EU Leaders to Western Balkan Reformers: You’re on your own!

The European Council’s decision not to open formal accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania today might go down in history as one of the most ill-advised policy decisions the EU has ever taken with respect to the Western Balkans – and that is quite something considering how contested that particular field is. Today, the Council did not just change a particular policy, but betrayed one of the fundamental principles of the European Union: the adherence to the pre-set rules of the game. Since today, at least from the Western Balkans perspective, the EU is no longer a “rules-based order”, but has become part of “politics as usual”.

Granted, there are good reasons for not taking this step today. Everybody knows that the accession process, as it is currently conducted, suffers from some major problems. That the countries of the Western Balkans could have progressed on their path towards EU membership in recent years while at the same time the quality of their democratic systems backslided and illiberal and authoritarian politics became ever more dominant, points to just one of the challenges the current system faces. Also, the role of parliaments, the civil society, and the power asymmetries involved in the process need to be looked at. Furthermore, the quintessential formula of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law needs to take a more prominent position in the entire enlargement process––something even the “fundamentals first” approach adopted by the Commission has done only to an insufficient degree.

All this is well known, and all of it is correct. But what makes today’s decision so colossally misguided is the fact that the EU broke its word. For years, it has been telling North Macedonia that it will progress on its path towards the European Union and benefit from all the goodies of being a candidate country if it only found a solution with Greece with respect to the name issue. North Macedonia delivered: its voters ousted the old government, the new government agreed to the historic Prespa agreement with Greece and changed the country’s name. True to its word, the EU Commission recommended to reward these efforts with the candidacy status.

And now? What kind of signal does the decision of the EU Council send? That you cannot trust the EU. That their words are not worth anything. That the Commission is not empowered to speak in the EU’s name.

Think about it. For years now, the EU has been saying that the political, economic and social systems in the Western Balkans are in need of reform. The domestic politicians agreed and committed themselves to the process; yet they also know that, for them, the current system actually works quite well. They benefit from all the shortcomings in the rule of law, or from being able to sustain large patronage networks by exploiting state resources. So, while they pay lip-service to enlargement, they don’t really want to reform and thus cut off the hand that feeds them and their networks. It is for that reason that the EU has been the only true driver of reform. And because even the domestic politicians know that every now and then they have to show some progress, they reformed gradually, though never fully, and sometimes not even substantially. The only constant in this story has been the EU, and some have put their hopes in Brussels actually helping them and supporting their efforts to make the domestic elites comply with those values the EU stands for and has listed in Article 2 of the Treaty.

After today, those fighting for change, those wishing to see genuine reform and progress will have heard the EU’s message loudly and clearly: you are on your own!

A few thoughts on the contemporary role of the OHR in BiH

The Office of the High Representative Building in Sarajevo.

During a recent trip to Sarajevo, I met an MA student doing research on the Office of High Representative (OHR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Having written my PhD dissertation on that subject, I was intrigued by the angle the student wanted to pursue: the OHR’s contemporary role in the European integration process. The double-hatting of the OHR as the European Union Special Representative having ended in 2011, instinctively I dismissed the idea of the OHR having any role to play in this area any more. But then the student said to me: “But surely the fact that there still is an OHR in Bosnia has to mean that it has some effect, doesn’t it?”

A rather intriguing question, I must admit. Whenever I am asked about the OHR’s contemporary role at talks or lectures, I usually, first, facetiously say that the institution’s standing has evolved from a political power player with amazingly far-reaching decree powers to being the international hub for “expressing concern” with political developments, as the OHR regularly does in its press statements. Secondly, I then explain that the times of the OHR actively intervening in daily politics so as to resolve or decide political issues by using its decree powers (the so-called Bonn powers) have long been over. In 2015, I wrote in an op-ed that “as a tool for resolving political issues, the Bonn powers have been dead for quite some time”, putting forward three arguments why this is so.

Firstly, there is no more unanimity among the international members of the Steering Board, the overseeing board of the OHR, with regards to a common course of action or strategy. With diverging opinions prevailing, the OHR is incapable of actually formulating and implementing a robust, interventionist policy. Secondly, the OHR lacks significant political and personnel resources to actually implement its decisions, even if it could find unity to take them. And thirdly, I warned that the Bonn power’s continued existence, despite its presumed practical ineffectiveness, may prevent a stronger course of action from international actors, as the powers provide some sense of security that certain events will not occur.

Re-reading my piece today and disregarding its somewhat alarmist tone (I guess I wanted the piece to be a wakeup call for internationals at the time), I think the analysis of the OHR’s position still largely holds true. The Steering Board is nowhere nearer to a unanimous position, or strategy on the OHR’s future. In fact, quite the contrary seems to be true. People involved in the inner workings of these things will tell you that there is no real agreement on whether the institution should continue after Valentin Inzko, the current High Representative, leaves office––let alone on who should succeed him. This might be one of the reasons why Ambassador Inzko is still not retiring, despite persistent chatter among the Sarajevo čaršija that he actually wishes to do so for some time now. The OHR seems to have become one of these institutions caught up in the geopolitical triangle of EU, US, Russian, and Turkish influences on the Western Balkans.

The second point seems even stronger today than it was in 2015. Let us start with the personnel. As Valentin Inzko said in his latest report to the UN Security Council in May 2019: “Since the beginning of my mandate in 2009, the budget of the Office of the High Representative has been reduced by 53 per cent and my staff by over 58 per cent. Resources must follow the mandate and, as there is still work ahead of us, further cuts would take us beyond streamlining. Without the appropriate level of resources, the capacity to fulfil my mandated responsibilities, implement the Dayton Peace Agreement and fulfil the conditions for closure is restricted.” The staff situation seems to have become so dire that, according to some admittedly unconfirmed rumours I have heard, the OHR has started renting out not needed office space in its building to commercial companies. The EU’s EUFOR mission, which succeeded the NATO Implementation Force in 2004 with its Operation Althea, has seen similar staff and budget reductions. Originally a force of some 7,000 troops, troop levels were first decreased to 1,600 in February 2007, and ultimately to some 600 troops following a further restructuring in 2012.

Reminders of another time, when the OHR enjoyed certain privileges (Zenica).

EUFOR is thus not in a position to act as a supporting power should, for example, an OHR decree not be implemented by domestic actors. And the High Representative is not in a real position to effectively discharge the duties of its office. Nobody knows what would actually happen if the OHR were to remove a politician from office or decree a law. The most probable course of action would be that such a decision is ignored or not implemented by this or that side, producing a massive headache for the international community and raising serious questions about the effectiveness and legitimacy of the OHR. As nobody seems to be willing to open that particular can of worms, inaction becomes a dominant strategy, and press releases expressing concern the preferred modus operandi.

However, there are also voices that say that the OHR is still heavily involved in daily politics, not so much with respect to the agenda of the domestic politicians, but with respect to the actions of internationals. Apparently, there are regular consultations and exchanges of views, and not least the reports certainly show that the OHR is closely following the domestic developments. Yet, is this enough? Where’s the value added of such an action that could easily be performed by institutions without the singular distinction of having far-reaching intervention powers?

So, we arrive at the inevitable question that this piece was always bound to end on: should the OHR be closed?

There are those who see the OHR as a kind of safety net––an institution with legal and political legitimacy to intervene that could be invoked if things turn badly. Some say that it’s precisely this role that prevents even more disastrous things from happening, as it curtails destructive domestic action, even if it cannot curtail rhetoric. I do not wish to dismiss the security argument, as it’s really difficult to assess an institution’s impact based on an eventuality that might or might not occur one day without making a lot of assumptions. I just have the feeling that the OHR’s contemporary impediments have made it more of a lame duck than an effective deterrent for destructive action and politics. The political elites don’t give the impression that they see the threat––or benefit––of the OHR, apart from some rather vague notion that it might step in when push comes to shove. It is mostly employed as a rhetorical tool, not a real force.

In addition, if the OHR’s mandate is to ensure the completion of the 5+2 agenda, the trend seems to be going in the wrong direction. BiH seems today far away from being a “peaceful, viable state irreversibly on course for European integration”, as the agenda designates the ultimate goal. NATO accession is more contested that it has ever been in the past ten years and EU integration is far from a given. In fact, the assessment report on BiH’s readiness to join the EU outlines a plethora of necessary structural changes before the country can be considered ready for negotiations, let alone membership. Furthermore, judging by all relevant metrics for measuring the quality of democracy, Bosnia and Herzegovina has deteriorated in recent years.

If the OHR still has a role to perform, it is hard to see what that role actually is. It is hard to see whether any role can be performed effectively. And it is hard to see what results the OHR has to show for in the past ten years. We are thus left with a rather vague notion of an eventual security net, and the fact that the OHR regularly makes BiH a topic at the UN Security Council through its reporting. This has to be weighed against the effects it has as a projection area for hopes or hatreds of the domestic political elites as well as the international community. If one were interested to undertake such an assessment honestly, I am not sure that keeping the OHR open would be a foregone conclusion.


“Dayton is our foundation, it cannot be our ceiling” – On Paddy Ashdown’s legacy for Bosnia and Herzegovina

Lord Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the British Liberal Democrats and from 2002 to 2006 High Representative (HR) of the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), has died aged 77. While British obituaries (see, for example, here and here) focus on his impact on domestic politics and credit him with turning the Liberal Democrats into a true political power in Westminster, people in the Balkans remember his engagement in their region. During the war in Yugoslavia, he visited the besieged city of Sarajevo and, after a dinner in London, he leaked to the press a map Croatia’s president Franjo Tuđman had drawn on a menu, outlining the planned partition of BiH between Serbia and Croatia.

Paddy Ashdown became interested in Yugoslavia after the 1992 elections in Britain, when he felt bored during the honeymoon period of the new government and a colleague suggested: “You know a bit about wars, Paddy. If you are so bored, why don’t you go out and have a look at the one that has just started in Yugoslavia?” By his own admission, he “knew so little” about Bosnia when, some ten years later, he assumed the position of High Representative. When Tony Blair sought support from his European allies for Ashdown’s candidature, one of them asked him whether Ashdown was “really up to such a difficult post”, to which Blair is supposed to have replied: “Look, this guy led the British Liberal Democrats for eleven years. After that, Bosnia will be a doodle.”

As High Representative he was tasked with implementing the civilian aspects of the Dayton Peace Agreement. It is in this role that he is most remembered in Bosnia, for apart from Carlos Westendorp, the second High Representative who introduced the instrument of the “Bonn powers” – the powers to decree legislation and remove domestic obstacles – into the peace and state building toolbox of the international community, it was Ashdown who arguably had the most lasting impact on BiH’s post-war development.

I’ve met Paddy Ashdown a few times, for the first time in 2012, when I interviewed him for my PhD thesis about the policy of the Office of High Representative (OHR) in post-war BiH. I remember him coming to collect me in the peer’s entrance waiting area of Westminster palace, looking around the room and, after the clerk seemed to have forgotten where I was sitting, shouting in his deep voice: “Gospodine Merdžanović, gdje ste?” During his time in Bosnia, he had learned the language. We shook hands and took the tiny elevator one floor up to his office, where he immediately started talking about Bosnia and the many friends and allies he had, and still has in this country.

During the interview, he told me: “I genuinely love Bosnia. And I love the Bosnian people in all of their forms. They remind me so much of my own country. (…) I just wanted to make the place better.“ While many internationals have professed their love for Bosnia, with Ashdown, you somehow believed him.

Maybe this was also because of his charisma, which you could not miss when talking to him. He was a natural politician, always trying to charm the voter, interviewer, or citizen, thereby building up popularity that, later on, he could trade for something else. As he explained with respect to his policy as High Representative: “Popularity is something you build up so that you sell it to get things done. So, I knew very well that if I was going to bypass some of the roadblocks from the old politicians, who would block what I would do, I had to get behind them to the people. So I made it deliberately a policy of mine to go out and meet with the people.” This was a strategy not all HR shared. Wolfgang Petritsch, Ashdown’s predecessor, for example, told me: “I always told him: Paddy, you don’t have to get elected.”

His idea of the High Representative’s role was one of firm leadership, leading to the accusation of him being a “European raj”. Aware of his image in this respect, right at the beginning of the interview he told me: “Although I am much recognised for having used the Bonn powers extensively, I used the Bonn powers to introduce legislation less than any of my predecessors. (…) In all the things I wished to do I was going beyond Dayton. There was a key phrase in my speech, which I said: Dayton is our foundation, it cannot be our ceiling. So, in all of those things that I did, in all of those things that I think were important because of my mandate there – they all had to be done with the agreement of the local politicians.”

Ashdown did indeed use the Bonn powers more than any other High Representative, and he did use them in legislative ways as well. He was always more the hands-on pragmatist than the theoretician or ideologue in his dealings within BiH. For him, progress in the country was always measured in absolute, not relative terms; outcomes represented the justification for any kind of action by the international community.

When he assumed office, he emphasised his goal to create “the outline structure of a modern, light-level state, governing a highly decentralised country”. His three priorities were: establishing the rule of law, getting the economy moving, and beginning to tackle high-level corruption in the country. One of his major foci was the collaboration with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, where he used the full force of his mandate to secure cooperation – and punish the lack of it. But he also sought to get the economy going, most famously by establishing the “bulldozer commission” that was to detect the most obvious obstacles to doing business in BiH that could be removed by legislative means.

This combination of goals became known as the “Justice and Jobs” reform programme, into which Ashdown cajoled the domestic elites. His approach in BiH relied on the carrot of European integration – in close cooperation with Chris Patten, who at that time was responsible for enlargement in the EU Commission – and the stick of Bonn power intervention. As he said to the newly elected BiH parliament in 2002, after the non-nationalist coalition had lost the elections and the nationalist parties had returned to power: “So, the choice is not whether to reform. But how fast, how soon and, above all, who will drive the process of reform – you or me?” As it turned out, it was him who would be the main driver of reform in BiH.

Ashdown’s legacy in this respect is impressive. Among his major achievements belong the introduction of a state-wide VAT, significant progress in terms of the establishment of the rule of law, the handing over of responsibility for refugee and property return to the Bosnians, the unification of the armed forces under the command of the central state presidency, and the general strengthening of the common state structures. It is precisely this last point, together with his tough line on ICTY cooperation, that has earned him much criticism from the Bosnian Serbs. As he said to me: “You won’t find the Serbs thinking I was a very good High Representative? Well, of course not. They wanted to hang on to Republika Srpska and I wanted to make sure that they lived in a state, not in an entity.”

The notion of absolute progress that Ashdown pushed, however, had a significant downside for the system of political cooperation in Bosnia. The High Representative assumed far-reaching duties, relieving the domestic elites from the burden of having to come to compromises by themselves. Political obstruction and political progress seized to be contradictions and became simultaneously possible, which made the OHR a crucial element of everyday political life. The effects of this structural change would become evident later on, when OHR pressures faded, for one reason or another, and political blockades ensued. This is also part of Ashdown’s legacy in BiH. And he was aware of that as well: “The temptation for somebody in Bosnia with those kind of powers is to use the powers to get things done quickly. And I always used to ask: if I do this, is the advantage of getting things done quickly worth the price I have to pay, which is creating dependencies within the structure? Perfectly fair argument. And the whole thing comes down – and I’m not saying I always got the balance right – but the whole thing comes down to a careful judgement about those two things.”

With Paddy Ashdown’s passing, Bosnia and Herzegovina loses an unapologetic defender of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and a strong advocate for the country and the Western Balkans in the United Kingdom. While we did not always agree with him, his death is certainly a great loss for all us.

A few thoughts on the Western Balkans summit in London

Western Balkans Summit London 2018

The latest summit of the so-called Berlin Process, an inter-governmental forum set up following a German initiative five years ago, was held in London on 9/10 July 2018. This year’s gathering is unlikely to enter the history books, for it managed to achieve even less than the pessimists predicted. There is no sugar-coating this, the evidence is overwhelming, so let us say it outright: the summit was a failure. It failed on three accounts: (a) the host; (b) the event; and (c) the results. But the failure is not Britain’s fault alone; quite to the contrary, the current result fits the profile so far. The Berlin process was hardly ever anything more than a photo-opportunity for the domestic and European elites. It never actually achieved much and this year’s failure was somewhat predictable––as is next year’s.

But let’s look at these points one by one.

(a) The host: Why Britain?

From the beginning, one question loomed over this year’s Berlin Process summit like no other: Why Britain? After all, the UK is set to exit the European Union, while the Western Balkan states wish to join it. The Berlin Process sought to provide the WB6 (as the six states are generally called) with a mechanism for economic, infrastructure and political cooperation, mutual exchanges, and reform in light of the fact that EU membership was far away for all of them. It was a process supposed to supplement EU integration efforts by focusing on what could be done in the meantime. In other words, it is intrinsically linked to EU membership. As host, the UK thus faced a big credibility issue.

However, in the past few months, it seemed the UK officials were somewhat unwilling to see this point. When confronted with it, they would often say that, of course, the UK has a role to play in the Balkans; after all, a stable, democratic, and economically prosperous Western Balkans is in its own interest, regardless of Brexit. The UK had something to contribute here, one was told; someone questioning British engagement in this area was accused of supporting the alternative, which was seen as the region outside the EU.

Of course, such a line of argument is nonsense. Even if you agree that EU membership is the only way to sustainably secure a stable, democratic, and prosperous Western Balkans––as most of people engaged in this field do––you can still think that a country set to exit the EU is probably not the best advocate in this regard. The problem is not the message, it’s the messenger. And of course, is true that there are areas where the UK can actually positively contribute to the region’s progress (see here). But the problem is that the UK seems to have overestimated its influence. The economic ties between the Western Balkans and the EU are marginal and the WB diaspora community in the UK is small, compared to those from other areas. Also it is important to remember that the citizens of the WB6 countries still need visas to enter the UK, which made participation in the preparatory meetings somewhat challenging.

There was a logic in having the UK host, however, for the invitation had been extended before Brexit. Furthermore, the UK was among the initial drivers of the reform agenda in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which started with the Anglo-German initiative. But if the actual event shows one thing, then that Brexit and the state of the UK government should have led to a rethinking of this strategy.

(b) The Event

Before the summit, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) put a lot of efforts into making this meeting a success. A special department was set up to deal with the preparations and the recruited officials took their preparatory work very seriously. They held different meetings and seminars with experts on the region, both in the UK and in the region itself, and they listened to what the experts had to say. Often times, they agreed with the concerns raised. In addition, a whole lot of work was done behind the scenes to strengthen administrative cooperation between the UK and the WB6, particularly in the area of law enforcement, so as to create a positive climate for the summit itself.

But the FCO officials were somewhat constrained by the summit’s format, which presumably prevented them from taking on board the broader implications of the challenges in the region. Early on, they decided fo focus on the three themes: increasing economic stability, strengthening regional security cooperation, and facilitating political cooperation. Repeated efforts to introduce equally important topics like the rule of law fell somewhat on death ears.

And then, of course, came the day of the summit itself. As a result of a disagreement with the cabinet’s newest Brexit strategy––the Chequers agreement outlining a softer version of Brexit––the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resigned on the day he was supposed to greet the Foreign Ministers of the WB6 countries. Alan Duncan, the Minister responsible for Europe, stepped in, while Theresa May found herself in a situation in which she had to secure her position as Prime Minister by addressing parliament and holding extra meetings with her party and her cabinet. If this episode demonstrated anything to the WB6 leaders, then that the Western Balkans was certainly not a priority for the UK government, especially not at a time when the government itself seems unstable. They must have felt like invitees to a party at which the host couple decided to split up and one of them had to carry on as if nothing had happened while the invitees decided to partake in that illusion out of politeness.

(c) The results

Of course, the London summit produced many results, particularly declarations of intent and respective agreements. The heads of state agreed to a “Joint Declaration on Regional and Good Neighbourly Relations”, a “Joint Declaration on Missing Persons”, and a “Joint Declaration on War Crimes” (see the documents here).  The interior ministers confirmed their intensions to further strengthen information exchange on serious organised crime and other security threats; to further cooperate in tackling the illicit possession, misuse and trafficking of firearms; to deal with human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants; and to deal with corruption (see here). They also agreed to establish a “Berlin Process Security Commitments Steering Group” to oversee the commitments, headed by the UK (see here). And the Foreign Ministers basically reiterated the positive developments in the region in the past year and congratulated themselves for the great job they had done (see here). (Note that the conclusions of the meetings are not “joint conclusions” but the “chair’s conclusions”, which in diplomatic terms do not require general agreement.)

In addition, the UK used the stage to announce changes in its Western Balkans policy (see here) which included a doubling in UK funding to the region from the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund, as well as a doubling of UK staff in the region dealing with security issues affecting the UK. Furthermore, the UK committed £10 million for digital education among young people; this is a programme run through the British Council from which 4,500 schools will benefit.  In addition, the UK promised £1 million to help address legacy issues in the region, especially emphasising the issue of missing persons in this context, which also had a particular importance during the summit.

Looking at these results, they seem underwhelming. What was agreed is declaratory with no possibility of monitoring, even if the Steering Group is supposed to perform such a function on a limited basis. Apart from the UK committment, which at times seems very self-serving and could have been made at any other time, there seems to be nothing new or substantial that the WB6 and the EU leaders agreed upon.

The future

All of this actually leads us to ask one important question: so what? And indeed, the situation in the Western Balkans would not have changed if this meeting hadn’t happened––and it will not change for it having happened.

But this is not Britain’s fault, even if its domestic events on the day ruined the photo-opportunity that many Balkan leaders had hoped this meeting to be. From the beginning, the WB leaders saw these meetings as part of their legitimacy-increasing strategy, i.e. an opportunity to boost their local profile and present the domestic public with the impression that things are moving forward. Their primary concern was to secure infrastructure and other investments, which is why they accepted each host country to add new issues to the agenda, which they knew would be of little or no consequence. Or do you remember what happened to the Environmental Agenda of the Paris summit, for example?

The most well-known result of the Berlin Process so far has been the establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Council (RYCO), which is supposed to further exchanges between the youth of the six countries. It recently finished its first call for applications and seems on a good path towards delivering on its mission. But it’s mission is limited, and should remain so. RYCO cannot act as a substitute for solutions to the many challenges the region is facing. It should not be overburdened with other issues, like reconciliation for example. The other, far lesser-known institution to emerge out of the vicinity of the Berlin Process is the Western Balkans Fund. Set up by the six WB states and financed by their Foreign Ministries, the fund aims at supporting common regional projects in the areas of education, science, culture, cross-border and youth cooperation as well as sustainable development.

However, the Berlin Process’s largest mistake so far was not its relative inconsequentiality. It was that the drivers of the process, the EU countries, used it for other purposes than the Western Balkans. The decision not to take the summit away from the UK this year must probably be seen in light of the ongoing Brexit negotiations in which Germany did not want to unnecessarily offend the UK. And the decision to invite Poland to host the summit next year reportedly followed the wish to better include Poland in important EU matters. I don’t suppose the rule of law will be on the agenda there.

Despite this decision, which could blow up in the EU leader’s faces in a similar fashion the London summit did, I think the Berlin Process is a good thing to have overall. Its structure might be cumbersome, but at least it puts the Western Balkans on the agenda in important EU capitals. It thereby manages to escape the even more complex framework of EU-led gatherings, which could also be criticised in a similar fashion. Also, the civil society gatherings and meetings around and in between the summits can act as important venues for cooperation among the region’s representative and also as a vehicle for further EU engagement with the Western Balkans. In this sense, it may be more about the journey than the destination.

Britain’s role in the Balkans – why Boris Johnson is about to turn pro-EU

Here’s the beginning of an article Othon Anastasakis and I originally published at The Conversation on 19 March 2018. The full article may be accessed here: The Conversation.


Here’s a paradox from Brexit Britain. This summer, at a summit meeting in London organised by the UK’s Foreign Office, a hard Brexiteer – the foreign secretary Boris Johnson – will be the designated advocate of EU membership for the Western Balkan states. A country preparing to leave the EU will preach the accession of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, FYR Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro to the European Union. A country seeking to “take back control” from the heavy-handedness of Brussels will advise others to relinquish their sovereignty to that same superstate. What’s going on here?

[Continue reading here]

A cautionary note on the term “illiberalism”

When I was working as a part-time journalist during my undergraduate years, my editor always cautioned us against the use of particular words that he thought had become devoid of any meaning due to “verbal inflation”. As an example, he would cite the usage of  “adventure” in advertising. Your daily trip to the shopping mall, the deodorant or perfume you buy, or the dinner you have at the local pub – everything was advertised as an adventure, somehow putting these rather ordinary tasks on the same level as, say, a trip to the moon.

When reading the newspapers these days, my former editor’s words often come to my mind. Today, it’s not “adventure” that seems in danger of being overused, but “illiberalism”. Illiberal practices have been ascribed to governments and political leaders in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, all Western Balkan states, and, since the election of Donald J. Trump, even to the United States. Whether these countries are indeed experiencing illiberalism pretty much depends on what this term actually means – and this is, I would argue, anything but clear.

In what follows, I would like to offer a cautionary note with respect to the usage of “illiberalism” to describe the contemporary developments in these countries. To be clear, I am not saying that these practices are not illiberal (at least in a particular sense of the word); quite to the contrary, I am arguing that if we reduce their implications to the conceptually challenging framework of illiberalism, we risk not being able to talk about the much larger dangers such development pose for the liberal democratic order. In other words, illiberalism as a terms risks becoming a euphemism that prevents us from actually discussing what we want to discuss.

From “illiberal democracy”…

Arguably, illiberalism entered the public arena when the term “illiberal democracy” was popularised by Fareed Zakaria in his 1997 Foreign Affairs article “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”. Zakaria understood Western-style liberal democracy as “a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property”. And he continued to argue that “this latter bundle of freedoms –– what might be termed constitutional liberalism –– is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy.” What Zakaria meant by illiberal democracies, thus, were countries in which popular participation through elections was a norm that was upheld, but the principles of constitutional liberalism were either absent or subject to the will of the ruling elites.

Zakaria was of course correct in pointing out that the connection between liberalism, as a political theory that rests on the idea of individual rights and liberties, and democracy, a system of governmental legitimisation through mass participation, is anything but straightforward. Historically, as Michael Freeden explains, liberals were rather sceptical of the idea of democracy because they believed it would foster mediocre rule and effectively be a tyranny by the majority. Ultimately, they accepted democracy only when combined with a system of popular education and after particular limits were set on democratic rule guaranteeing it would not unnecessarily infringe upon individual liberties. The result was a canon of individual freedoms, or “inalienable rights” to limit not only governmental but also legislative, i.e. democratic, authority over the individual, secured by the Rule of Law. That is precisely what “illiberal democracies” negate, namely the primacy of individual or collective rights and freedoms as well as the Rule of Law over the collective processes of democratic decision-making.

But there is a problem here. Democracy is conceptualised to merely mean free and fair elections, which in practice is often reduced to the actual developments on Election Day and the counting of ballots. Structural infringements on the electoral campaign and the general context of the election itself are deemed secondary. Such reductionism, however, is dangerous, for it misses a whole lot. In a recent study, Nancy Bermeo shows that while the number of election-day vote fraud has been steadily declining since 1991, strategic electoral manipulation aimed at tilting the electoral playing field in favour of incumbents has actually increased. Such actions include “hampering media access, using government funds for incumbent campaigns, keeping opposition candidates off the ballot, hampering voter registration, packing electoral commissions, changing electoral rules to favor incumbents, and harassing opponents—but all done in such a way that the elections themselves do not appear fraudulent.“ Wouldn’t we agree that such actions to strategically manipulate the electoral process are undemocratic?

Looking at the mere fact that elections are held in an orderly fashion is clearly not enough to assert the democratic character of such regimes. Maybe that is the reason why one increasingly finds the term “illiberalism” on its own, without the suffix of democracy.

… to illiberalism

But does “illiberalism” have the terminological gravity to stand alone as a denominator for the practices we observe today? The big question here is whether we understand “illiberalism” as an ideology (i.e. as another –ism) or as a mode of governing. The textbook definition, provided by Andrew Heywood, states that an ideology has three components: a particular view of the existing world; a vision of how the world should be; and a conceptualisation of the means necessary to make the vision a reality.

Illiberal politicians certainly share a distaste for liberal institutions such as independent judiciaries or bureaucracies, the Rule of Law in general, or a free press. In this sense, they indeed have a common worldview, even if it is a rather thin one. But that hardly qualifies as a worldview unique to illiberalism, for nationalists, fascists, oligarchs, and autocrats all negate the principles of political liberalism in one way or another. This cannot be a distinguishing feature of illiberalism.

However, illiberal rulers seem to have a common playbook by which they operate. They know that to capture the state and turn it illiberal (or, in the case of the Western Balkans, prevent the true establishment of a politically liberal structure), they need to gain control over the press, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy while presenting themselves as the defenders of the common people. That is the reason why so many of them turn to populism. Ultimately, their goal is “executive aggrandizement”, as Bermeo calls it, which “occurs when elected executives weaken checks on executive power one by one, undertaking a series of institutional changes that hamper the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences”. But this common playbook only points to a common mode of governing, not to an ideological congruence between the illiberal rulers, precisely because such congruence is conditioned upon having a common vision for the future.

So, the crux of the case seems to be the following: what is the illiberal rulers’ endgame? What do they want to achieve? If your initial response is “to gain, or to stay in power”, I am afraid you have fallen victim to the danger of using the term illiberal as a stand-alone marker of political development. Of course they want, and need power, but what they want to do with it differs quite substantially. Some illiberal rulers may want to abandon liberal democracy and turn their countries into authoritarian systems while others may seek to secure particular privileges for a ruling class, or group and thus effectively establish an oligarchy.

But if that is the case, should we not better call it as it is? Shouldn’t we speak of proto-authoritarian or proto-oligarchic tendencies rather than of illiberal ones?

The risks of the term

Sticking to illiberalism highlights where systems come from rather than were they are going; depending on the context, that might be desirable, necessary, or indeed accurate. Yet lumping all the developments in the different countries cited at the beginning together under one conceptual umbrella may also mean not seeing the forest for all the trees. In other words, it could mean concentrating on the means and not seeing the ends––with potentially very dangerous effects.

Apart from implying a false teleology, there are two arguments for the need to use the term “illiberalism” more carefully. The first one is conceptual. So far, I have only spoken of principles of political liberalism (or constitutional liberalism, as Zakaria termed it) thus neglecting the gigantic variation that exists within liberal thought. Tasked with defining liberalism, one will quickly understand that the many different forms of liberalism are not necessarily congruent with each other. What one liberal considers illiberal might be at the ideological core of what the other liberal believes. (For example, try reconciling the ideas of Hayek and Dworkin, both of which are part of the liberal school of thought.) I have witnessed many panel discussions seeking to find a precise definition of illiberalism. They all failed, precisely because illiberalism is the opposite of liberalism, and liberalism suffers from a conceptual cacophony. Sticking to the term “illiberalism” thus muddles the waters and diverts our attention away from accurately capturing what is actually going on.

The second reason for more carefulness is closely related to one particular consequence of the conceptual cacophony. In many contexts, defending liberalism is nowadays perceived as defending a globalised cosmopolitan elite that exploits ordinary people, and especially workers, while fighting for the interests of Big Business and international capital. Rather than being conceptualised as a complex set of principles and values, liberalism thus becomes exclusively linked to its neoliberal form. Rightful criticisms leveled against neoliberalism thus risk delegitimising the mere foundation of political liberalism. What is more, from this skewed perspective, illiberalism is in danger of appearing even defensible, as a means to curb the excesses of capitalism. Such a conclusion should certainly be avoided, even if it only rests on a misguided perception.

Preventing “illiberalism” from becoming a euphemism

Even if the inflationary use of the word “adventure” in advertising has led to the erosion of its content, many of us still regularly describe certain things as adventures. This is of course not problematic in and of itself, and claiming that only the deeds of the Victorian explorers or the space pioneers deserve to be called adventures would be ridiculous. The point here is not to restrict the use of any particular word, but rather to show that words have consequences and that overuse is dangerous.

The same holds true for “illiberalism”. Whatever one may think of the word itself, its conceptual and strategic implications and problems, it will, and should be part of our vocabulary. It has the important function of alerting us to the inherent dangers of particular actions by political leaders. When we are not sure, or when we are unable to convincingly prove where threats to individual and collective freedoms, the Rule of Law, or an independent bureaucracy are leading, calling such actions “illiberal” is an analytical necessity.

Yet “illiberalism” should not become a euphemism for situations in which we know what a leader attempts to do. If he or she wants to capture the state so as to establish an autocracy or an oligarchy, we should say so clearly and describe these actions as accurately as possible. In such cases, we all benefit from calling it as it is.