An unsolved question: the bumpy road of Western Balkans Region to the EU

In the last years, the Western Balkans were often back in the global headlines, but they never remained there for more than a couple of days: we notice the same trend in the last months. It should be sufficient to mention only a few events between November 2017 and January 2018:

  • after hearing the guilty verdict upheld in November 2017 by the ICTY (the International Tribunal for War Crimes in Former Yugoslavia, that has ended its activity at the end of 2017), the Bosnian Croat General Slobodan Praljak, convicted for war crimes against the Bosnian Muslim population during the deadly Croat–Bosniak War and sentenced to 20 years in jail, stated theatrically that he rejected the verdict, and committed suicide by poisoning in the courtroom;

  • in the first days of the new year, many members of the armed forces of the Republika Srpska, one of the two “Entities” that, guided by the enduring RS President Milorad Dodik, compose the fragile and divided State of Bosnia-Herzegovina (according to the temporary Constitution included in the Dayton Agreement in 1995 and since then never changed with one expressed by the popular will), participated in a divisive holiday celebration, openly contravening orders from the Ministry of Defense;

  • on 20 January, a prominent Kosovo Serb politician, the “moderate” ( in comparison with the average of Kosovo Serb politicians ) Oliver Ivanovic was shot dead outside his party offices in the Serb-run northern part of the Kosovar divided city of Mitrovica. The immediate consequence was that the murder halted the talks between Kosovar and Serb delegates that had been set to resume that day in Brussels, in the context of the “political dialogue” between Belgrade and Pristina with the facilitation of the European Union that started in September 2012 and that, between ups and down, still keeps open at least the hope of a peaceful resolution of one of the most complex problems of both Serbia and Kosovo after the independence of the latter in February 2008: the definition of the administrative status and the living conditions of the Serbian minority in Kosovo, mainly concentrated in the Northern area close to the city of Mitrovica.

The three events mentioned above show how extremely delicate and fragile is still the situation in the Western Balkans Region and how this fragility not only characterizes Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo but also strongly relapses on the other Countries of the region that are following the process of European accession ( the so-called “European Perspective” ): Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia. Anyway, as for the “European Perspective”, the news will come within few weeks, probably on 6 February, when the European Commission is set to adopt a new strategy paper on the European Union’s enlargement into the Western Balkans. The strategy’s headline issue seems to be a best-case scenario-timeline under which Montenegro and Serbia would join the European Union at the end of 2025, followed later on by the other States, each one according to its own progress on the way of “transformation” (not only “reforms”, term mainly used in the previous Commission’s strategies). The immediate question would be: is this only a “wishful thinking” expressed “by force of tradition” by the European designer of an Enlargement process now less accepted, if not openly rejected, by the many EU Member States? Or the instability and the “ghost of the past” that still haunt the whole Western Balkan landscape could really and so quickly be dissolved by the European accession process? It is an essential question not only for Europe but for the entire Occidental world, since the current instability of the region is now strictly linked to global critical threats like the rise of religious radicalism, the international terrorism, the “global criminal network” (the “McMafia”, as well described by Misha Glenny) and the tragic flows of migrants towards Europe.

I believe that the above question allows introducing, “ex abrupto “, another point-blank question: what is the picture of the Western Balkans now, in January 2018? Can we say that all the Western Balkans Countries are able to move quickly from stabilisation to integration, as wished fifteen years ago (and with much more rapid timing) in the EU-WB Summit that took place in Thessaloniki in June 2003? The reference to the Thessaloniki process is essential and it is a ” leit-motive ” for the EU and the West, since it defined for the first time in an organic manner the more coherent and strategic policy towards the Balkans that the EU was able to elaborate after its dramatic failure to deal effectively with the series of crisis that followed the tragic disintegration of the Former Yugoslavia all over the ’90s. We can say now that, immediately after the Kosovo War in 1999, the Union learned the hard way that it needed to put some substance behind acronyms such as CFSP and was able to play an important role in the events in Serbia of October 2000, in brokering agreements in Macedonia in summer 2001, in well mediating in the constitutional dispute between Serbia and Montenegro that led to the independence of Montenegro and, more recently, in trying to decrease the tension between Belgrade and Pristina with the mentioned “facilitated dialogue”. The main success was undoubtedly the gradual development of a roadmap for membership of all the Western Balkans Countries, based on the SAP (Stabilisation and Association Process) that was celebrated in Thessaloniki in 2003 and supported by the US and the largest part of the International Community. Thanks to this strategy, the EU had for years a stronger profile in the Balkans than ever before, and its increased influence was the synthesis of both the European Perspective of the region based on the SAP Process (the so-called ” European soft power “) and the increasing presence of the EU as an operational actor in the area of the so-called “hard” security. Later on, after the negative French and Dutch “referenda” of 2005 and the beginning of the EU crisis itself (first financial, then social and finally political), the “EU power of attraction” was still strong in the Western Balkans region but the public opinion and, therefore, the political élites of many Member States of the EU started to be less “attracted” by the notion of the Enlargement as a natural and “geopolitical” priority of both the EU vision and action.

Coming back to the question that I mentioned above and that I left suspended, I think it is correct to try to give an answer by two different (even if strictly interrelated) angles of sighting:

  • First, we could limit ourselves to a general overview of the political and security situation in the recent period and in the whole region, trying also to interpret the more recent developments in the single Countries and areas;

  • Secondly, we have to look at the prospects of the European integration process and at its dynamics, also internal to the EU and at their links to the new and global challenges that the International Community has to face.

In both cases, anyway, under all the perspectives we look at the question, I would be tempted to answer in a positive way, even if mitigated by a strong vein of anxiety, mainly looking at the second angle of the sighting. I would be tempted to answer with a ” yes, but “. “Yes, but”, because some decisive challenges remain: for that reason, we can also say that the next years should be years of decision for the Western Balkans, and the complex of those decisions will probably shape the future course of the Western Balkans regions in the EU and in the “global arena”. The danger is that the “up and down” trend would continue to prevail both on the ground and on the attitude of the Capitals involved (including Moscow) and of Brussels. If the EU and the entire “Occidental World” is not able to overcome this danger by getting significant (and not only symbolic) progress, the “but” will prevail and the Balkans will risk being again a potential “powder-keg of Europe”.

If we look at a general overview of the region and of the reform process in single Countries, we have to consider the overall significant progress in recent years: greater stability, democratic reform, economic growth, improved regional cooperation, progress towards the EU through the (completed) Stabilization and Association Process: some Countries like Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia have realised an impressive set of reforms. Serbia will be the first of them in terms of technical adaptation to the “acquis communitaire” but, as we have already mentioned, it risks to remain at long blocked by the lack of an essential requisite: the “appeasement” (not a formal recognition but at least a “de facto” one) with Kosovo. We are now 10 years after the declaration of independence of Pristina and the EU still has to work hard – together with the UN and other international stakeholders – to ensure that Kosovo could be a sustainable and functioning State. A great problem is still inside the EU since the Member States are still divided regarding the recognition of Kosovo as independent State. Anyway, since the entire Occidental World invested a lot in the stability of the Western Balkans, it is essential that this remaining piece of “unfinished business” does not yet again destabilize the region. The same could be said for Bosnia- Herzegovina, another piece of “unfinished business”: even there the main question is the “Serbian question” and the establishment of a functioning Federal State representing and protecting the entire citizenship, from all communities. Therefore, the European Union and the Occidental World will have to shoulder special responsibilities in this enterprise. As the former EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, mentioned several times in his long mandate: “The Western Balkans are in Europe, not in Asia, and if we cannot resolve this issue at our doorstep, we need hardly to try elsewhere, in Middle East, Central Asia, etc.”

To end with Kosovo, together with the lack of EU unity, we have to mention also another strong blocking factor: the fact is that the UN process for the Kosovo Status, due mainly to the Russian (and Chinese, in the Security Council) insistence on the Kosovo issue as a precedent and not as a sui generis case, took a direction that resulted extremely counter-productive and non-sense. Sometimes, the skirmish at the UN Security Council looks as only one (and one of the more paradoxical) element of the confrontation package between Russia-China and the “West”, with variables typical of a Cold War diplomatic game: therefore, what is strongly and essentially needed is a complete change of direction of the “game” in New York.

Moving to the second angle of the sighting, let’s now come back to the EU Commission Strategy that is going to be adopted in Brussels. If the press and “internally whispered” anticipations will be confirmed, for the first time for the Western Balkans, the Commission sets an accession date for the two frontrunners and this is a veritable U-turn for the EU. For the past decade, following the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, which some Member States felt as premature and driven by artificial deadlines, the Commission avoided committing itself to target dates. Why it felt compelled to drop this policy? The most plausible answer might be that the lack of an accession date may have dampened the credibility of the membership prospect on which the strategy is based: “A credible accession perspective is the key driver of transformation in the region,” the paper says. Furthermore, it sets out from the notion that enlargement is “a geostrategic investment in a strong, united Europe, based on common values, and a powerful tool to promote democracy, the rule of law and the respect for fundamental rights.” It then states that the EU “must remain credible, firm and fair, while upgrading its policies to better support the transformation process in the region.” Anyway, to a careful observer of the EU-Western Balkans relationships, this implicitly acknowledges that the current approach is insufficient in helping the Balkan countries along the way to full democratization.

The use of the term “transformation,” rather than the weaker and more common “reform,” is significantly welcome. The six Balkan states that are actual or potential candidates for EU membership – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia – are certainly in need of deep transformation if they aspire to become stable democracies with all this entails. It is correct to stress that “strengthening the rule of law is not only institutional” but “requires societal transformation.” However, even these general programmatic points at the outset of the strategy, unfortunately, get the real dynamics in the Balkans wrong.

In fact, discussing about the “transformation” as a process that is underway and merely in need of more support from the EU is a serious misreading of the situation. Much of the reform taking place in the EU’s would-be members is make-believe for the sake of Brussels. There are important exceptions, for example in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro, but in the other countries, above all in Serbia and Kosovo, reform tends to be superficial or partial, with political élites whose commitment to either EU membership or to the rule of law looks dubious. As for Bosnia and Herzegovina, it remains stuck in its post-Dayton limbo. The Commission’s paper refers to a general State capture by personal interests and to the corrupt nature of politics across the region but does not propose a new thinking about how this could be tackled. Under present conditions, it appears doubtful that a credible accession prospect really will drive reform, let alone transformation. There are also other contradictions. For example, it states strongly: “The EU cannot and will not import bilateral disputes.” But it can, and it has done many times in the past: from divided Cyprus to the quarrel over territorial waters between Slovenia and Croatia. Moreover, the leaders of the region “must also actively counter nationalist narratives and inflammatory rhetoric” but, the question that arises is: “what if they don’t? Will the EU stop treating RS President Dodik like the leader of an independent country? Will it stop cooperating with strongmen like Serbia’s President Aleksandr Vucic?”

In the end, this strategy paper looks not as a proper policy review but rather proposes relatively minor adjustments to the current approach, coupled with a return to the pre-2007 policy of setting dates. While it contains many good elements on the rule of law, regional cooperation, and reconciliation, an acute reader and observer can conclude that Brussels has not succeeded again in developing a proper, strategic approach to the Balkans. The fact is that both the complexity and the seriousness of the problems require not only minimal adjustments in the daily way of dealing with the Balkans but a regenerated vision. It is clear that all our efforts would be vain if the local leadership will decide to follow the ghosts of the past instead of pursuing the opportunities of the future and closing definitely the disgraceful era of the Yugoslav disintegration. But we should also be clear with ourselves: we can expect them to be responsible, of course, but not to definitely solve alone their problems.

I heard too much in my long working experience for the Western Balkans (both on the ground and in the Brussels’ Headquarters) a sentence that always strikes me: the post-Communist Balkan States should only be allowed into the EU “after they have sorted out their problems – not before”. I believe this is a complacent and misconceived way of looking at their problems and predicaments. All the people that are familiar with the situation of the WB post-Communist States could agree on one point: it is highly unlikely that their political fragilities and economic and social problems, the anxieties of their ethnical minorities and their law-and-order and civil-rights deficits can be substantially alleviated or overcome within narrowly “national” frameworks. National frameworks are part of the problem to be solved, not part of the solution. Durable resolutions of their problems can probably be attained only within the broader, stronger, more secure, more civil and more stable framework that membership of the EU and full acceptance of the Occidental values can provide.

Excluding these countries from the EU until they have “sorted out their problems” will only cause their problems to fester and periodically erupt, to the detriment not only of their own populations but of Europe and the world. Admittedly there could be considerable costs or risks in allowing these countries to join the EU in advance of their resolving their major economic, legal, ethnic and political problems, but there are even greater costs and risks attached to leaving them to ”stew in their own juices” outside the EU and the “Occidental context”. The integration process should then be allowed to continue and the European perspective should be reviewed, not only “adjusted”, in order to alter the frameworks within which their problems are tackled and thus to deal with the root causes of those problems rather than merely with their outward symptoms or consequences.

Michael Giffoni 24.01.2018