The Balkans is a part of Europe with shared history, geography and mutual experiences, which yield common cultural traits. For this reason the relationship between the two is not just a matter of states and governments – institutional frameworks and formal arrangements – it is also very personal for me and many of my fellow citizens across the region. Without the Balkans, inside or outside the EU, the future of Europe, as we know it today is highly questionable because of its geo-strategic position and influence over the security agenda.
Without the Balkans the future of Europe is highly questionable.
It would be unfair to say that interaction between Europe and the Balkans is lacking, but the relationship is ambiguous and often unpredictable when it comes to the current state of affairs and future goals. Two questions seem inevitable. First, what happens if the Western Balkan countries never become part of the EU, or at least for any foreseeable period? Second, more holistically, how do we understand the nature of the relationship between the Balkans and Europe? This, despite a widely accepted focus on EU accession, is a much more complex issue. Should we feel that we are not part of Europe and, if so, when did we leave?
The latter is a matter of personal perception. I remember exactly when I felt detached from Europe. It happened in May 1992 when the Bush administration, followed by European counterparts, imposed flight suspension on Yugoslavia or, more precisely, on Serbia, with the aim of increasing its diplomatic and economic isolation. That month I was supposed to travel to Paris with my mum, a scientist, who was attending a conference there; a long planned trip. Visiting this beautiful city together was something that we were both looking forward to – for me it was honouring a right of passage into adulthood, and for my mum a special career achievement. Most of all it was about the two of us spending time together, away from the harsh realities of the civil war that was proliferating fast from Croatia to Bosnia.
I lost Europe and what was meant to be a bright future for all of us young people at the time.
The flight suspension came three days before our trip, forcing us to cancel it and suddenly trapping us into what felt like a deep well, whose slippery, high walls were impossible to climb; an ominous confirmation of a permanent change and isolation that was gripping my disintegrating country. On that day, I lost Europe and what was meant to be a bright future for all of us young people at the time. My mum lost access to the knowledge market and connections with the scientific world galloping forward. We never managed to travel to Paris together.
On a broader political level the notion that the Balkans is not (in) Europe culminated in the early 90s, during the breakup of Yugoslavia. The leadership of the Republic of Slovenia justified their aspiration to leave Yugoslavia by claiming that this act would lead to integration with Europe, famously pitched in the two-word propaganda slogan “Europe Now!”
This narrative dichotomy, based on the political differences and the geopolitical order and interests, created an illusion that the Balkans and Europe were two separate, distinct entities. This was in fact contradictory, given that Yugoslavia, at the time, had a strong economic relationship with the European Economic Community (EEC), indeed more than any other country of the neighbouring Eastern block. After permitting foreign investment in the form of joint ventures in 1967 and subsequent strengthening of economic ties, the EEC seriously considered opening its doors to Yugoslavia as the thirteenth member state in the early eighties. Fast-forward 30 years and the incentives and logic behind the integration of the Western Balkans are pretty similar, with geostrategic position of the region being the main driver, but sadly the negotiation process is still ongoing, with no end in vicinity. Strong contestation by Russia and Turkey is continuously obstructing this process.
Insisting on the view that the Balkans is non-European because it is not part of the EU isn’t going to help anyone interested in the future of the region. I oppose the view that it doesn’t have a future outside the EU, precisely because it is part of Europe. Europe, or more precisely the EU, shouldn’t see its role as a transforming power in the Balkans or a key actor responsible for political change in the region. Instead, it needs to offer a partnership on an equal basis, starting with trade and connectivity and expanding into other priority areas for a European future.
Europe sees its future in trade and economy, investing in knowledge by supporting research – such as Horizon 2020 – and influencing the world order by being the largest development and humanitarian aid donor. It is also firm on investing in stability and security to keep the EU border regions peaceful, an action that has immediate implications for the Balkans. This is not unusual given that of the 25 most peaceful countries in the world, two thirds are European.
In the White Paper released in March 2017 the European Commission expressed commitment to open an “honest and wide ranging debate with citizens” about how Europe should look in the future. We need to make sure that the European citizens from the Balkans are not forgotten in this consultation process. Otherwise Europe will continue to be perceived as the ‘non-Balkans’, which is not a viable option in the long run.
Focusing on an inclusive Europe will give impetus to different actors in Balkan societies to tackle some of the most pressing problems and risks.
To position itself better, the Balkans should strive to build its inner strengths such as local knowledge, expertise and skills that we can offer as a joint investment to Europe, because it too has problems that need to be addressed. Currently, however, they are clouded by ceaseless political crises, clientelism, declining democratic practices and persistent bilateral issues. Finding a new model for engagement with the EU could also help create a sense of belonging to Europe for Balkan peoples, and enable them to better connect and understand the way in which they can contribute to the project’s future. Focusing on an inclusive Europe rather than just EU accession conditions will give impetus to different actors in Balkan societies to tackle some of the most pressing problems and risks.
Despite many worries, Brexit could prove a useful opportunity for the Balkans in case of a continued sluggish EU accession. The EU is in the process of developing a framework and negotiating extramarital ties with the UK, particularly around the single market and free flow of labour and similar model could work for the Balkans too. A unique market system and business ties were already a basis for considering Yugoslavian integration with the EEC more than 30 years ago and we need to think how to develop and bring this up to date. The Berlin Process is an existing framework that enables this, which not only supports EU accession but, more importantly, brings the Western Balkan countries closer to each other by strengthening regional cooperation, human connectivity, fighting against extremism and organised crime and dealing with irregular migration. This opens a door for the Balkans to act as a gatekeeper of Europe, as it has been many times in history.