On Wednesday the European Commission’s (EC) vice-president, Frans Timmermans, announced that the EU would invoke Article 7.1 of the EU treaty against Poland “with a heavy heart” for what he described as:
legislative changes [meaning] the executive or legislative powers are now set up in such a way that the ruling majority can now systematically interfere with the composition, power, and administration or functioning of these authorities – thereby rendering the independence of the judiciary completely moot.
This declaration comes after months of threats and will be subject to a European Council vote scheduled for March. A 4/5 supermajority will see the Article invoked. The process would then continue toward the second part, Article 7.2, which would dramatically suspend the EU voting rights of Poland. Article 7.2 requires a unanimous decision for which Hungary could prove a spoil. Nonetheless, Timmermans’s announcement has shown, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the EC does indeed understand the importance of an independent legal institution. It raises the question: if the EU would be prepared to take such historic action with one country inside its confines, why then would they not only stay totally silent but actually endorse the Rama 2 government’s recent unconstitutional appointment of a Temporary Prosecutor General elected by a simple majority in the parliament?
The most obvious distinction here is that Poland is an EU member and thus a domestic issue, whereas Albania is one of those South-East European nations that make up the “soft underbelly of Europe” – what one might think of as “foreign-plus.” Not domestic, but with a direct association. It is natural and correct for the EC to treat domestic and foreign-plus issues differently. Mistakes of meddling too directly in foreign affairs by greater powers is a lesson which has been repeated several times and only the most naive actors have failed to digest it. One would expect then, for the EC to voice its disapproval, and perhaps a meek threat to tinker with the selection of carrots to be distributed, without acting too assertively or impinging on Albanian sovereignty and autonomy with such sticky issues. However, a whole-hearted endorsement of the election of Arta Marku as a Temporary Prosecutor General seems distinctly hypocritical compared to the “heavy heart” with which the Article 7.1 process is invoked.
What could cause such a discrepancy? Let’s take a look at the region.
Pro-EU analytical institutions and think-tanks have been voicing their concern about the recent “encroachment” to the region from other big players, namely: Russia, China, Turkey, and the Gulf states. The effects of each are quite distinct and operate in different ways and in different places. While the reduction of NATO presence and lowering of local morale toward EU integration creates the space which encourages others to pursue their own interests.
The resurgence of Russia since its 1990’s nadir has seen increasing amounts of ideological and economical influence exported to the region bilaterally. Its aces seem to be the regional reliance on Russia for energy resources and historical religious and cultural ties. Its working relationships with China, Turkey, and Iran are unpredictably flexible – Russia–Turkey relations went from Cold War acrimony after the downing of a Russian attack aircraft along the Syria–Turkey border in 2015 to present harmony which has seen a large Russian energy pipeline project shift from the Balkan peninsula to Turkey entirely. Such quick U-turns and ad-hoc decision making warrant Russia’s description by EU–NATO analysts as an opportunist. With obvious links to Serbia and Republika Srpska (the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and allegations of involvement in Macedonian instability, as well as an “attempted coup” from pro-Russian factions in Montenegro in 2016, the presence of a comprehensive Russian narrative for the region is doubted while its soft-power resources and hybrid tactics are scrutinised.
China is largely an economic influencer, it sees the region as its route to European markets through its One Road One Belt Initiative and its 16+1 political forum. Chinese investment comes with less ideological strings attached and is thus a very attractive option to Balkan elites. While the economic development of the region is in EU interests, including Chinese development, when that financial development becomes a spoiler to EU influence then interests clash – such as the Chinese cash flowing into Republika Srpska, which undermines the Brussels-centred sanctions there imposed.
While Turkey is itself a country engaged in an integration dialogue with the EU, that conversation is dormant and will remain so for some time. Indeed Turkey is an extreme case where the EU’s best strategical case seems to be to keep the talks in stasis. Some who wish to suspend talks as some form of punishment for Erdoğan are considered by prominent pro-EU analysts as naive. Giving him what he wants while short-changing the EU’s long-term standing due to short-term concerns over a dictatorial personality. If the Turkish integration dialogue was formally taken off the table it is unlikely it would ever find its way back given the new veto-position of right-wing ideology – most notably from Austria. While Turkey provides visible investment in the form of big mosques it is also another exporter of the more explicitly business-minded style of political-nepotism which isn’t flavoured enough to European tastes. Saudi Arabia is another factor whose influence comes in the form of funding religious institutions which have contributed to Kosovo becoming Europe’s most prolific per-capita contributor of fighters joining ISIS. But the Gulf states have also exerted influence beyond religion, with the UAE propping up Belgrade’s defense budget.
Traditional roles have also reversed in the sense that it has been the EU that has been exporting instability to the region rather than the other way around. The largely Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi refugees coming from Greece and moving through the Balkan corridor were not too much of a problem for local elites until the EU states at the north of the corridor restricted their borders. Balkan memories of their own refugee convoys perhaps caused them to be quite sympathetic, but post-Yugoslav tensions between elites were heightened. The EU–Turkey summit was said by many to show EU hypocrisy but it is only one part of the collection of issues which illustrate the instability of the region.
With Brexit set to occupy the imagination for years to come and right-wing populism that has left virtually no corner of Europe untouched, and a new European budget to be negotiated and implemented between 2020–26, it is fairly obvious to everyone in the region that enlargement is off the cards. Next spring’s progress report will likely communicate this – between the lines and among a lot of other guff. Integration is now a carrot on a very long stick. As European foreign influence and domestic stability dip, the alternative regional narratives of other great powers grow without really threatening comprehensively. The plan for many Eurocrats, then, is to play for time in the region while attempting to limit alternative foreign influence. But how might they achieve this?
It is cynical to think, but it seems that smiling and congratulating the Rama government as it congeals its power might be, counter-intuitively, agreeable. An appeased Rama, one might think, will keep the calendar ticking over with the hollow talk of progression towards integration as it is evident that he really only cares for his own power. Rama will waste a lot of time, the country itself is fairly safely orientated towards the Atlantic and thus seen as relatively safe from the more extreme examples of deviation from the EU narrative; it wouldn’t do to provoke him unnecessarily. Let Albania congeal, and smile agreeably, whether Rama consolidates and becomes increasingly a miniature Erdoğan, or whether he is shaken from power by the Albanian people before finishing his term – either option would eat the clock, either would be a welcome step back. The international response is less of a respectful silence and more of a complicit one.