Winter 2018

Building Good (Enough) Governance in Postconflict Societies & Areas of Limited Statehood: The European Union & the Western Balkans

Tanja M. Börzel and Sonja Grimm
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In this essay, we assess how the European Union supports the development of postconflict Western Balkan societies toward stable peace, economic prosperity, and consolidated democracy, moving them along the path to Denmark. Our analysis reveals that the EU has contributed to effective and democratic governance in its southeastern neighborhood. At the same time, its effectiveness as an external good governance–builder varies. Structural postconflict conditions that are not conducive to democratization, conflicting policy objectives, the dynamic interplay between the EU and Western Balkan governments, and the involvement of domestic third-party actors in the reform process explain this variation. To make EU good governance–building more effective, we recommend acknowledging conflicting objectives and using governance-building instruments consistently and credibly to reconceptualize external good governance–building as a dynamic process between external and domestic actors and to take domestic actors and their preferences seriously.

TANJA A. BÖRZEL is Professor of Political Science and Chair for European Integration at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. She is the author of Governance under Anarchy: Effective and Legitimate in Areas of Limited Statehood (with Thomas Risse, forthcoming) and is the coeditor of the Oxford Handbook of Governance and Limited Statehood (with Thomas Risse and Anke Draude, 2018).

SONJA GRIMM is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz, Germany. She has published in such journals as European Union Politics, Journal of Common Market Studies, Conflict Management and Peace Science, and Democratization.

Since the end of the Cold War, the European Union has sought to foster peace, stability, and prosperity in post-Communist countries by exporting its norms and principles of good governance to promote the democratic quality and effectiveness of government institutions. We understand good governance as the legitimate and effective rule over a fixed territory by a government that is selected through regular, fair, and free elections. The so-called Eastern enlargement of the EU, when ten Central and Eastern European states joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, is considered one of the most successful attempts at external good governance–building. Not surprisingly, the EU drew on its enlargement approach in seeking to stabilize the Western Balkans that continued to be riddled with ethnic violence and lingering conflicts after the military fighting had subsided.1 In 2000, the EU offered a membership perspective to all countries in the region that would meet the so-called Copenhagen Criteria for effective and democratic governance. Next to membership conditionality, the EU employed a comprehensive toolbox of different instruments, including diplomacy, financial assistance (development and democracy assistance), and state- and peace-building supervision, to promote postconflict stabilization and democratization.2 But how effective an external governance-builder has the EU been in a region where general conditions have not been conducive to postconflict democratization and where statehood has remained limited and contested? This essay focuses on how the EU can effectively support the development of postconflict societies toward stable peace, economic prosperity, and consolidated democracy, moving them along the path to Denmark.

Drawing on both the analysis of macro-quantitative data and case study research, we assess the EU's attempts at building good governance in the Western Balkans. In our perspective, the Western Balkans correspond to the limited opportunity model identified by Karl Eikenberry and Stephen Krasner in the introduction to the Fall 2017 issue of Dædalus. At the same time, the seven postconflict societies-Albania, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYR Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia-have been most likely cases for external good governance-building. Their domestic elites are not exclusively rent-seeking, but have some material interests and normative considerations that resonate with the EU's development and good-governance goals and instruments; otherwise, these actors would not seek EU membership and the EU would not have offered a membership option to the governments of these countries.

The Western Balkans is a region that has been confronted with secessionist movements, unsettled borders, ethnic tensions, deficient state capacity, and strong clientelistic networks that provide serious challenges for internal and external attempts at democratic state-building, even in more consolidated states such as Croatia and Serbia. After the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, statehood in the Yugoslav successor states was weak, and governance structures were either severely damaged or ineffective. The Wars reinforced cleavages between the ethnic communities living in the territory, not least since externally and internally displaced persons had the right to return. Unemployment rose quickly after the end of the fighting. Internal and external security had to be guaranteed by third-party actors while demobilizing, demilitarizing, and reintegrating former fighters.

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  • 1The European Union defines the Western Balkans to include Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, FYR Macedonia, and Albania. See, for example, European Commission, “Countries and Regions: Western Balkans,” (accessed October 12, 2016).
  • 2We focus in our essay on EU instruments toward the postconflict Western Balkans. On options of how to rule a territory on the basis of an international treatment regime, see Richard Gowan and Stephen John Stedman, “The International Regime for Treating Civil War, 1988–2017,” Dædalus 147 (1) (Winter 2018).