A regatta of despair

The EU’s publication yesterday of its new strategy for the accession of the countries of the western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (the dispute over whose name looks finally to be moving towards a solution), Montenegro and Serbia – is a welcome attempt to seize the initiative after several years in which momentum has been lost, vacuums encouraged and alternative perspectives engaged with.

This is clearly long overdue: Commission President Claude Juncker’s statement in 2014 that the EU would not countenance any further enlargement til 2020, which caused particular consternation in the context of the debate on the Scottish independence referendum, and which was reiterated in 2017, might have provided a ‘break from enlargement’ for an EU apparently suffering from enlargement fatigue. Even so, it is not apparent that an EU with the pressures of dealing with Brexit, domestic political pressures in some member states and contemporary political difficulties stemming from the need to ensure a proper and effective separation of powers in others has, in the meantime, regained an appetite for enlargement to the south-east, however much ‘Europe’ might be seen as a natural home for the Balkans. For Balkans states themselves, neither is it apparent that the last three years or so have provided much in the way of clarity – indeed, probably the reverse.

All this is in spite of a strategy for enlargement to the south-east first being thought of as a credible prospect in 2000, with further flesh put on the bones in Thessaloniki in 2003. Apart from Slovenia, whose identity among the Balkans might well be questioned anyway, only Croatia has managed to accede to the Union in the intervening period. The years in the meantime have been, as myself and my colleague at the SEER Journal for Labour and Social Affairs in Eastern Europe, Bela Galgoczi, Senior Researcher at the ETUI, wrote about in 2015, ones of an abject failure of vision: in particular, a failure to recognise that enlargement is itself about the transfer of stability, peace and freedom into the immediate south-east neighbourhood, as well as the chance to achieve the transitional justice currently denied to so many and which remains key to prospects of a thaw of frozen human potential, and thereafter to a spring of growth and revitalisation.

The plethora of initatives which the EU’s new strategy launches are addressed to the minutiae of the problems within the Balkans which we all know of – chiefly, as Jasmin Mujanović attests: corruption, clientilism and entrenched illiberal elites – and may have some impact. After all, the EU is not without the capacity to launch detailed initiatives. What it does lack is the capacity for vision, or even a road map, and this is most manifest in this regard in at least two ways.

Firstly, the strategy – picked up extensively in the media reporting identifying the dates by which Balkans states might join the EU – is focused on encouraging ‘winners’. This is, at heart, a repêchage for the ‘regatta principle’ which has driven the EU’s Balkans enlargement policy over the years – that an individualised approach to separate member states encourages a competitive process between them, thus speeding up the slowest – taking its place at the heart of the ‘new’ strategy. But the regatta principle has patently been a failure either in terms of getting Balkans states into the EU, or in speeding up the process among the slowest: actually, it simply leaves the latter in the cold. No-one, it seems, is learning any lessons from Montenegro. Furthermore, the legacy of war in the 1990s has left border disputes unresolved in several cases; while, in others, the drive to create mono-ethnic states and entities has left atmospheres of simmering tension and mistrust, and a lack of a sense of resolution, which may lead to further conflict in the absence of a realistic prospect of a future within the European family.

Initiatives to address the main priority areas are still required but, in addition, the EU needs to abandon the regatta principle and replace it with a single round of enlargement – a ‘caravan’ in the words of Christophe Solioz – in which all countries negotiate access simultaneously. This would avoid some being left behind while allowing all to draw on collective strengths, creating a new regional dynamic and reinvigorating the enlargement process. By itself, this won’t stop senior political representatives giving support to, for example, irredentism within Bosnia and Herzegovina – but, for states located wholly within the EU’s processes, it would provide the mechanisms to deal with it appropriately.

Secondly, the EU needs to pay better attention to its own roots. The legacy of war, a violent recent past and the question of transitional justice were the reasons the founders of the EU proposed international solutions to the issues that had led to repeated war between France and Germany – chiefly, by putting the steel and coal assets of the Ruhr Valley above the control of nation states. That was – and remains – an extraordinarily successful initiative: and we need a little more of it for the Balkans. There is, perhaps, no direct equivalent of the Ruhr Valley within south-east Europe, but the lessons of the founding of the EU are clear: we need a repeat of such an international approach to resolving the issues of war, and continuing mistrust, suspicion and sense of lack of justice, which mar the region today. The EU itself is uniquely placed both to realise this and to implement an approach which implements it in practice: and the lack of the vision, to lever its own history to resolve new, analgous situations is, in this context, not only extraordinarily puzzling, but also immensely frustrating.

This may well demonstrate very effectively that our current generation of leaders are bureaucrats rather than people of vision, but we need a reinstatement of bold vision if we are to resolve the serious questions that we face in the Balkans.

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