Exodus of young people from Western Balkans is linked to problems with the rule of law and lack of modernisation, speakers at enlargement conference warn.
A lack of justice is driving Bosnians to leave their country, Valentin Inzko, the EU Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said on 19 June in a critical assessment of the state of the country's politics and institutions. His concern that poor governance is encouraging emigration from the Western Balkans was echoed by other speakers from other countries at the Enlargement Day conference organised by the European Committee of the Regions.
The conference was held a day after EU member states decided to postpone a decision on starting accession talks with Albania and with North Macedonia, which changed its name earlier this year to settle a dispute with Greece and remove what had long been the principal obstacle to its hopes of joining the EU. There was unanimous support from the podium for North Macedonia's case for opening accession talks, with representatives of the European Commission noting that it has recommended that talks begin for the ten past years; but there were also strong voices that argued that the EU's financial support is, in other parts of the region, failing to spread European values – the main question of the conference.
"To be clear from the very beginning, I think the EU is not getting a fair return" on its investment, said Mr Inzko, who took up his post in 2009. "Despite the significant investments in Bosnia and Hercegovina, we have witnessed a remarkable decline in some of these areas, most importantly and worryingly the rule of law," he said, concluding that "we have to maybe reassess our approach", introduce deadlines to inject a sense of urgency and emphasise implementation. Over the years, he said, the international community had withdrawn its presence from institutions in the country, an approach that, he said, now looked like "a head-in-the-sand policy". The effects on the judiciary are now evident in "two scandals". One "scandal" is that Bosnia and Herzegovina is ignoring a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights ordering the country to stop preventing 300,000 people not of Serb, Bosniak, or Croat ethnicity from many public posts. The other is a recent decision by the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council – "the highest body responsible for vetting, appointing, disciplining and dismissing prosecutors" – de facto to grant its president "not merely immunity, but impunity" by dismissing a disciplinary proceeding as "inadmissible". This was a procedure "that can only be described as a sham" that "sends a message that there is no justice" in the country.
His disappointment was mirrored by Valery Perry of the Democratization Policy Council, who said that the brain drain from Bosnia has turned into a "flood". The Dayton constitution was never about accountability and good governance, but ending a war. Now, she argued, the international community now finds itself providing external support for a worsening and dysfunctional status quo. Bottom-up constitutional reform is needed, she said, including greater agency and greater accountability for local administrations.
The need for reform at the local and regional level is a theme across the region, said Sonja Licht of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence. "I am deeply convinced that the issue of decentralisation remains unfinished task, to be very diplomatic in our entire region," she said, arguing that decentralisation must "go hand in hand with developing the strength of municipalities, local institutions, their cooperation with all other stakeholders at local level, and in achieving a serious effort in a bottom-up economic development". She continued: "The problem is that we all lack a clear-cut strategy" and that, while EU funding is helping, "it is very important to have a serious capacity-building effort".
She concluded by warning that "if the exodus of people from our region… continues, we will lose the agents of change, the men and women-power to really carry things through".
Vesselin Valkanov of the Regional Cooperation Council urged administrations at all levels to take an "honest approach…, backed with a financial commitment" and pressed local administrations to look too for partners across borders, saying regional cooperation "does not side-track you; it helps you advance".
The conference was preceded on the 18 June by parallel country-specific meetings, focused on topics ranging from the Dayton agreement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, good governance in North Macedonia, and the EU's pre-accession financial support for Montenegro, to the rule of law in Serbia and youth unemployment in Turkey. There were no specific meetings for local and regional politicians from Albania and Kosovo* as the CoR's Working Group on Western Balkans has an alternating focus on Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo.
European Commission representatives praised the "profound reform" undertaken by Albania, but greatest attention this year was on North Macedonia. The breakthrough in relations between Greece and what is now North Macedonia has been paralleled at the local level, with the first visits to Skopje and Athens by their mayors. The "law-making process is increasingly transparent and inclusive" and progress in areas such as public administration is improving the situation of local government, the European Commission said. Nonetheless, the EU, whose ambassador to North Macedonia has now visited half of the country's municipalities, is "very aware of the difficulties created by a lack of human and financial resources".
Petre Shilegov, mayor of Skopje, president of the Association of the Units of Local Self-Government of the Republic of North Macedonia (ZELS) and president of the Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe (NALAS), said that local government in North Macedonia – as in other countries in the region – had suffered in the state-building process in the "very, very bad years" after the collapse of Yugoslavia. He predicted, however, that the process of decentralisation in North Macedonia will develop rapidly and that the rest of the region will follow. Central government has recently assumed some debts built up by local government, and speakers expressed the hope that a better matching of funding and responsibilities will follow.
There were also positive assessments about Montenegro, which became a candidate for EU membership in late 2010. At a meeting that offered an insight into how EU support operates at the local level, the European Commission described Montenegro as "probably the best performer in terms of utilisation" of twinning and the technical assistance and information exchange instrument TAIEX, and noted that the country is very active in cross-border programmes. The EU's collaboration with Montenegro is now in a more challenging phase, moving from a project-by-project approach to a more "holistic" approach – a change that, in practice, means that the EU considers not just, for example, the renovation of a school but teacher-training, school material, and budgeting when it supports a local education project. Darko Mrvaljević of the Union of Municipalities of Montenegro said that local government needs more staff knowledgeable about the management of EU projects and said that "keeping people we have trained" is a "very important problem".
Progress was made, the Commission said, at the local level in Serbia, a country that otherwise was subject to significant criticism by the EU. Goran Vesić, mayor of Belgrade, Serbia's capital, said that local-government reforms in Serbia are being driven by the realisation that "more than 70%" of EU rules will require some action at the local level, and highlighted the "abolition of plastic bags" in Belgrade next year as an example of the ambition for change being driven by integration into the EU.
The Commission found that, across the Western Balkans, freedom of expression is "very limited" and noted that the number of journalists in jail in Turkey – 160 – is one of the highest in the world. The Commission also brought attention to Turkey's "serious backsliding" at home (including a "strong deterioration in human rights") and the country's continued drilling in Cypriot waters – a policy that was criticised by EU member states on 18 June.
 This designation is without prejudice to positions on the status of Kosovo, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/99 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence..