By Dušan Reljić
Only the European Union can enable Russia and Turkey to gain true influence in the Western Balkans – but if it continues to procrastinate, EU enlargement in the region will collapse.
The European Union (EU) should take a look in the mirror instead of straying into misleading delusions about how Russia is achieving ever increasing influence in south-east Europe. This is because the only way that non-European powers will snatch a greater role in the so-called Western Balkans is if the EU’s credibility and economic pull in the region continues to diminish. The capacity to integrate this part of south-east Europe – in the political, security, legal and economic sense – inherently falls to the European Union alone. However, EU member states may end up forfeiting south-east Europe to be fought over by Russia, Turkey, China and some Islamic states, which, without doubt, would prefer to have more influence in the region. With this in mind, the leading EU members need to act accordingly.
After the end of the wars for Yugoslav succession, the EU, with the blessing of the U.S., designed a plan on how to achieve permanent stability on the continent. This plan, also known as the European Security Strategy (2003), envisaged as its chief instrument in south-east Europe the eventual membership of all Yugoslav successor states and Albania to the European Union. The functioning of this scheme cannot, even theoretically, be prevented by ploys devised by Russia, Turkey or any other “third” factor. In fact, it is only jeopardized by the endless postponement of the admission of the remaining West Balkan states into the EU. The root causes of this protraction are the increasing economic contradictions in the process of European integration and, in particular, the failure of economic transition in most former socialist countries. These critical problems are aggravated by inconsistent EU enlargement policies, particular political priorities of some more powerful EU member states and the opportunism of EU countries in south-east Europe, which abuse the enlargement process for their own national political ends.
Integration within the EU should achieve convergence – which is understood to mean roughly comparable legal, economic and social conditions in the member states. Yet Instead of this, financial and economic crises have actually exacerbated divergence between members since 2009. Broadly speaking, the north of Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, and the Nordic states) suffered less from the crises and is improving its economic performance, whereas the south of Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal) continues to lag behind. The transition of former socialist countries of Eastern Europe should have led to convergence with the old EU member states. However, not even Eastern Germany, which was showered with two trillion West German Euros, could pull itself up to the level of the rest of the country. Eastern Europe seems to be condemned to perpetually trail behind the north-west of the continent in terms of economic performance and social prosperity. In former Yugoslavia, in spite of Slovenia and Croatia’s accession to the EU, the promised results were not achieved: living standards are largely abysmal, industrial production has vastly diminished and there is the ubiquitous feeling of hopelessness among young people, causing them to migrate towards the north-west, much like their cohorts in southern Europe.
The EU enlargement strategy in the recent past has largely failed to acknowledge such contradictions. Here, the officials in Brussels have seemed eager to mollify the EU populace that increasingly expresses unsympathetic attitudes when it comes to accepting new members to the club. For some time, less than 50 percent of EU citizens favour admitting more countries into the Union. In Germany, this percentage is close to 20 percent, among the lowest in the EU. Apparently, Brussels strategists thought that by exerting strict measures on potential EU members, they would avert giving new grounds to xenophobes. The candidates for EU membership should be 110 percent ready for accession, said former Enlargement Commissioner Štefen Füle repeatedly. If the recent election of right-wing populists in several EU states are any indicator of the success of this strategy, then it may not be suitable.
Brussels strategists appear to have ignored the fact that the EU`s own financial and economic crises have badly injured the economies of the Western Balkan and diminished the candidate countries’ capability to draw nearer to the Union. As a crucial part of their drive to connect to the EU prior to membership, the countries of the region directed almost two thirds of their foreign trade to the bloc (primarily Germany, Italy, and to a far lesser extent, other member countries). Nearly 90 percent of the banking system of the Western Balkan countries belongs to a handful of banks located in EU countries (especially Germany, Italy, and to a smaller extent, France, Austria and Greece). The economic crises in the EU led to less trade with Western Balkan countries, to the withdrawal of capital from the Western Balkan branches of EU banks and to an almost complete halt of EU investments in the region. Migrant workers’ remittances also declined.
As there are no signs that the EU economy will revitalize anytime soon, and therewith lift the Western Balkans, the region is looking for new business partners – in China, Russia, Turkey, Arab states and wherever else there is economic growth. In the long run, this re-orientation sets the stage for an increase in the political influence of non-European actors in the region. However, geographical factors in and of themselves also play a decisive role: it is ludicrous to believe in the possibility of, for instance, Serbia joining the Eurasian Economic Union. Nobody in the Balkans, not even right-wing Muslim leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina or hard-core Albanian nationalists in Priština, are genuinely responsive to Ankara’s calls for them to help it enter the EU. It is overtly evident that Turkey’s relations with the EU are on a downhill ride and this is partly because there are strong tendencies in some EU countries to resist the entry of such a large, politically self-conscious and assertive state. Moreover, the state of democracy and human rights in Turkey appears to be deteriorating and the country seems to be falling more and more under the influence of political Islam. On the other hand, there are clear signals that the country´s current leadership has decided to set Turkey on its own geopolitical trajectory which is less and less congruent with that of the EU.
Nonetheless, the EU’s enlargement strategy has in one way responded to the steep economic recession that has plagued the Western Balkan since 2009, namely, improving economic governance in the candidate and potential candidate countries has become an additional priority. Evidently, the rising deficits in state budgets and rocketing external debts stirred fears that a “Greek scenario” might be looming in the Western Balkans. If yet another group of countries would enter the default zone, the EU will perhaps have to provide financial guarantees for them or even pump in fresh money. This is why the European Commission is keen to increase its surveillance over economic governance in the enlargement region.
However, the war in Ukraine alarmed some decision makers in Europe and prompted the German government to convene a Western Balkans Business Conference in August 2014. At present, it is not clear whether this initiative will spawn a “Marshall Plan for the Western Balkans” – a venture of this magnitude is required to induce faster growth and increase employment in the region. For most leading EU states, the priority in recent years has been to draw on the EU enlargement process in order to find a way out of the Kosovo conundrum. Governments in Belgrade, Priština, Tirana and Skopje declare EU membership to be their top political priority so that diplomats in Berlin, London and elsewhere capitalize on this to try to regulate the “Albanian question” in the region. However, parliamentary elections in Serbia and Kosovo this spring have more or less brought this course of action to a standstill. It is yet to be seen when and with what degree of dynamism negotiations might resume.
In this context, Russia definitely plays an important role: as long as Moscow (and Beijing) possesses veto power in the UN Security Council, any attempt to have Kosovo become a member of the United Nations will result in anything but the recognition of full-fledged statehood. However, Serbia will also not be able to enter the EU until it has concluded a deal with the Union’s leading members on its relationship with Kosovo. Nonetheless, in this respect, the war in Ukraine could bring about some changes. For some time Serbian and Montenegrin leaders have been trying to convince their Western interlocutors that they are suffering under the increasing pressure of Russia in order to have the EU soften conditionality for membership and therewith strengthen stability in the Western Balkans. Expressed in the shared language of sports and politics: It would be a spectacular show if this trick really worked.
Additionally, the “Greek clinch” is now functioning as an entrenched part of EU enlargement policies. For many years, Athens has blocked any type of progress that the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia could make in its efforts to join the EU or NATO in hopes that this tactic will help it to win the “name dispute” with Skopje. The opportunity to apply this political wrestling technique exists only throughout the pre-accession period. This is why Slovenia blackmailed Croatia, why Croatia seems to be preparing to blackmail Serbia and why Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary are injecting their own bilateral conditions pertaining to their ethnic kin in the neighbouring candidate countries into the enlargement negotiations. EU members in south-east Europe are not hesitating to “nationalize” the EU enlargement process.
It is often presented that the right of entry into the EU comes as a result of a more or less technical procedure (“The EU delivers when the EU-aspiring countries deliver…”). In reality, new admittances into the EU have always been based on the interest of EU members to build up stability and security on the continent. The EU itself was created to restrain the power of Germany in Europe, and later, Greece, Spain and Portugal were ushered in to prevent the return of fascistoid rule in those states. Then the majority of former Warsaw Pact states were invited to join in order to prevent the return of communist oppression and Russian hegemony in that part of Europe. After the failure of the EU to avert the Yugoslav catastrophe, the Western Balkans were offered a “membership perspective” to prove – urbi et orbi – that the EU is capable of taking care of stability and security in its own courtyard. Will the fear of imagined Russian aggression in south-east Europe persuade the western powers to get their act together and deliver on their good intentions and grand promises to the countries of the Western Balkan? If so, this could prove to be the only benefit of the evil that the war in Ukraine has brought about.
Dušan Reljić is the Head of the Brussels Office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). The views expressed here are his own.
**This article was firstly published in Analist Monthly Journal’s January issue, 2015 in Turkish language