How the EU balkanised the Balkans

It is time Western Europe understood that there is more than one way to be European.

The EU decided not to start accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania after French President Emmanuel Macron vetoed the move on October 18, 2019 [Boris Roessler/Reuters]

On October 18, France stood alone in opposing the accession of North Macedonia and Albania to the European Union. High-ranking officials and leaders of the EU such as Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Junker and Commissioner Johannes Hahn expressed dismay at the French decision. Various pundits and observers described French President Emmanuel Macron‘s veto as a major “mistake”.

Justifying his historic “no” to opening accession negotiation with the two countries, Macon said he could not assure his people that “everything’s going so well that we’re going to open negotiations” if there are “thousands and thousands and thousands” of Albanians applying for asylum in France.

This fear of immigration from within Europe betrays a gaze that does not see all Europeans as equal – ie some Europeans are apparently more European than others. No wonder then that different instruments and initiatives that have been part of the European integration process are called “Europeanisation”.

Belonging to a single continent, sharing similar cultural heritage and different yet intersecting histories apparently is not what “Europeanness” is. Rather, the measure for being truly European appears to be being from a rich, capitalist neoliberal state, especially a former colonial power which still enjoys some post-colonial perks. All former communist countries on the continent are expected to emulate this model through the process of so-called integration, adopting “measures”, “instruments”, “reforms” dictated by Western technocrats.

The premise of this process betrays a hidden assumption about tendencies towards anomie and corruption in Eastern European countries, and especially in the Balkans. As Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova has pointed out in her book “Imagining the Balkans”, Western Europe balkanised the Balkans the same way it orientalised the Orient (as per Edward Said).

In this line of thought, some Western Europeans may perceive me as writing from the position of a potential “immigrant”; I assert, however, that I’m writing as a European citizen.

At the same time, being left-wing, my admission of being a Europhile might sound like a betrayal of the ideals of the left, which is habitually Euro-sceptic. However, it is not a betrayal of any sort.

I grew up in socialist Yugoslavia, where our education, our entire world view, in spite (or precisely because) of its ideological framing, was European in terms of tradition and vision of the future.

Let us not forget that socialism as an idea is based on European modernism. What is more, while growing its own brand of the socialist regime, the Yugoslav federation was quite open to Western Europe and offered its citizens free movement to the West.

After its dissolution, we all naively thought we would enter the EU immediately because, after all, we were European, we were from Europe and we thought we always had belonged to it. This expectation was spontaneous, and it felt, indeed, “natural”.

So it felt like a slap in the face when in the 1990s the EU asked us to undergo “Europeanisation” before we could become “European” on paper. We felt humiliated but had to accept this “slap” from our more “sophisticated”, developed and wealthier European brothers and sisters.

We started looking up to their “advanced democracy” uncritically as if it were the best and only model for development and wellbeing (which lately has proven to be much more vulnerable, unstable and susceptible to far-right sways than we were made to believe). Put under the spotlight of the Western balkanising gaze, we were led to believe in our innate inferiority.

So, we embarked on a colossal transformation: we dismantled our socialist system, we privatised all our industries, we cut budgets for basic services like education and healthcare, we relearned how to be conservative, abandoning the gender equity ideals and strong secularism we had inherited from half a century of socialism.

Upon the ruins of a different yet fully developed system and in the midst of the anomie that led to years of conflict, we were expected to build a fully developed western liberal democracy from scratch, while dragging behind us the burden of deepening poverty and trauma. 

Our society was left in shambles and we were expected to quickly build a new one, establish new institutions and shape a new mentality – as if there was something profoundly wrong or “un-European” about our previous mentality.

This excruciating process of destroying and building anew a whole system was euphemistically called “transition”.

Predictably, that went neither fast enough nor successfully enough: The competition was not fair. Opening our markets to the developed capitalism of the West and undertaking neo-liberal reforms drained our human and economic resources while we kept trying to stay apace.

In the meantime, conservative “non-European” influences spread in the predominately secular and pronouncedly multicultural regions of former Yugoslavia. Other geopolitical forces, whose influence the EU fears (Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia etc), managed to interfere and undermine the unnecessary process of “Europeanisation” the West had demanded. Thus, while pacing back and forth in the waiting room of the EU, we were slowly “de-Europeanised”.

Today, after all that happened, it is clear that the EU will not achieve stability and prosperity unless it moves to establish a truly unified territory on the continent. A union with patches of non-EU land that remains underdeveloped and open to conservative “non-European” influences, will inevitably result in decay, dissatisfaction and dissolution from within.

The Union should seek to become Europe and vice versa, and for that to happen it needs to reinvent itself. Instead of seeing itself as an elite club, it should adopt a more geopolitical and horizontal integrative approach and embrace the fact that there is more than one notion of “Europeanness”.

In order to have a more “politically integrated EU” or for that matter a more “politically integrated Europe”, Western European politicians like Macron should listen to their realist political instincts rather than to the technocratic arguments betraying a perverse liberal racism parading as “procedural concerns”. 

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