"We’re freer and freer
It’s no longer a dream and you’re no longer alone
We’re higher and higher
Give me your hand, so that we can fly
Europe is not far away
This is an Italian song for you
Together, unite, unite, Europe.”
So sang Toto Cutugno in “ Together” – “Insieme”, the winning song in the 1990 Eurovision Song Contest, held in Zagreb.
In 1989, after four decades of post-war political and economic division, the former “Eastern Bloc” symbolically “returned to Europe”. The celebratory atmosphere following the victory of liberal democracy over totalitarianism was felt also at one of the world’s most-watched events that year, the 1990 Eurovision song contest.
Cutugno, from Italy, won the 1990 contest in Zagreb, then still in the Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Croatia, with his euphoric song, celebrating the continent’s reunification. Interestingly, it was the first Eurovision ever to take place in Socialist Yugoslavia, a country that was slowly siding towards inter-ethnic bloodshed.
Many things have since changed: Eurovision has become a show in which both European and non-European countries, including Australia, compete. Yugoslavia is long gone; Croatia has joined the EU; Cutugno’s Italy is meanwhile ruled by political elites who do not sing “Together” with much joy any longer, while “reunited Europe” is becoming increasingly divided.
From the perspective of North Macedonia, this year’s Eurovision, held in Israel, brought some novelties; the country took part for the first time under its new name of North Macedonia and achieved its best score ever. Represented by Tamara Todevska, her song, “Proud”, got the most points from the professional juries across the continent.
But it was not enough. The main prize went to Duncan Laurence with “Arcade” from the Netherlands, which won the hearts and minds of the public. Despite North Macedonia’s near victory, many Macedonians now believe the country should withdraw from Eurovision completely, since, due to “politics”, they consider winning Eurovision as unlikely as getting EU membership.
You often hear that “they”, meaning the EU, “do not want us”; and this feeling of being unwanted may intensify as the promised start to EU accession talks comes under question.
Once again the political jury, in this case the European Commission, and the equivalent of “tele-voters” – the European Council – report different points to the “green room”; the Council often appears hesitant to accept the recommendations of the European Commission on the start of accession talks.
This tension over the “points” given to countries dates back to the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, when the idea of Western Balkan integration into the EU was formally raised. The idea of a once war-torn region overcoming its violent past and striving for a common future sounded like a great “song”, and EU leaders ever have since assured Western Balkan countries that they are indeed invited “to the show”.
Nevertheless, the Western Balkan countries have often been given different “points” for more or less the same political performance, undermining trust in the EU’s intentions. And since 2003, only Croatia has become a full member of the EU.
The moral of this analogy is that the EU obviously lacks a clear vision for the region. On the one hand, it says the Western Balkan countries are lagging behind on the rule of law and the fight against corruption.
In its 2018 Credible Enlargement Perspective, the Commission noted “clear elements of state capture, including links with organised crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration, as well as a strong entanglement of public and private interests”.
On the other hand, experts and scholars argue that EU’s obsession with stability in the Western Balkans directly contributes to the democratic crises in the region, by often siding with corrupt, authoritarian, and nationalist elites who promise to deliver and sustain stability.
Despite that, the so-called “stabilitocracies” in the region often do not deliver much. They are, it has been said, “willing to cause and manage instability with their respective neighbors or towards an internal other—opposition or minorities—for the sake of securing continued rule”. Therefore, the only stability these regimes deliver is “the (kept) promises made towards external actors [the EU]”.
Such examples certainly come from Montenegro and Serbia, the two “frontrunners” in the EU integration process. Although they are both now in accession talks with the EU, the respected watchdog organization Freedom House considers the two countries only “partial” democracies.
Some experts, like Florian Bieber, describe the system in Montenegro as one of competitive authoritarianism, as the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists has enjoyed an uninterrupted political hegemony there since the first multi-party elections in 1990.
Much the same diagnosis is applied to Serbia. Bieber and others say Serbia has returned to authoritarianism under the rule of Aleksandar Vucic. Noting the EU’s continuous support for the Serbian President, Vucic is often dubbed Europe’s “favourite autocrat”. The situation is little different in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, and Kosovo.
The EU has been criticized also for remaining largely silent about the ongoing anti-government protests in Serbia and Albania, which accuse the two governments of authoritarian rule, political violence, corruption and media capture, and demand their resignation. Brussels has only called the demonstrators to refrain from violence, which again serves the EU’s policy of preserving stability in the region at any cost.
The EU’s approach in Albania and Serbia resembles that taken in North Macedonia under the government of Nikola Gruevski from 2006 to 2016. For a long time, the EU turned a blind eye to Gruevski’s authoritarian rule, and the European Commission kept recommending the start of the country’s accession negotiations.
Brussels only took action against the then government after the 2015 wiretapping scandal was revealed, and after the so-called “colourful revolution” followed – mainly because Skopje was no longer delivering stability, let alone progress.
After the government changed in 2017, North Macedonia is considered “the only country to experience an end to stabilitocracy”. But, since he came to power, the new Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, has faced difficulties in securing a stable administration. He had to enter a coalition with Gruevski’s former ethnic Albanian partner party, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, in order to form a new government.
And to implement his government’s pro-European and reformist agenda, Zaev has had to make other deals that have drawn heavy criticism. This year’s presidential elections also showed that his government is not that strong, as the results showed the ruling coalition had lost much of its support among the voters.
The European Commission has praised North Macedonia for making important progress in the implementation of the necessary reforms aimed at dismantling state capture and bringing the country to the negotiating table. Despite that, it is clearer that the Eurovision-style award of a full “12 points” from the European Council is still under question.
This leads to the conclusion that “progress” and “stability” do not perform well together. Perhaps the time has come for the EU to change its approach to the Western Balkans – and accept some instability in exchange for sustained progress.
EU leaders should keep their promises to the region, and make more visionary and courageous decisions. The EU should redefine its priorities and be honest about the region’s EU future. Otherwise, the EU may permanently disappoint many of its “fans” across the Western Balkans, among both elites and the citizens.
That could even motivate them to “withdraw from the contest” completely, which would not bring stability, even less progress. It is time to revive the vision of a united Europe – and sing “Together” once again.