Book Review: European Integration and Transformation in the Western Balkans

Arolda Elbasani (eds.), European Integration and Transformation in the Western Balkans. Europeanization or Business as Usual? (New York, USA: Routledge, Routledge/UACES Contemporary European Studies Series, 2013). 218 pp., £85.00 (cloth), ISBN: 9780415594523.

The book edited by Arolda Elbasani focuses on the Europeanization of the Western Balkans offering a broad and deep reflection of the EU transformative power in this geo-political area. As Elbasani explains, when the EU expanded its concept of enlargement also to the Western Balkans, it generated high expectations that the enlargement strategy would work in the same way as it had in the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). In 1999, the EU launched a specific process for the region, the ‘Stabilization and Association Process’ (SAP), largely based on the same mechanisms, values and tools of the CEE Enlargement, but including also some additional more-targeted criteria (regional cooperation among the Western Balkan states and cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia). In this respect, the chapter of Phinnemore, in the Elbasanis’ book, offers a detailed analysis of the similarities and close links between the SAP and the CEE Enlargement strategy.

Thus, Europeanization and Enlargement conditionality became the dominant approaches also to study EU-led reform in the Western Balkans region. However, the first results provided evidence that these countries shared poor records of reforms and the widespread presence of unfavorable domestic conditions that challenged the EU’s transformative power. In spite of these results, still very little research on whether and how challenging domestic factors may undermine EU transformative power is available.

The aim of the book is, in fact, to conceptualize and assess the weight of the domestic conditions – in different reform areas and countries – that might inhibit Europeanization or account for delay. In those countries, unlike the CEE, public support for EU norms and values and for EU membership was more fragile. According to the author, resistance to, and occasional rejection of, the EU conditions in the Western Balkans was due to the perceived non-legitimacy of the EU’s demands.

In this respect the book aims to ascertain the explanatory factors accounting for different domestic responses to Europeanization. To this end, the volume proceeds to unpacking domestic context and challenging factors along with three main lines: 1) Strengths of reformist elites, meaning the presence of EU coalition with domestic actors. Here the focus is on the reformist constellations that tend to ally with the EU favouring compliance with the EU requirements. 2) Hindering historical legacies and inhibiting structures, conceived as formal and informal conditions that frame (or limit) actors’ agency and capacity of action to take or to execute new rules and models. 3) Weak stateness, with a double meaning of contested state authority related to sovereignty issues and lack of infrastructural capacity to exercise state authority. Infrastructural weakness can derive from contested authority but might feature also in consolidate nation states.
The focus on weak stateness is, although challenging, the most interesting and distinguishing aspect of the book, in respect to other studies on Western Balkans. The chapter of Börzel, in particular, underlines that the majority of the Western Balkans countries, with some exception of Croatia, are characterized by ‘limited stateness’, meaning the lack of adequate capacity to make and enforce collectively binding rules that can also partially affect sovereignty and territorial issues. In countries where borders are still contested and ethnic identities still clash, also the adoption of policies not directly linked with statehood issues is perceived as extremely costly or as intrusions into national sovereignty matters. Problems related to state sovereignty and statehood-linked issues have influenced the capacity, or better the willingness, of domestic actors to accomplish the EU-driven reforms. For this reason, in many cases rule adoption has been ‘selective’, or rather implemented only in relation to those priorities that did not imply an ‘intrusion’ into national sovereignty, and they have often taken the form of fake compliance, with reforms being simply on paper without internalization and concrete institutional changes.

The book has a twofold added value. Firstly, it brings-back the attention of the European political science community on the Western Balkans region. Since it lost its reputation of “trouble-making periphery” of Europe experiencing slow normalization (p. 3), it lost also the attention of the public opinion and of the political scientists too that, instead, converged massively on a new turbulent region of interest, the one of the Arab Springs. Secondly, the book “brings domestic factors back in” (p. 5) trying to better contextualise the links between legacies of the past and stateness problems and properties, that is surely the key point to understand the different trajectories of democratization and Europeanization in the Western Balkans.

Overall the structure of the book is convincing although some chapters, as in the majority of the edited volumes, are less insightful than others. In particular, if the analysis of the three groups of domestic factors and of their impact on Europeanization is clear in the country case-study chapters, it is less persuasive in the chapters focusing on cross-countries reforms areas.

Cristina Dallara is faculty member at the National Research Council of Italy – Research Institute on Judicial Systems (CNR-IRSIG).

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