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Making National Pride an Asset for Democracy in the Western Balkans

Remarks presented at the panel Europe Right Now, at the To Be Secure Forum 2018
Budva, Montenegro
May 22, 2018

Stéphane Dion
Ambassador of Canada to Germany and
Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe

I am honoured to address this audience of politicians, officials, academics, diplomats and students, on the theme of the right-wing populism, at panel entitled: “Europe Right Now”. As Justin Trudeau’s Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe, I want to thank the To Be Secure Forum for having given me such an opportunity to highlight Canada’s friendship for the Western Balkans and admiration for the EU.

“Right-wing populism” and “Europe right now”: there is a clear link between these two themes. We are at a time when everywhere on this planet, including within the European Union, and in the Western Balkans, different kinds of authoritarian populism challenge democracy. And we all know that the EU makes its enlargement to Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo –  the WB6 countries – conditional to the respect of certain standards of democracy and good governance – the so-called Copenhagen criteria – which includes : the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities. The sooner these criteria will be met, the earliest a country will accede to the EU. 

The EU always insisted that these standards be met before welcoming any new member state. But today, right-wing populism within the EU itself risks eroding shared values and the benefits arising from a united Europe. Under these circumstances, one may expect the EU to be all the more open to enlargement if it is likely to strengthen the cohesion of the union, instead of submitting it to an additional risk. In other words, the more a Western Balkan country will embrace liberal democracy and resist to the right-wing populist wave, the sooner it will be accepted within the European Union. 

And a tool that the Western Balkan countries may use in their effort to become stronger liberal democracies is national pride. That is the main point that I want to make today. Let me explain what I mean by it. 

I have a conviction that I want to highlight right away. I am convinced that the Western Balkans are key for the universal search for democracy, precisely because you have lived the nightmare.  It gives you the platform to show us that from the worst, may come the best. And my point is that since the worst came from extreme nationalism, why would the best not come from well understood, national pride? 

Today, populists are using nationalism as a way to consolidate their power. They are portraying liberal democracy and human rights as a foreign agenda, a Western agenda that some arrogant cosmopolitan elites want to impose on nations against their soul and their traditions. You have skilled elected leaders boosting these nationalist reactions in order to firm their grip on their people, and increase their capacity to weaken the liberal institutions that keep the rulers under watch: a pluralist parliament, an independent judiciary, an independent electoral commission and other strong check and balance mechanisms, a free press, free unions, and so on.   In the name of nationalism, democracy and its pillars are being eroded: the rule of law; the basic freedoms of expression, association, and religion; the truly free, fair, open, and competitive elections; the opportunities beyond elections for citizens to participate; the government transparency and accountability; a market economy that is free of corruption; and a democratic culture of tolerance, civility, and non-violence. 

It is not easy to cope with this problem so much as nationalism is a powerful ideology. Sometimes, indeed, by our interventions we may inadvertently give to these skilled politicians the pretext they need to fuel a nationalist backlash against democratic benchmarks that may challenge their power.  

It would be a terrible mistake for liberal democrats to abandon the arena of national identities and so, leave it to be monopolized by populists. If we portray democracy as something evanescent, an abstract ideology detached from the people, incompatible with patriotism, we will weaken the fight for the cause of democracy. To the contrary, we should say: as a people we are proud of who we are and we will use this pride to show to the world that yes we may build an exemplary democracy, respectful of human rights and offer our own contribution for such universal aspiration. 

When I was a child, I remember it being said that democracy was not for Latin people. As a French Canadian that was very difficult to accept. But then, a new generation of Quebeckers said: “really? We cannot be as democratic as others? Let us see.”  And then Quebeckers became all an asset within the Canadian federation for the never-ending search for a better democracy. We called it the Quiet Revolution. Let’s dream for a Quiet Revolution for the Western Balkans.  Let’s make national pride an asset for democracy in the Western Balkans. 

Take the thorny issue of corruption.  Nobody is proud of being in a country where the political system is meddled in corruption. There is no national pride that may come from this, in fact, to the contrary: corruption breeds cynicism and can go as far as to create collective denigration of the self as a human group.  Voters can then be vulnerable to the populist call of the strong man who will claim to over through corrupt elites, in the name of the people.  But since, once governing, this populist leader uses his position to weaken and politicize institutions that limit his power, populism, in fact, further reinforces corruption, creating a vicious cycle.  Indeed, how can anyone efficiently fight against corruption without truly independent judges, non-political public and police administrations, a truly free press and strong civil organisations?  Liberal democracy does not guarantee a corruption free system, but it is the best way to advance towards this ideal. And what great pride would you feel – Western Balkan citizens and especially your youth – if national pride, in your respective countries, was married to public virtue?  The path for this is to reinforce liberal democracy.   

Now, let’s address the fundamental issue of national identities. Populists argue for a nationalism turned inward with mistrust for diversity, narratives of victimhood, resentment which hamper reconciliation and progress, a nostalgia for a homogeneous nation and a fixed national identity, set in stone.  But why accept such a defensive and over cautious national identity?  Why would our identity not be strong enough to be open to others and to offer them the assets of our nation?  For example, Montenegrins want to be part of the EU, but why is that so? Purely to take advantage of the EU? Or is it also because they think they have something positive to offer all Europeans and that they want to be proud Montenegrins and become proud Europeans at the same time, without having to choose between these two identities?  Yes Montenegrins want to aspire for a stronger Montenegro through its EU membership, but I am sure they would take pride in a stronger EU, thanks to the contributions of Montenegrins.   Refuse closed populist rhetoric and embrace plural identities: that is another way to move forward toward liberal democracy.

Let me consider a last point: the acceptance of others’ observations on our own performance. Populist leaders show an allergy towards any criticisms, especially if coming from the outside.  They push populations towards a susceptible nationalism that rejects all international criticisms, portraying it as an insult of the nation.   But democracy is a universal objective, we all must learn from one another.

That brings us back to the “Europe Right Now” theme, or the standards of good governance and democracy to be met for EU membership. It would be a mistake for the WB6 countries to consider these EU standards as external constraints to be reached only for having access to a source of subsidies and a large single market. They are above all a great opportunity to improve oneself through the emulation of others.

Let take the 2018 European Commission report on Montenegro.[1] One will read that some progress has been made, but that:

The EU Commission explicitly makes the link between good governance and a stronger economy: “Rule of law weaknesses (…) negatively impact on the business environment.”[2] Many other issues are covered in this comprehensive 101 page document, but the only point that I want to make is that it is more than a compilation of the obligations of EU membership. It is for Montenegro a list of indicators of its own performance in order to find its own way to progress toward a better and stronger liberal democracy.

The same may be said about other renowned international benchmarks like the Freedom House Index, the World Press Freedom Index or the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index: without being perfect, they give an indication of each country’s performance compared with others, and so, creating a positive emulation. For example, since the Democracy Index 2017 of the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Montenegro 71 out of 167 countries, but Bulgaria 49 and Slovenia 31, the right question to ask is: why would Montenegro not reach or surpass these two countries? Such thinking is a way to pull national pride toward democratic improvement. 

The truth is that democracy is a never ending work in progress and for this endeavor, we need to be open to the observations of others. That remains true for every democracy. In 2017, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released a report on Canada concluding that there was still in this country to much hate crimes, hate speech and discrimination.[3] Canada needs this kind of criticism as an antidote to complacency.  

On April 17th, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini met with the Prime Ministers of the WB6 countries in an informal meeting in Macedonia and stated that “the Western Balkans are Europe and will be part of the European Union’s future.”[4] As a friend, Canada wants this future to become true. Not only for the Western Balkans, but also for Europe and for the world. The Western Balkan nations have so much to offer to the universal search for liberal democracy. The challenge is considerable, but so is the hope.


[1] - European Commission, Commission Staff Working Document: Montenegro 2018 Report , Strasbourg, April 17, 2018, https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/20180417-montenegro-report.pdf

[2] - Ibid

[3] - Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination considers the report of Canada, United nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, August 2017, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21973&LangID=E

[4] - European Union External Action, Press Release, April 2018, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/42900/federica-mogherini-will-travel-western-balkans-17-19-april_en

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