Roma refugees from Kosovo drink water at the Vrela Ribnicka camp in Podgorica, Montenegro on October 13, 2012.

©2018Reuters
On February 6, the European Commission will present its new strategy for the enlargement of the EU. People in the Western Balkans may greet the news with scepticism.

But if the EU institutions and states are really willing to end the EU's policy drift and commit to support human rights and the rule of law in the region instead of sclerosis in the name of stability, it could be a new beginning.

The Bulgarian presidency is already committed to bringing the Western Balkans closer to the EU, including by organising a dedicated summit in May in Sofia that could create momentum.

Western Balkans states have struggled for the best part of the last 25 years to emerge from the devastation of the conflicts leading to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

The transition to become stable and rights-respecting democratic societies that respect the rule of law is incomplete.

Reckless politicians use the 'ethnic card' when convenient, undoing years of rapprochement between former enemies, or blocking exchanges between experts. Judicial cooperation aimed at uncovering the truth, prosecuting war criminals, or finding mass graves would benefit all sides, yet evading truth has become the norm.

Investigations are stalled or discontinued, prosecutions are rare, convicted war criminals are glorified as heroes.

For most of this decade, the EU's efforts to use its leverage and influence to set the Western Balkans on a democratic, rights-respecting course have been shallow. Progress reports linked formalistically to the 'Copenhagen' accession criteria have asserted that progress was being made while reports from non-governmental organisations continued to shed a light on a more worrying reality.

Toothless

And as the repeated failure to end political discrimination in the Bosnian constitution shows, leaders in the region know that the EU's calls for them to uphold human rights have been toothless.

Meanwhile EU leaders have tended to pay attention to the region only when political violence flares – as with the recent killing of Oliver Ivanovic, a northern Mitrovica based Serb politician – or the threat of violence looms large.

This minimalist policy has failed people in the Balkans.

Limited political and criminal accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity has left open wounds for the victims of the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

Political deadlock between the nationalist parties and ethnically divided entities in Bosnia, and antagonism between Belgrade and Pristina are as current as ever.

The impact of groundbreaking trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which wound up operations, has not carried over to national courts.

And the EU has shown little interest in prosecutions in national courts, with the belated exception of the special court on Kosovo, which politicians in Kosovo are busy trying to undermine.

Nor have they supported a regional truth commission to establish a single narrative of the conflicts and help people come to terms with the past, a move long advocated by civil society groups.

Incomplete transitions and stagnant economies have created distrust toward government. Politicians in the region, increasingly irritated by critics in civil society and the media, focus their energies on stifling the critics. Nor do they shy away from interfering in the justice system in ways that compromise its independence.

Maximum leverage before accession

EU officials know from experience that transformative reforms are best demanded while talks are ongoing. Afterward can be too late. Think of Croatia, where the lack of rigorous post-accession monitoring meant the country continued to sponsor and glorify war criminals well after it entered the EU in 2013, or indeed Romania, where the rule of law is a real concern today.

The symbolic significance of joining the EU may have faded – few can really believe that any new Balkan states will join by 2025, but the prospect still carries significant potential for improvement across the whole spectrum of social-economic and civil and political rights.

To ensure that a new strategy can deliver on this potential, it needs to include robust monitoring and enforcement systems. Legal reforms only count if they are implemented in a reliable and sustainable way.

If the EU is serious this time, then it needs to put forward a more ambitious and determined effort to position rights and the rule of law – the core Copenhagen criteria – back on top of the enlargement agenda.