With all the world news from Trump to Macron, Europe seems to have once again forgotten about the Balkans. Or at the very least, the public doesn’t seem to care much what is happening there. There would have been quite some newsworthy events to talk about though, as the Balkans are – once again – in political turmoil. Just last month, pro-regime protesters stormed the Macedonian parliament in Skopje. This week, a lingering political crisis in Albania has finally been somewhat settled, Kosovo is heading for early elections and in the meantime, Serbia is drifting towards authoritarianism.
Many in Europe might have forgotten but this is supposed to be a region of special significance to the EU. Not too long ago, the Union failed miserably to broker peace in what used to be Yugoslavia. Since then, it tried to provide stability by offering EU membership to all Balkan states, an approach that actually proved quite successful for some time. Increasingly however, the EU is doing nothing. And that approach will inevitably end badly.
The EU’s historic role in the Balkans
The Balkans are important to the EU for a number of reasons. There is of course the fallout from the wars of the 1990s. More importantly though, each and every membership candidate is currently from that region (if you exclude Turkey which you definitely should). Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are all in line to join the EU, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are waiting to be invited. And the European Union has an obligation here. In 2003, it offered a “European perspective” to all Balkan states, an offer it reiterated just last year. However, currently the EU is doing very little in that respect.
It is no secret that the post-Brexit EU (but already before) is enlargement-weary. I have said before that this weariness and the signals it sends to the Balkans – but also to those willing to exploit a vacuum left there – is by far the most damaging approach imaginable. Recent events in Turkey certainly don’t make the situation any less dangerous.
The EU is no longer the Balkans’ only option
The problem behind the EU’s growing disregard for the Balkans is therefore easy to spot. It opens opportunities for regimes like Erdoğan’s Turkey to step into the vacuum. Yes, the EU and the west in general are still active in the region but almost exclusively as crisis managers. Brokerage from Brussels has at least partially helped calming-down tensions in Macedonia recently. US-American intervention seems to have made new elections in Albania possible. But besides this troubleshooting, the EU and US are not doing much.
A quick look at Turkey’s activities in the region suffices to see the consequences of this. Wherever you go in the Balkans – especially in partially Muslim societies like Bosnia, Kosovo or Macedonia – you will spot Turkish influence right away. State-backed Turkish banks open branches all over the region. Gülen-associated and – after the attempted Turkey coup – increasingly state-run Turkish schools and universities open everywhere. Turkey therefore offers jobs, education and economic perspective to the people of the Balkans. The EU’s empty promise of eventual membership does none of that anymore.
No credibility in the Balkans means no credibility anywhere
The true underlying problem is this: the prospect of EU membership has in the last 15 years nowhere been as powerful as in the Balkans. The mere perspective of eventual membership helped calm down ethnic conflict in Macedonia in 2001. That same perspective helped bring justice to many victims of the Yugoslav wars by motivating Serbia and Croatia to support the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. But since the pace of EU talks slowed down everywhere, this effect has now long worn off.
In many cases this is self-inflicted, of course. After all, we do see a substantial reform backlog in many Balkan states. However, the real problem lies on the EU’s side. For almost ten years now, the European Union made it clearer and clearer that it is not interested in any further enlargement any time soon. Even for the frontrunners in current accession talks, Montenegro and Serbia, a date before 2025 or even 2030 is basically illusionary. But the problem runs much deeper than that. It is not just that the EU doesn’t offer a credible perspective to the Balkans anymore. Even when it does interact with the region, it does so only when absolutely necessary and with no long-term strategy. Wednesday’s meeting of Balkan leaders in Brussels will certainly give us more of that.
The effect of this is obvious. The European Union has lost large parts of its credibility already in Western and Eastern Europe, due to its handling of the financial, Euro and refugee crises. Now, it even loses this credibility in the Balkans – the one place where Europe for a long time actually stood for something. And if the EU doesn’t manage to sustain its credibility in the Balkans, it won’t do so anywhere.