The EU and the Balkans: Moving beyond Failure

11 September 2019   ·   Toby Vogel

Over the last years, EU policy towards the Balkans has contributed to – rather than mitigated – instability in the region. It is time for a policy shift. Under its new foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, the EU needs to take a decisive stand against any attempted border changes in the region. Germany should lead this effort.

The next few weeks offer a crucial opportunity for the European Union to reset its policy towards the six countries in Southeastern Europe that are seeking to join the EU. For this to happen, German leadership is indispensable: Those who want EU enlargement based on adherence to liberal rules rather than bureaucratic autopilot need to seize this moment for a policy shift in Brussels.

The UK has checked out of the EU and French President Emmanuel Macron seems unwilling to view the Balkan states as future members, instead promoting bilateral ties in fields not directly related to accession. At a time when the US role has become toxic, the hopes of reformers across the region have nowhere else to turn but to a German-led EU, despite the Union’s failure to counter the disintegrative trends of the past decade. It would be criminally negligent for the EU to stick to the status quo in the Balkans: unless it gets serious about the region, there will be further regression and very likely renewed instability.

It’s high time to change strategy  

A policy reset has to take place before the next European Commission, including Josep Borrell, the nominee for EU foreign policy chief, takes office on November 1. The Bundestag, ideally in a joint resolution with France’s Assemblée Nationale and the European Parliament, should spell out that Germany and the EU will counter retrograde policies in the region, and explicitly state that they will block any moves to change borders along ethnic lines. Getting incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to commit herself to this would also be helpful.  

There is an increasing willingness in parts of the EU’s administration to acknowledge that the EU’s accession-focused approach to Southeastern Europe may be hitting its limits. For some 20 years, the EU’s efforts to build peace and prevent conflict in Albania and the countries that emerged from the ruins of Yugoslavia was based on the prospect of their eventual membership in the EU. But the membership prospect has proven to be too distant, and too weak to provide sufficient support to reformers and to counter authoritarian or irredentist agendas. Serbia and Montenegro have begun accession talks and EU leaders are to decide in October whether North Macedonia and Albania should follow suit, but there is little sense that the reforms in the region have been sufficient to have systemic impact. The quality of democratic politics is low, and there has been pronounced backsliding as incumbent elites tighten their grip on power. This is evident in Montenegro, where the process of negotiating EU membership does not seem to have spurred democratic gains, and in Serbia, which has seen considerable backsliding. Semi-authoritarian regimes have consolidated their power thanks to weak or co-opted opposition parties and their control, direct or indirect, of the media. But the EU, too, has empowered these leaders: it continues to do business with them because they are seen as guarantors of stability. However, this stability is more fragile than the calm on the surface suggests.  

A land swap is not an option  

In reality, the region has not yet truly transcended its post-war phase – 20 years after NATO ejected Serbian forces from Kosovo and almost 25 years since the Dayton peace accords ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia and Kosovo are both still grappling with the legacy of their respective wars – the former with a dysfunctional constitutional set-up featuring structural disincentives to inter-ethnic cooperation, the latter with Serbia’s continued refusal to recognize its independence. Over the last year or so, the two situations became linked explicitly as Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, and his Kosovar counterpart, Hashim Thaçi, pursued a deal on a “land swap” whose specifics remain sketchy but which would embolden Serb separatists in Bosnia led by Milorad Dodik.  

The land swap was endorsed by the EU’s current foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, who is desperate for a deliverable as her term in office is nearing its end, as well as by US National Security Adviser John Bolton. Chancellor Angela Merkel was the first European leader to state without ambiguity that partitioning sovereign countries along ethnic lines was unacceptable on principle and a dangerous precedent. But for the deal to be off the table, other EU leaders have to join her call. Borrell, currently Spain’s foreign minister, has also publicly opposed the deal. During his confirmation hearing before the European Parliament, MEPs should extract his renewed pledge to block a land swap.  

The EU must provide genuine support to civil society in the Balkans  

The confirmation hearings of European commissioners-designate (including the foreign policy chief) in September and October are a rare moment of personal and policy accountability in the EU. Incoming MEPs have a duty to probe Borrell and the Hungarian Laszlo Trocsanyi, nominee for enlargement Commissioner, about their plans for the Balkans. They should extract a commitment to genuinely support civic and other agents of change in these countries to help them hold their leaders accountable. The Commission and the EU’s diplomatic service should stop treating civil society as mere service providers and instead help to mobilize activists engaging on issues relevant to the EU accession process, from anti-corruption and environmental protection to transparent urban planning and development – and accept the consequences when these activists confront entrenched interests. They should spell out to incumbent leaders that backsliding on democracy, including self-dealing and the intentional stoking of ethno-national fear, is unacceptable and will result in financial sanctions and travel bans. Most urgently, the incoming EU leadership must oppose the dangerous idea that a border change in Kosovo could solve the situation with Serbia and contribute to, rather than endanger, regional stability.

Europäische Union Stabilisierung Westbalkan

Toby Vogel

Toby Vogel is a senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council. @tobyvogel