Summit Season Brings Cold Shower for Balkan EU Hopes
Europe and America say they are increasingly concerned over the role of outside powers in the Balkans. But it is their actions – or inaction - that is pushing the region away from Euro-Atlantic integration and into the arms of others.
Summer 2018 will go down as a season of summits in Europe and the Balkans. They were supposed to mark a turning point in the slow-burn – some might say ‘stalled’ – process of integrating the six countries of the Western Balkans with the West.
But after an EU-Western Balkans get-together in Sofia in May, an EU summit in Brussels in late June and the Western Balkans Summit in London in early July, EU membership appears to be receding into the distance rather than looming larger.
When it comes to the Balkans, it would seem the EU never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Beyond the handshakes and family photos, Sofia, Brussels and London have produced only vague commitments to speed up the process of integration.
The substance, however, told a different story – that Europe is consumed by its own internal problems, first among them the migrant crisis and Britain’s torturous divorce from the bloc. Expansion to the Western Balkans will not be a topic of serious discussion for a long time, if ever.
European and American officials may be wringing their hands at the nefarious influence of Russia, Turkey, China, the Gulf States and Iran in the Balkans, but they show little appreciation for the fact they themselves flung the door wide open.
The fading European perspective, crisis between Western powers and the gradual deterioration of the basic principles of neo-liberal democracy are conspiring to drive the countries of the Balkans further into the embrace of alternative regional and global influences, and deeper into crisis.
The best, though not the only, solution to such ‘malign’ influences would be to kick-start and give substance to the EU enlargement process, but it seems this dish will not be on any summit menu for some time to come.
Great expectations, greater disappointments
For months, the Sofia summit of May 17 was billed as a “new beginning” for the integration of the Balkans, on a par with the Thessaloniki Summit of 2003 that kicked off the process with the declaration that the future of the region lay inside the EU.
Sofia was less a new beginning, however, than a cold shower for the leaders and peoples of the Balkans. EU integration was not even on the agenda.
Instead, French President Emmanuel Macron and other European leaders stated in no uncertain terms that the EU needed to resolve its own problems and carry out internal reforms before it would seriously consider taking in any new members.
Macedonia, at the time, was on the cusp of an historic deal with neighbouring Greece to change its name, while Albania had launched a long-awaited assault on judicial graft, both in the expectation of reward and encouragement from the EU in the form of a green light for accession negotiations, as recommended by the bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission.
Such a rebuff is particularly dangerous in the case of Macedonia, which is still emerging from a long and deep crisis of democracy and needs help and encouragement to put to bed a row with Greece that has raged for more than a quarter of a century. If Skopje stumbles, the country could easily slide into new crisis, which, like the troubles of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo, has the potential to destabilise the entire region.
Instead of support, decisions and specific measures, Sofia produced a joint declaration between European and Balkan leaders consisting of no less than 17 points and effectively only reaffirming their commitment to European integration.
It was abundantly clear, however, that post-Sofia the European perspective was even more distant and uncertain than before the summit.
It was less a renewal of wedding vows, Politico reported, than “two partners declaring they still want to be engaged – even though one is now playing hard to get.”
The Bulgarian portal euinside.eu wrote that the EU had “closed the door to enlargement, but left money and instructions.’’
Then came the EU summit in Brussels in June.
EU leaders were due to address a number of complex issues, from Brexit – and the conspicuous absence of a detailed plan from London as to its future relationship with the bloc – to sanctions on Russia and a growing global trade war.
But it was hijacked by the migrant crisis and the demands of a new anti-establishment government in Italy.
Marathon talks into the early hours finally yielded agreement on ‘control centres’ to migrants and refugees arriving on Europe’s shores, to be set up on a ‘voluntary’ basis only in those countries willing to accept them.
The deal was short on detail, but demonstrated, according to experts, a determination on the part of the EU to keep the issue beyond its borders, i.e. in North Africa, Turkey and the Balkans.
This may mean an injection of EU cash for those countries involved, but it will almost certainly bring with it new tensions in Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East since the strategy does nothing to address the cause of mass population movements in Africa and Asia, to which NATO itself has contributed. Such approaches have never brought anyone any good.
London was not much better.
The July 9-10 summit of the Western Balkans had only modest ambitions to start, focusing as it did on issues of economics, connectivity and digitalisation, which only make sense in the context of the enlargement process.
The event barely registered in local, regional or international media, being largely overshadowed by a political crisis in Britain over Brexit that saw two ministers quit.
‘Malign’ foreign influences
While Balkans leaders no longer hide their disappointment with Europe, European and US officials are likewise increasingly outspoken about the growing influence of Russia, Turkey, China, the Gulf States and Iran in the region.
Only a few Western officials and experts appear to appreciate that such ‘foreign’ influences were spawned and nurtured by the political vacuum left by the weakening of European and American influence in the Balkans over the last decade.
Moreover, the countries of the Balkans are witnesses on a daily basis to the growing crisis of Western powers and the worsening populist, nationalist and/or conservative policies of American and European leaders – from US President Donald Trump to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – and which render the EU’s requests for reforms in the Balkans absurd.
They demonstrate that instead of the bringing democracy to the Balkans, the 21st Century has brought Balkanisation to the world.
Russia, Turkey, China and others have taken advantage of the situation in recent years, wielding maximum influence in the Balkans with minimum outlay, thanks in no small part to already-established relationships that the Serbs have with Russia and that Bosniaks and other Muslims in the Balkans have with Turkey, the Gulf States and Iran.
Croatia also deserves mention in terms of malign influences and its continued support for the ruling Croatian parties in BiH. The radical policies of these parties, and those of Bosniak and Serb leaders, have helped bring the country to a political standstill.
They have also contributed to an unprecedented level of division among Croats in BiH and led to open arguments between Bosnian Croat politicians and the most prominent Western leaders.
With all these outside influences obviously motivated by the narrow interests of those countries and their leaders – and as the difference between the approaches of Western and Eastern powers grows more and more moot by the day – the Balkans has once again became an arena for personal and political conflicts. History shows this is a dangerous game.
In such a situation, where Western politicians criticise ‘foreign’ leaders for showing an interest in the Balkans that they themselves have not, and as they continue to do little to address this, one can only expect such foreign influences to grow in the years to come.
Nationalist dreams not dead
Russia, which already controls a good part of the Balkan energy market – including supplies of natural gas to much of the region and control of the oil market in Serbia and Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska – will likely take over control over the coming months of Croatian Agrokor, the largest chain of retailers in the region and the owner of numerous food producers, further strengthening Russia’s economic presence in the region.
Moscow already wields considerable political influence in the Balkans through its relations with Serbian leaders, above all Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, and Aleksandar Vucic, president of Serbia.
A potential continuation of the crisis between Belgrade and Pristina regarding the status of Kosovo will keep pushing Serbia and Vucic further and further towards Moscow, and away from Brussels.
On the other hand, further strengthening of Turkish influence in the Balkans can also be expected, particularly after Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comfortable win in snap elections in June and his assumption of a new, significantly strengthened presidential mandate.
The Balkans, and particularly relations with Bosniaks in this region, is a key plank of Erdogan’s policy to slowly but surely create a new, ‘Ottoman’ Turkey as a new-old regional power, both close to but distant enough from the West as well as Russia.
When it comes to China, the Gulf States and Iran, their influence in the Balkans is still on the whole – but not exclusively – limited to economic projects. But these influences too will grow if they are not replaced by more serious and more specific European projects in a timely manner.
Considering the strength and mobility of Chinese politics and capital, any eventual change in European policies, if it does not happen soon, may prove too little, too late. In that case, given the lack of transparency of Chinese projects, a good part of the infrastructure and energy potential of the Balkans may, in the long run, end up in Chinese hands.
But the strengthening of such influences will not be the only, nor the worst, consequence of the slowdown in the region’s European integration.
Nationalist and separatist tendencies in the Balkans, rekindled with the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, can only be silenced and peacefully transformed within the borders of the EU.
A further weakening, let alone the extinguishing of the European perspective for the Balkans will sooner or later encourage new efforts towards the establishment of a ‘Greater Albania’, ‘Greater Bosnia’, ‘Greater Croatia’, ‘Greater Serbia’ or even ‘Greater Ottoman Turkey’ through the violent redrawing of borders.