vučić. The agreement would be that in exchange for progress on the Kosovo issue, the EU would tolerate a lack of progress in the field of democratization and the rule of law in Serbia. This approach did not bring results and should have been reconsidered in 2018, when it became clear that Vučić was not overly ready to discuss Kosovo, which could be seen from the poorly organized internal dialogue on this topic. However, Merkel has not changed her strategy and that is why the last phase of her policy towards Serbia is dragging on until today, to the detriment of democracy in Serbia and the credibility of the EU.
Prioritizing business over principles
Until recently, Merkel was faithful to her tactics of stick and carrot on the issue of the Western Balkans. Eventual EU membership should have been so attractive that the region's political leaders would in turn be willing to make concessions - to resolve a few conflicts. The chancellor's course of close personal ties was supposed to bring results in the end. And so, the EU, under the influence of Angela Merkel, generously ignored the rampant corruption, the trampling of an independent judiciary and the pressure on the media - not to upset political partners.
The situation in Serbia today is worse than a few years ago, according to international organizations reports on the state of democracy, rule of law and media freedoms, which have been drastically reduced. Reports on progress towards EU accession have never so unequivocally pointed out shortcomings, and not a single new negotiation chapter has been opened since December 2019. Political pluralism has disappeared after the last parliamentary elections in June 2020, as the ruling coalition has since had a 93% majority in the Serbian National Assembly, and the judicial system, media and supposedly independent institutions have been captured by SNS members loyal to Vučić.
However, one item in the balance sheet of the German Chancellor's is particularly worrying - since her last visit in 2015, the Serbian government has not implemented any significant reforms in the field of so-called "bases", ie Chapters 23 and 24 on justice and fundamental rights and freedoms.
All in all, as it often happened with Angela Merkel's foreign policy, her economic strategy succeeded, while her political strategy failed. In recent years, German companies have invested around 3 million euros in Serbia and created more than 65,000 jobs, which proves that Serbia has become an attractive destination, especially for suppliers to the German car industry. However, it seems that this situation is not sustainable in the long run, since German companies enjoy numerous benefits obtained from the Serbian authorities, but at the same time operate in an environment of legal uncertainty and the absence of the rule of law.
The biggest political problem, for which Merkel herself is responsible, is that she never had a lever with which to seriously influence Vučić, due to their close connection within the European People's Party. The President of Serbia skillfully uses all the possibilities offered to him by the status of the Chancellor's man in the Balkans to continue to devalue institutions and postpone reforms forever.
The future of the relationship
What can we hope for in the future? First, that the German Chancellor used this visit not only to say goodbye to the region, but also to send a clear message for Serbia's future relations with Germany. If the Social Democrats get the position of chancellor, one should not expect a revolutionary change in attitudes towards the region, because any German government will be condemned to cooperate with the elected representatives of the Balkan states. However, one should expect a somewhat sharper rhetoric when it comes to further capturing the state and suffocating democracy, and for Germany to take a more decisive stance in support of EU enlargement.
It was not difficult to notice that the Western Balkans almost did not exist in the election campaign in Germany, which is the fate that befell most foreign policy topics. The question of whether there will be a continuity of the German presence in the Western Balkans should be a question of whether there will be a stronger role for Germany in that area.