The european perspective of the western Balkans: Myth or reality?

Sotiris Walldén

Fifteen years ago in Thessaloniki the European leaders solemnly proclaimed that the future of the Western Balkans was in the European Union. It had taken more than a decade and three bloody wars, following the collapse of the communist regimes and federal Yugoslavia, for the EU to conclude that peace, stability and democracy in our tumultuous region is inseparable from the whole of it eventually joining the EU.

Back in 2003, no one imagined that the proclaimed European course of the Western Balkans would have been so slow. No one could imagine that by 2017 only Croatia would have joined and that President Juncker’s recent announcement of a strategy for a further couple of Balkan countries to join by 2025, would be seen as a major break-through! In other words, one would have never imagined that an optimistic scenario of the region’s European perspective had a horizon of more than forty years since these countries opted for the EU.

What happened then and the accession course of the region seems all but stalled?

The official EU narrative puts the responsibility wholly on the shoulders of the countries of the region, accused of not ‘doing their homework’. Democratic and economic reforms are slow; indeed, there is even some back-tracking, especially in terms of democracy and human rights. Constitutional and bilateral disputes are still blocking progress. Regressive nationalism, authoritarian temptations, widespread corruption and organised crime are still formidable obstacles to meeting the conditions for joining the Union.

Undeniably and regardless of the usual patronising stance of official EU discourse, Western Balkan leaders and elites bear major responsibility for the tragedies of the 90s as well as for the slow progress made since then. Yet, this is only part of the story. The EU and the West have their part as well.

In the first place, German, Austrian and later US geopolitical aspirations played a considerable role in the disastrous break-up of Yugoslavia; divergent strategies within the EU paralysed the Union in its attempts to stop the wars; Greek dismal policies towards Macedonia caused suffering and nurtured nationalism in that country; and the West’s handling of Kosovo independence has created a dangerous destabilising precedent for the region and for the whole of our continent.

Second, the stalling of the EU enlargement process in the Balkans is largely due to ‘enlargement fatigue’ that has come to dominate the scene during the last decade. Enlargement fatigue and rising Euroscepticism throughout the Union are the two facets of the same coin. It is the wrong reaction to citizens’ justified concerns over the direction their societies and Europe have taken.

Citizens react to a Europe of unemployment, insecurity, increasing inequalities and bureaucracy which is presented to them as the only possible Europe. They realise that enlargement was instrumentalised to undermine the European social model and to promote a repulsive neoliberal agenda. Attributing these developments to enlargement and not to the forces which have used enlargement to their purposes is as wrong as turning to xenophobia and populism to face today’s challenges. Yet one thing seems clear: EU citizens who reject the present shape of Europe are unlikely to support its further enlargement. And governments under the direct or indirect influence of right-wing populists will follow suit despite perceived geopolitical interests which plead in favour of the pursuit of enlargement in the Balkans and beyond.

Optimists might object that the situation with respect to the region’s European perspective has substantially improved over the last year. This is definitely the view projected by Brussels and some EU capitals, which, by the way, now admit what they vehemently rejected until very recently: that enlargement was indeed stuck. It is now pointed out that last March the European Council for the first time in years reiterated its commitment to the European future of the Western Balkans and that the new strategy to be announced in early February by the Commission will be a major turning point.

Is there any substance behind this apparent change of mind, or are we faced with one more PR-operation intended to mask realities?

There are indeed some reasons for this renewed focus on the Balkans by Berlin and Brussels: First, the largely irrational Western anti-Russia crusade, remindful of Cold War years, which grossly overestimates Russian presence and influence in the Balkans and aims at eradicating it. Second, the refugee issue and the key role of the Balkan route in this context. Thirdly, the continued fragility of the region, notably with the still unsolved Kosovo issue, the mess in Bosnia-Herzegovina and rising Albanian irredentism. All of these factors have contributed to the EU downplaying the Copenhagen criteria and adopting a realpolitik approach which includes cosy relationships with authoritarian and corrupt leaders. A renewed rhetoric on the European perspective is part of the trade-offs in such relationships. Balkan leaders pledge to cooperate on Russia, the refugees or Kosovo, while the EU promises advances on the road to Europe.

It will be noted, however, that these understandings are inherently contradictory: the EU promises accession while abandoning established conditionality. Of course, few will regret the watering down of heavy-handed, colonial-type, ever more detailed conditionality that has been constantly growing to cover up enlargement fatigue. Here, however, what is abandoned is not bureaucracy and self-interested arrogance, but the very essence of enlargement conditionality, democracy and human rights. Besides, EU governments, influenced or reacting defensively to right-wing populist pressure, will hardly acquiesce (in deeds, not in words) to new accessions solely on the basis of geopolitical considerations. Hence the suspicion that the new enlargement optimism is tactical.

True, there are some genuine positive developments: it would seem that Brexit and the advances of the extreme right in Europe have generated an awareness that we need Europe, indeed a strong Europe; for instance, for the first time in years, pro-enlargement opinion has been lately increasing, though it is still in minority. On the ground, last year’s democratic change in Macedonia seems promising. And it is only comforting that the EU realises once again that stability in the Balkans is intrinsically tied to its joining the Union.

However, an accession perspective for the Balkans, mainly based on Russo-phobia and on cooperation in building a ‘fortress Europe’, is unfortunate and fragile. The Western Balkans are an integral part of Europe and hence of a European Union which in its origins is an inclusive project, strongly rooted in solidarity. The deeper causes of the European crises is the weakening of solidarity in face of the challenges of globalisation. Hence the north-south Euro-related rift, hence the east-west refugee-related crisis, hence the rise of the extreme right, hence the separatist movements of the rich. This is also the deeper cause of enlargement fatigue. The European prospect of the region, as well as the future of the Union itself, will only be ensured if the Union changes course and places solidarity at its centre. Solidarity is not charity, but enlightened self-interest.

In my opinion, there is an urgent need for the democratic and genuinely pro-European forces in the Western Balkans to position themselves in these broader European issues. Beyond circumstantial opportunities they might understandably wish to exploit, it is not by faithfully implementing a neo-liberal agenda or by blindly serving perceived geopolitical interests of Western powers that they will secure a place in Europe, certainly not in the Europe to which their people aspire. And it would be tragic if they let the causes of national dignity and social justice be championed by authoritarian and corrupt leaders. What is needed today is a pan-European, pro-European, progressive front to fight for a radical change in the direction of the EU. The Balkans, West, East and South have their place in this struggle.

Let me finish with a word as a Greek citizen. The political changes in Skopje have created a major window of opportunity for ending the senseless 25-year dispute with our neighbour on their name and national identity. This dispute is largely the result of Greek nationalism nurtured by a sick political system. The present Greek government seems to have the political will to reach a compromise, but obstacles are raised, under various pretexts, as in the past, by nationalist and opportunistic forces, more or less horizontally spread through the political spectrum, but particularly virulent within the Right. I sincerely hope we will not let this opportunity be lost, to the detriment of our two countries’ interests as well as of regional stability.

 

(First published by the Skopje website NovaTV.mk in Macedonian translation. Published in English by CHRONOS magazine, February 21, 2018.)

ΧΡΟΝΟΣ #58, 21 Φεβρουαρίου 2018


Text of speech at a meeting organised on 10 January 2018 at the European Parliament, Brussels, by MEP Kostadinka Kuneva (GUE/EL) under the auspices of the GUE and S&D groups with the title “The Balkans and the South-East Mediterranean: Shared Memories, Common Future”. The speech was first published by the Skopje website NovaTV.mk in Macedonian translation.


Axel Sotiris Walldén was born in Athens in 1949. He studied economics in Sweden and France and was awarded his PhD from the University of Athens. From 1996 to 2014 he held various posts in the European Commission related to enlargement and neighbourhood policies. In 2000-2003 he served as Counsellor to the Greek Foreign Minister on Balkan affairs. Previously, he had served, inter alia, as secretary-general at the Hellenic Ministry of National Economy and as a visiting professor at the Panteion University, Athens. 

Walldén has been teaching a post-graduate course at the Institut d’Etudes européennes of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. He is the author of 15 books and a large number of articles in scientific reviews and journals mostly on Balkan, EU enlargement and Greek foreign and domestic policy issues. His latest books are Europe, the Greek crisis and the democratic left (2014) and From Lapland to the Acropolis: the European Itinerary of a Swede in the 20th Century (2016).

The official EU narrative puts the responsibility wholly on the shoulders of the countries of the region, accused of not ‘doing their homework’.

In the first place, German, Austrian and later US geopolitical aspirations played a considerable role in the disastrous break-up of Yugoslavia; divergent strategies within the EU paralysed the Union in its attempts to stop the wars; Greek dismal policies towards Macedonia caused suffering and nurtured nationalism in that country; and the West’s handling of Kosovo independence has created a dangerous destabilising precedent for the region and for the whole of our continent.

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