European Council President Tusk meets Milo Dukanovic, Prime Minister of Montenegro - via Flickr
Not a day goes by without the European Union getting flack from London. However, while the UK is trying to get itself untangled from Brussels' bureaucracy, several other European countries are lining up and placing their hopes on the EU - seen at the same time as both a model worth following and a club worth joining. However, Eurocrats would be wise not to lick their post-Brexit wounds by accelerating the enlargement process and mistake some countries' enthusiasm for virtue.
Take Montenegro, a small south-eastern country feted as a longstanding partner of the West, and the current trajectory of its parliamentary elections, due take place on October 16th. Sadly, the poll is providing a startling reflection of both the country's democratic failings and the EU's own naïveté. Despite having opened negotiations for EU membership since June 2012, and despite signing the Accession Protocol with NATO in May, Montenegro is grossly unfit for either.
Over the last two and a half decades in power, Montenegro's long-time ruler Milo Djukanovic has ratcheted up quite the rap sheet. The seven-term Prime Minister has been accused of everything from strong arming political opponents and locking up dissidents, to creating "one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organized crime havens in the world." In 2003, Italian authorities accused Djukanovic of "having promoted, run, set up, and participated in a mafia-type association," which made headlines at the time after the president himself was questioned in the southern city of Bari. The charges of participating in a cigarette smuggling operation were subsequently dropped, as Djukanovic claimed diplomatic immunity.
Adding more fuel to the fire, the legitimacy of the upcoming election has already been called into question. The government is suspected to have refused to update the electoral register, which is reported to contain thousands of duplicate voters or the names of already deceased citizens. Interior Minister Goran Danilovic refused to sign the electoral roll, accusing the regime of planning to commit electoral fraud on a massive scale. That wouldn't be surprising as demonstrations in late 2015 against corruption were violently suppressed, and one of the top leaders of the opposition movement was arrested. A May 2016 Eurobarometer poll revealed that 68% of those surveyed did not trust their government, while the national parliament was mistrusted by 65%. As such, the main opposition coalition, the Democratic Front, is running neck and neck with the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), enjoying 42% and 43% of the votes respectively according to polls.
Despite the many charges against Djukanovic, European and Atlantic integration were allowed to carry on apace. While in its 2014 Montenegro Progress Report the European Commission criticized delays in the implementation of various legislative reforms, particularly in the fight against corruption, Brussels still agreed to bankroll the regime to the tune of €207 million over the next few years. Worse, the European Commission has largely ignored the opposition parties, focusing solely on Djukanovic's DPS.
And Montenegro isn't the only culprit. On a recent visit to Turkey, Boris Johnson reiterated that the UK "will help Turkey in any way" to successfully join the EU - despite his own starring role in leading the crusade against EU membership. What's more, the promise of help blatantly disregards Ankara's heavy-handed actions since the July failed military coup. With the state of emergency extended for three more months, more than 100,000 government workers dismissed or suspended, all of the country's 1577 university deans forced to resign, and scores of journalists arrested, Turkey's society truly is in a dismal state.
Then what explains the EU's continued interest in cozying up to such regimes? The truth is that both Erdogan and Djukanovic have catered towards a specific European grievance, all the while using the accession campaign as a means of consolidating power and engaging in corruption. Erdogan leverages his role in the refugee crisis, while Djukanovic presents himself as a European partner against Russian aggression.
Inviting these countries in the European Union would just repeat the mistakes made in the past with Central and Eastern European countries, some of whom are struggling even with the basic tenets of the democratic creed even after more than a decade of EU membership. Poland's democratic reversal has been probably the most sudden, after the populist Law and Justice party swept to power in 2015. The party embarked on an aggressive plan to remake Polish society by subverting and weakening the country's institutions.
In breach of the Council of Europe's norms to uphold the public interest in broadcasting, Polish President Jarosław Kaczyński signed into effect this January the Law on Public Service Media Governance, thereby placing public TV and radio under tighter ministerial control. Similarly, Hungary's Viktor Orbán has professed his unyielding desire to create an "illiberal democracy", modelled after Vladimir Putin's Russia or Erodgan's Turkey. In both cases, the EU sat by and resigned itself to wagging its finger at both leaders.
Especially in aftermath of Brexit, the EU needs to take time to recalibrate its approach to the future of the European project, which requires the stabilization and reform of its institutions before expanding more. The premise of EU membership as a "carrot" for reforms at the national level is appealing, but recent developments both within and outside the Union have shown its efficacy to be tenuous.