When Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama wrote to the Times of London about the risk of Brexit, his message was clear – and echoed other Balkan nations desperate to join the European Union.
“Please don’t go,” Rama pleaded.
As Britons head towards Thursday’s stay-or-go referendum on the EU (23 June), countries in south-eastern Europe fear for the impact on their own hopes of joining the Brussels club if the Leave campaign wins.
“My biggest fear is that the Western Balkans will go ‘below the radar’ whatever happens in the UK,” said Tanja Mišcević, who is leading Serbia’s negotiations with the EU.
“Negotiations between the 27 member states and the UK will be a priority on the EU’s agenda along with the migrant crisis, Turkey and then – if something else does not come up – enlargement and Serbia,” she said.
Six Balkan countries have officially said they want to join the EU: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – together home to around 20 million people.
Membership negotiations have already started with Serbia and Montenegro, but are yet to get underway for Albania and Macedonia. Bosnia and Kosovo have been promised the prospect of membership when they are ready.
However, the bloc has ruled out any further enlargement before 2020, and even that date looks unrealistic.
Macedonia “would be even further from the European Union than it is now” if Britain severs its links with the bloc, said Petre Silegov, spokesman for the country’s opposition Social Democrats.
Where Britain’s Brexiteers see the EU as an interference in national sovereignty, many in the Western Balkans — a region of widespread poverty and turbulence – see the 28-nation bloc as a beacon of stability and prosperity.
Even so, enthusiasm for the EU has ebbed in the face of the eurozone’s troubles and Europe’s migrant crisis, with the latter putting these countries on the frontline without the feeling of being supported by Europe.
A Brexit would only reinforce these sentiments, said regional politicians and analysts.
“Britain’s exit would feed Eurosceptic ideas that have always existed,” warned Kosovo’s minister for dialogue, Edita Tahiri.
Officially, the region remains in keen pursuit of European integration.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, a staunch ultranationalist in the 1990s who now styles himself a pro-European reformist, won re-election in April with a strongly pro-EU campaign.
In Albania, judicial reforms demanded by Brussels have created a political crisis – but it is for internal reasons and EU accession faces no credible opposition.
“It is because of this aspiration that we have changed our long history of wars and bloody conflicts, and entered a new era of peace and cooperation,” said Rama in his letter to The Times in April.
One example of improved cooperation is the ongoing Brussels-brokered dialogue between former foes Serbia and Kosovo, a key requirement in both sides’ bids to join the EU.
But more than ever, Balkan players have the feeling of not being a priority for the troubled bloc — a sentiment that could be exacerbated by an EU-British divorce.
“You cannot expect an EU shaken by the departure of Britain to be preoccupied with expansion into the Balkans,” said Safet Gerxhaliu, head of the Kosovo Chamber of Commerce.
Calls to consolidate
While far-right parties in the region enjoy less success than in France or Austria, pro-Russian ultranationalists are on the march in Serbia, returning to parliament after April elections to fan the anti-European flame.
The Brexit campaign has already had a knock-on effect for accession hopefuls, according to Maja Bobić, secretary general of the European Movement in Serbia (Evropski Pokret).
Bobić pointed to politicians “listing enlargement as one of the EU’s bad sides” and waving “the threat of mass immigration from candidate countries”.
But Balkan nations waiting at the EU’s gates might soon become a problem for the bloc, according to those keen to join.
Mišcević warned that “only a consolidated Europe” can overcome issues such as the migrant crisis.
“This means that the EU can only overcome and react to the challenges it faces by working hand-in-hand and integrating the Western Balkans,” she said.