The Balkanisation of Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Balkan battles: the dispute between Macedonia and Greece over naming rights is one flicker of hope from the region. [vanbest/Flickr}]

As foreign policy experts list their problems for 2016, the Balkans never gets a mention. That’s strange, as the region is the microcosm of all the differing conflicts in Europe, and even further afield, Denis MacShane writes.

Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister of Europe in the Tony Blair government and works in Brussels and London advising on EU policy and politics. His latest book, Brexit : How Britain Will Leave Europe, was published in 2015 by IB Tauris.

The Balkans is Europe’s Zombie Zone, where the dead matter more than the living, where past feuds count for more than finding solutions based on compromise and where religion and churches still have political influence in a way unknown north of the Alps since the 1950s. 

From the Aegean and Adriatic to the Alps, the region is full of unhappy nations with bad economics in competition with worse politics. Slovenia is busy putting up razor wire barriers on its borders with fellow EU member state Croatia.

Bosnia-Herzegovina remains unable to work as a single state. Serbia still is infected by the cancer of Milosevic Serb supremacism, egged on by Vladimir Putin, who loves the idea of keeping the Balkans as a problem region that his rivals in Washington and Brussels cannot solve.

Albania has yet to escape the deep corruption and criminalities of its first post-Communist decade. While the younger, more progressive leadership of Edi Rama makes its mark with European and American counterparts, the old trades of smuggling cigarettes, people, arms and prostitutes die hard.

Kosovo remains a nation without full status, as Greece and Serbia place every obstacle in the path of the young Kosovan state from getting full diplomatic recognition at the UN, or even the Council of Europe, where the norms and values of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the court that enforces them, are more than ever needed.

The only bright news is that Macedonia may be willing to talk to Athens about the name dispute. The claim the Slav Macedonians are the same as the Hellenic heroes who defended Western civilization against Persian tyranny is of course absurd.

But there are plenty of countries around the world that call themselves the  “United States” but they are not America. No-one outside of Greece thinks for a moment that the Skopje republic calling itself Macedonia is any threat to the real Macedonia of Thessalonika, and northern Greece.

And then there is Greece, with its contested leftist government and its crushing debt burden left over from the corrupt clientalist politics that were never cleaned up before the emotional decision to allow Greece to enter the European Community without meeting any of the criteria, except of having removed the colonels forty years ago.

Greece needs to lead in building the Western Balkan states into viable future EU members – poor, with weak economies, and internal ethnic difficulties, but nonetheless members of a modern Europe.

If the Baltic states with their internal political divisions, huge problems with Russian-speaking minorities, and few natural resources can become normal EU member states, why not Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia?

If Cyprus can overcome the legacy of the 1974 invasion and division, why must the Milosevic-era hate of Kosovo prevent Serbia and Kosovo from burying their differences and agreeing that both nations can have a common EU future?

The Balkans are recipients of EU policy, but no Balkan state shapes  Europe’s direction of travel, as they spend too much energy disagreeing with each other instead of forming coherent block and speaking as one. All the refugees from the Islamist violence and revolt against dictatorship in Syria and Iraq come to Greece to start the journey to the richer north.

The Libyan state was destroyed by the intervention to destroy Colonel Gaddafi orchestrated by UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Like George W Bush and Tony Blair destroying the Iraqi state to overthrow Sadam Hussein, the toppling of a tyrant has not ushered in democracy and rule of law.

When a state disappears, the gates to hell are opened as law, police, frontiers, and market economics disappear into a maelstrom of violence of all against all. Thus the Libyan coastline now is the 1000 km launch pad for every African and Arab asylum seeker who can pay the price of a dangerous boat ride across the Mediterrean.

They arrive in Greece and are moved through the Western Balkans, to richer Europe, except that while parts of northern Europe are rich, there are many people without jobs, or decent pensions, or hope for their children, who resent the mass arrival of hundreds of thousands of Arab Muslims.

This will get worse in 2016, with the rise of nationalist populism all over Europe seen in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the anti-European National Front in France, and UKIP in England. The Brussels-bashing governments in Italy, Poland and Hungary will increase in force. Nationalist identity politics in Scotland, in Catalonia, and Corsica will become stronger than the identity of the mother nation states.

Instead of the Balkans becoming Europeanised, Europe is becoming Balkanised.

In the past, politicians sought to give people what they need. Now they give people what they want.  What is necessary can be defined. What is desired knows no limits. The demagogues of the hard-right and the far-left are winning the upper hand over the democrats of the centre-left and centre-right.

Thus, as the Balkans seek to become European, Europe becomes Balkanised. 2016 will be when the failure to find solutions to the Balkans, from the recognition of Kosvo to the debt burden imposed on the Greeks, becomes more acute. In January 2017, the Balkan question will again be on Europe’s agenda.

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