Part One: Democracy and Candidate Countries
‘We value as extremely important the role of the talks on accession in particular on the issues of rule of law, human rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and the independence of judiciary. I know that the Turkish government has an ambitious reform agenda we value as extremely important that these issues are included and implemented on the way ahead’.
The statement belongs to the EU High Representative and Vice-President Federica Mogherini, who made this somewhat clumsy remark- praising the ‘ambitious agenda’ of the Turkish government, following the EU-Turkey High Level Political Dialogue Meeting on January 25. The meeting was a follow-up to the November 2015 EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan concerning the migrant and refugee flow to EU member states. According to the plan, Turkey has agreed to keep asylum-seekers by granting them documents, to readmit irregular migrants who are not considered in need of international protection in line with the bilateral readmission treaty, and to step-up cooperation and information sharing with Frontex and the EU member states, especially Greece and Bulgaria. In return, the EU committed an initial €3 billion assistance package to be spent on refugees, the prospect of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens and a jumpstart in the stalled accession negotiations by opening new chapters. The initial implementation report released in December 2015 noted the ‘practically unchanged’ situation in the migrant flow from Turkey. To push a swifter implementation of the agreement (read- a more willing attitude by Turkey towards policing its borders), the EU felt the necessity to give further momentum by working hard to lift Italy’s veto on €3 billion aid and revitalising the accession talks by signalling the possibility of starting preparatory work on additional chapters of Turkey’s EU accession bid.
A similar deal on the migrant issue was agreed between the member states at the EU’s eastern border and the candidate countries in the Balkans (Macedonia, Serbia and Albania). Since the Western Balkans have recently become an alternative transit route for irregular migrants aiming to reach Western Europe through Greece, the EU-Balkans Action Plan, approved on October 25, aims to regularise the migrant flow for better processing of asylum claims and to increase the joint management of borders along the Western Balkans route. An additional €13 million in humanitarian aid was also released for the region to provide temporary shelter, clothing and food for refugees.
It seems like the candidate countries, once granted incentives to praise their progress in meeting the accession criteria through domestic reforms, are now offered the same carrots to police the EU borders. The meeting between Angela Merkel and the Serbian Prime Minister Alexander Vucic is an exemplary case how the migrant influx has given the candidate countries at the EU’s borders a possibility to bargain with the EU for incentives. During the meeting, Vucic sent three important messages: Serbia would take on new measures which would dramatically reduce the influx of asylum-seekers to Germany; he believes that Serbia will be provided with ‘serious assistance from the EU’ in order to deal with the refugee flow; and the country would start negotiations on first chapters in a few months. Perhaps more revealing is the leaked minutes of the meeting between the Turkish President Erdoğan, the Commission President Juncker and the President of the European Council Donald Tusk. Apparently, the Turkish President threatened ‘to open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria’ and ‘to put refugees on busses’, if the EU’s offer is limited to €3bn for two years. Clearly asylum seekers and irregular migrants have become a matter of bargain between the EU and candidate countries.
But why question? In the end, isn’t the accession process about bargaining between candidate countries and the EU? The answer is yes and no. Although there are several ways that accession countries can indirectly bargain with the EU over incentives offered on the road to membership and manipulate the process, pre-accession conditionality is a strictly EU-driven process which requires candidate countries to make a genuine commitment to democratization. The incentives in the form of financial aid, visa-free travel, and the opening of new chapters are offered as the candidate countries keep up with their reform agenda.
Obviously, when the security of its borders is at stake, the EU can make exceptions to strict conditionality by opening up new negotiations chapters and providing financial aid. The problem here is that the EU’s new gatekeepers are those governments, which the EU has been struggling with for a while to keep on track for democratic reforms.
Turkey, Macedonia and Serbia have highly divergent political trajectories and different complications in their relations with the EU. However, their commonality lies in the fact that none of them can be considered as fully democratic countries that guarantee broad protection of civil liberties and freedom of expression. The governments in Ankara, Skopje and Belgrade are now infamous with their undemocratic leanings at home. Electoral manipulation, unfair access to media and financial resources and frequent harassment of the opposition and dissidents are widely used to strengthen the incumbents’ grip on power. All the while, the EU continues to wrongly assume that these countries are undergoing a prolonged transition to democratic consolidation; not hesitating to offer incentives to the accession process or even praise them for their ‘ambitious reform agenda’.
The European Union is trapped in an old assumption that an EU candidacy closely linked to political conditionality would sooner or later push these countries towards a reform agenda. It is easy to hold on to this assumption, as long as the candidate countries help the EU police its borders and play the ‘democratisation in progress’ game without overtly resorting to authoritarian rule. Sure, all three countries have multiparty elections and political systems confirming the separation of powers and the rule of law in principle. In reality however, semi-authoritarian practices have been more and more institutionalised; and these countries experience a reversal away from democracy.
In their seminal work, Levitsky and Way define competitive authoritarian regimes as ‘civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents’ abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents. Such regimes are competitive in that opposition parties use democratic institutions to contest seriously for power, but they are not democratic because the playing field is heavily skewed in favour of incumbents. Competition is thus real but unfair.’ These are the regimes where elections are held regularly and electoral competition between multiple parties takes place. Different from the fully authoritarian regimes, the opposition is not totally banned. However, this competition is not free or fair.
In competitive authoritarian regimes, the timing and the informal rules of the electoral game are decided by governments in power because elections are seen as a means to re-confirm their authority and popular support. In between the elections, media and state resources are strictly controlled and patronage networks dominate the relationship between the government and the business sector. Intimidation and detention of opposition party members and dissident voices, such as intellectuals and independent media, as well as the arbitrary implementation of law confirm that civil liberties exist only on paper in competitive authoritarian countries. The striking reality is that these countries are not in transition to democracy; they are not only experiencing a temporarily stalled democratic consolidation. This institutionalised control, oppression of dissidence and distorted competition favouring governments means that such regimes can comfortably settle in the gray zone between democracy and authoritarianism for a long time.
Unfortunately, the attributes of such a hybrid regime can be found among EU candidate countries. If the daily intimidation of the opposition parties and the violent oppression of civic protests was not enough, the EU should have been convinced by recent developments that Turkey is fast approaching a zone where the rule of law and democratic checks and balances can be openly violated. The curfew imposed on provinces in the southeast of Turkey, the jailing of journalists and academics, crackdowns on the media, libel cases against citizens who are critical of the government’s policies on social networks and self-censorship should be enough for a prognosis. In Serbia and Macedonia, the two other gatekeepers of the EU borders, media freedom has been threatened under self-censorship and massive pressure from the government, similar to that of Turkey. Early elections are called when incumbent leaders find them necessary to confirm their support and are usually fought under manipulation. The authoritarian temptation in Serbia and Macedonia also extends to patronage links and strong loyalty to party leaders, intimidation of the opposition and control of the state.
Clearly democracy is not ‘a simple and uncontroversial term’. There are various forms by which democratic governance can be practiced, even within the EU. However, the existence of regular elections and a rule of law that remains on paper do not mean that the candidate countries will become consolidated democracies one day. In his influential article, Thomas Carothers has warned that the transition bias of international democracy promoters prevent them from spotting ‘the gray zone’ between democracy and full authoritarianism that is ‘the most common political condition today in the developing world and the postcommunist world’. While undemocratic practices in hybrid regimes take similar forms and continue with impunity across candidate countries, the EU continues to treat them en route to democracy. It is probably easier to do so as long as this mutual hypocrisy works for both sides, rather than calling into question the utility and credibility of the entire accession process.
However, it is time to ask serious questions about the accession countries and look for answers: When will the EU start taking the authoritarian practices in candidate countries seriously and what can it do to turn the tide against the undemocratic current in these countries? A genuine answer to this question would probably necessitate a major reconsideration of EU conditionality, as it is currently applied. More importantly, it would also require self-criticism to acknowledge that there are not only full democracies (member states) and democratising countries; but there are those hybrid regimes. Having them as candidate countries and offering them incentives unrelated to the logic of conditionality would mean tacit support for the consolidation of competitive authoritarian regimes. It is time for the EU to get serious about candidate countries. Failure to do so would have grim implications for the credibility of the EU’s worldwide democracy promotion goal and the future of enlargement.