While ‘Europeanising’ the Balkans, the EU ‘Balkanised’ itself

It is time to admit the failure of the so-called Europeanisation of the Balkans.

Slovenia's Miro Cerar, Britain's Theresa May, Greece's Alexis Tsipras, Germany's Angela Merkel and Bulgaria's Boyko Borissov at the Western Balkans Summit in London, UK, July 10, 2018 [Reuters]
Slovenia's Miro Cerar, Britain's Theresa May, Greece's Alexis Tsipras, Germany's Angela Merkel and Bulgaria's Boyko Borissov at the Western Balkans Summit in London, UK, July 10, 2018 [Reuters]

Two years ago I gave an interview to Radio Free Europe that attracted a fair share of attention. Reactions, positive and negative alike, were triggered mostly by this single sentence: “EU enlargement [to the Western Balkans] won’t happen.” Many praised my openness or even my provocativeness, but many found the sheer fact that someone had said this simply scandalous. It was irresponsible, they roared, to say this now, when Balkan countries should be making the final push to complete their post-socialist “transition”.

At that time, I also noted that even if enlargement does eventually occur, the resulting EU will be a deeply re-organised structure, with God knows how many members and what kind of internal rules. The point was then, as it is today, that we must admit the failure of the so-called Europeanisation of the Balkans by confronting what has been promoted for two decades as “solutions” – I call them the three illusions – to all that ails the region: European integration itself, transitional justice, and neoliberal economic reforms.

The first illusion, that integration is a cure-all, has been supported by the common wisdom that, since the early 1990s, the Balkans have been “balkanised” while Europe has continued to “Europeanise”. As opposed to fighting ethnic nationalism and wars for territory, the EU was engaged in ever-greater integration within a system based on democratic values and the rule of law. The obvious solution to nationalism, war, and ethnic cleansing in the Balkan states seemed to be their integration into the EU, enabling them to jump on board the unstoppable train of liberal prosperity and a single market. Indeed, Slovenia joined in 2004, followed by the “Eastern Balkans” – Romania and Bulgaria – in 2007, though these latter two countries were subject to continuous monitoring. Then, with some difficulty, the EU eventually managed to swallow one more candidate when Croatia integrated in 2013.

The remaining Balkan countries, referred to administratively as the Western Balkans, have since been encircled, and now sit in a ghetto within the EU. Comprised of 5 or 6 states (depending on whether one recognises the independence of Kosovo) and about 18 million inhabitants, one wonders how it is possible that the 500-million strong EU cannot integrate this small chunk of territory. The answer lies not in the technical process of translating the acquis communautaire,­ nor in the alleged reluctance of Balkan states to undertake reforms, but in the synergy of the following three elements: first, pressed by the increasingly nationalistic electorates of its member countries, and strapped with an inefficient and paralysing decision-making structure, the EU does not actually want to enlarge; second, ruling elites in the Balkans see no significant political or economic gains for their clientelistic regimes in EU membership; and third, citizens in these countries are observing the EU’s own institutional crisis and thus know all too well that joining the EU will not guarantee prosperity (one need look no further than Croatia and Bulgaria). Many Balkan citizens, especially those who are young and educated, have thus chosen to take matters into their own hands and join the EU immediately, by emigrating there.

The second illusion, of the salve of transitional justice, offered true hope to the post-war Balkans, especially the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The idea behind the Tribunal was simple: exposing the facts and putting criminals on trial will not only produce justice but also a deep political and moral catharsis in Balkan societies. The archives of the ICTY represent a monumental database of human evil, where horrific war crimes are spelt out in detail, almost no stone left unturned. And yet, the architects of liberal justice did not account for one simple thing: twenty-five years is a long time in politics. Contrary to expectations, war criminals from all “sides” are celebrated today in their communities for acts framed as heroic; and their crimes, if sometimes cynically acknowledged (“someone had to do it”), are sugar-coated in counter-narratives of self-victimisation.

The final illusion sold to the Balkans was that the economy would eventually sort everything out. As long as they ended social and public ownership, implemented privatisation, and made profit for foreign investors and local entrepreneurs, prosperity would trickle down. But neoliberal reforms pushed by the EU, the IMF, and the World Bank only enriched local elites and international predators, while robbing Balkan societies of industrial production, agricultural output, and any degree of economic independence. As a tiny minority enjoys a level of wellbeing that easily rivals that enjoyed by the wealthiest in the West, most Balkan citizens live the reality of poorly paid workers, impoverished pensioners, and unemployed youth, spurring mass emigration to Germany, Austria, or Ireland.

To assess the current situation in the Balkans, but also in the rest of Europe, the full consequences of the failure of these three illusions must be appreciated. After all, many hopes about Europe’s integration were betrayed by the EU. Where are the post-national politics of “unity in diversity” and the now forgotten “European social model”? Where is that Kantian island of reason, values, and hospitality; that “third way” between the unjust American and brutal Chinese capitalisms?

What we’re seeing now is the Brexit chaos, member-states who often despise being members, bitter disputes, the punishment of the weak and indebted, and deepening divisions between North and South, East and West. And, all of this is coupled with rising nationalistic and xenophobic forces that promise salvation from both Brussels and immigrants. As someone who grew up watching the “balkanisation” of Yugoslavia, it is hard to believe that such a “balkanised” Europe can ever “Europeanise” the Balkans. The existing Europeanisation paradigm, in fact, harms the future of the EU itself, and of the countries left waiting in its anteroom. This demands change; and without it, it does not take a crystal ball to see that an entirely different Europe will be born, and one we may come to fear.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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