Does the EU want to bring Russia and Turkey into the Western Balkans?

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Dušan Relji? [EURACTIV Germany]

As there are no signs that the EU economy will revitalize soon and lift with it the Western Balkans, the region is looking for new business partners, writes Dušan Relji?.

Dušan Relji?  is Head of Brussels Office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). This article has originally appeared on the website of Politi?ka misao (Croatian Political Science Review) in Zagreb.

The European Union (EU) has only to fear itself, instead of straying into misleading fantasies about how Russia is achieving ever-increasing influence in southeast Europe. Only if the EU’s credibility and economic pull in the region continues to diminish, non-European powers may achieve a greater role in the so-called Western Balkans. To integrate – in the political, security, legal and economic sense, is a capacity inherent only to the European Union. However, its member states may also forfeit southeast Europe to the bickering of Russia, Turkey, China and some Islamic states which, without a doubt, would prefer to have more influence in the region. Leading EU members should make up their mind.

After the end of the wars for Yugoslav succession, the EU, with the blessing of the US, designed a plan to achieve permanent stability on the continent. This plan, known also as the European Security Strategy (2003), envisaged as its chief instrument in southeast Europe the eventual membership of all Yugoslav successor states and Albania in the European Union. The functioning of this scheme cannot, not even theoretically, be prevented by ploys devised by Russia, Turkey or any other “third” factor. It is solely jeopardized by the endless postponing of the admission of the remaining Western Balkan states into the EU into an uncertain future. The root causes of the 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 southeast Europe which abuse the enlargement process for their national political ends.

Integration within the EU should achieve convergence – which was understood to mean roughly comparable legal, economic and social conditions in the member states. Instead of this, the financial and economic crises since 2009 exacerbated the divergence between them. Broadly speaking, the north of Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, and Nordic states) suffered less from the crises and is improving its economic performance, whereas the south of Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal) is in fact not catching up. The transition of former socialist countries of eastern Europe should have led to convergence with the old EU member states. Instead of this, not even Eastern Germany, which was showered with two trillion West German euros, could draw level with the rest of the country. Eastern Europe seems to be condemned to lag lastingly behind the north-west of the continent in terms of economic performance and social prosperity. In former Yugoslavia, in spite of Slovenia and Croatia being now EU members, the promised results were also not achieved: living standards are mostly abysmal, industrial production has to a great extent died down and there is the ubiquitous felling of hopelessness among young people which causes them to migrate towards the northwest, like their cohort in southern Europe.

EU enlargement strategy in the recent past mostly did not acknowledge such contradictions. Instead, the officials in Brussels seemed foremost eager to mollify the EU populace, which expresses increasingly unsympathetic attitudes when it comes to accepting new members to the club. Since some time, less than 50 percent of EU citizens favour letting more countries in. In Germany, this percentage is close to 20 percent and among the lowest in the EU. Apparently, Brussels strategists thought that by exerting strictness towards potential new EU members, they would avert giving new grounds to xenophobes. The candidates for EU membership should be 110 percent ready, said former Enlargement Commissioner Štefen Füle, repeatedly. If the recent election results of right-wing populists in several EU states are an indicator of the success of this strategy, then it did not prove to be the suitable one.

By linking its enlargement process foremost to the mood of the broad masses of Western Europe, the EU neglected the fact that her own financial and economic crises had badly hurt 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 already before membership, the countries of the region directed almost two thirds of their foreign trade to the bloc (for the most part to Germany, Italy and to a far lesser extent other member countries). The banking system of the Western Balkan countries belongs to almost 90 percent to a few banks from EU countries (Germany, Italy and to a smaller proportion also 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 full halt of EU investments in the region. Migrant workers’ remittances also declined.

As there are no signs that the EU economy will revitalize soon and lift with it 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 reorientation provides the ground for increased political influence of non-European actors. However, geographical factors by themselves play a decisive role: it is ludicrous to believe in the possibility of, for instance, of Serbia joining the Eurasian Economic Union. Or: nobody in the Balkans, not even right-wing Muslim leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina or hard-core Albanian nationalists in Priština, care much about Turkish invitations to join efforts to enter the EU – just now when Turkey itself is rapidly moving into a different geopolitical direction.

The EU’s enlargement strategy did in one way respond to the steep economic recession in the Western Balkan since 2009: improving economic governance in the candidate and potential candidate countries became 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” – and 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 the recent past was 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 consideration 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 brought this course of action more or less to a standstill. It is yet to be seen when and with how much dynamism negotiations might resume.

In this context, Russia definitely plays an important role. As long as Moscow (and China) can veto any attempt to have Priština become a member of the United Nations in the Security Council, Kosovo will not be a fully-fledged recognised state. However, Serbia will also not be able to enter the EU until it has concluded a deal with its leading members about its relationship with Kosovo. Nonetheless, in this respect, the war in Ukraine could bring some changes. For a while, Serbian and Montenegrin government leaders have been trying to convince their Western interlocutors that they suffer under increasing Russian pressure so that the West should soften the conditionality for the EU membership of their countries in order to strengthen stability in the Western Balkans. To express it in the shared language of sports and politics: It would be a spectacular show if this trick really works.

Yet, the “Greek clinch” is perfectly functioning as a firm part of EU enlargement policies. For many years, Athens has blcked any progress of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia towards EU or NATO, hoping to win in the “name dispute” with Skopje. The opportunity to apply this political wrestling technique exists only during the pre-accession period. This is why Slovenia blackmailed Croatia, why Croatia seems to be preparing to blackmail Serbia, why Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary are injecting their bilateral conditions, pertaining to their ethnic kin in the neighbouring candidate countries, into the enlargement negotiations. EU members in southeast Europe do not hesitate to “nationalize” the EU enlargement process.

It is often presented that the right of entry into the EU come 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 has 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. Later, Greece, Spain and Portugal were ushered in to prevent the return of fascist 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 now the fear of imagined Russian forcefulness in southeast Europe persuade the western powers to get their act together and turn into reality their good intentions and grand promises to the Western Balkan countries?  This could prove to be the only benefit from so much evil that the war in Ukraine has brought about.

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