EU politicians expect Balkan politicians to be more popish than the pope and to implement all reforms. Only when they have done so, will accepting them be considered. However, such a strategy is only mobilizing in the short run. This long-term deception of the Balkan states leads to the societies in these countries to become increasingly bitter about the lack of development opportunities. Paweł Musiałek talked to Marta Szpala and Adam Balcer about the hopes related to the expansion of the European Union to the Western Balkans.
The peak of the Berlin process, numerous bilateral meetings. Why so much recent interest in the Balkans from EU politicians?
Adam Balcer: Interest in this region has been growing for several years now. Even in the strictly diplomatic area, e.g. regarding visits at the highest level. Due to the special importance of the region, Balkan politicians are very often received in the major countries of the European Union. Polish interest in the Balkans is part of north-south thinking. It is certainly also connected with the idea of the Three Seas Initiative. We assume that the Balkan countries will join the European Union sooner or later, and will therefore necessarily become members of this initiative. This will be of key importance for the development of transport infrastructure (railways, ports, highways, expressways) on the previously mentioned north-south lane. The initiative still requires refinement, but it can be said to have been included in the EU context.
Marta Szpala: In my opinion, the policy of accepting the Balkans is currently the only joint foreign policy of the EU. If we want a strong, influential Europe, we cannot forget about the Balkans. It is a region that is in our neighbourhood, but we are not particularly interested in it. If we want the EU as a whole to give a credible transformation perspective to the Eastern Partnership countries or the Balkan states, we cannot afford failure in the Balkans. We need to sort them out.
A credible membership prospect is something that mobilises. Various discussions often cite a graph showing development paths for Poland and Ukraine. We used to have the same GDP per capita in 1989, but the situation changed later on. The major factor that caused modernization in both our countries to go in different directions was the prospect of EU membership. At that time, our politicians mobilized and implemented reforms. The same may happen in the Balkans. Social pressure for EU membership will also be helpful. The fact that there is now a democratic regression is understandable – the elections are coming, and we may expect to deal with a membership in 2025 at the earliest. The political elites are more focused on reinforcing power than striving membership. We are currently dealing with a situation similar to Northern Macedonia. The local politicians there took a risk, went out on a limb, and it turned out that the EU has been unable to decide whether to open negotiations for two years now. Such a perspective greatly reduces our credibility.
Shouldn’t the Berlin process be treated as a sort of consolation prize that will allow the EU to withdraw from the idea of expansion elegantly?
MSz: I believe the intentions were different at the very beginning. In addition to providing a framework and vision for the future, as well as impulses for change, the expansion process is also one of aligning legislation. And those issues dealt with in the Berlin process, i.e. the economy, stimulating development, building infrastructural connections, building regional responses to problems, the whole conglomerate of security issues or reconciliation in the region are not the subject of the expansion policy. It was to be a complementary process.
Some of the problems related to the Balkan issues are due to the poor economic situation – a very high share of the state in the economy, a significant degree of oligarchisation and soaring unemployment. Some of these negative trends can be seen in the Balkans, e.g. democratic regression. This means that any democratic change is virtually absent there. In the Berlin process, progress could be triggered by boosting the economy and expanding the private sector. The old EU member states are often dominated by thinking that the Balkans are stable enough, that we do not need to get involved. However, I think that the problems are being swept under the rug. Ultimately, we will pay a much higher price for this than in any other scenario.
Can it be considered certain and realistic for us to equip the Berlin process (started a few years ago and whose summit was just held in Poland) with tools that will help the Balkans? We can’t decide to consider the membership of this region, on account of the resistance by France and other countries. So how are we supposed to treat the whole process?
AB: The Berlin process in itself is and will be beneficial, provided it is correlated as much as possible and becomes complementary to the expansion process. It should be considered relevant that the initiative came from Germany and the most important EU countries are involved in the procedure, even if they argue on several issues. Let us remind that the London Summit was widely considered a failure, but was later organized again, this time in Trieste.
Objectively speaking, what is more, important for the public opinion in the Balkans, is the expansion process. Now in particular, when the idea arose to postpone the decisions to start accession talks with Northern Macedonia and Albania until October. This is the main topic. The summit would take place in a much more favourable atmosphere if the expansion process had its momentum and gained speed by rewarding positive attitudes. Of course, Albania has a serious problem with the opposition boycotting the parliament and local elections. The European Commission recommended starting negotiations with them twice, and nothing happened. Back when Poland was a candidate, it was very rare for the Council to disregard the Commission’s recommendations. This is now commonplace.
What happened to Northern Macedonia is not fair. This country has taken a step away from the political abyss, also due to the European perspective. Under the previous prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, it really could have become a country deprived of liberty. This was averted with large demonstrations and elections where ethnic divisions were overcome. This was followed by very difficult talks with Greece, ending with a compromise. After all this, the EU is knocking Macedonians down again…
At the time when Poland began its talks of accession to the EU, it too had huge delays in economic and institutional development. Some things were just being built in our country at the time. Even though a group of as many as 10 countries were joining the EU at that time, consuming a huge amount of funds, Western European countries agreed to our accession. Currently, there are only six countries in question. What makes politicians like Emmanuel Macron reluctant to agree to even start talks?
MSz: It is said that the current societies in Western countries are opposed to expansion, but this was also the case in 2004. Politics was a little different back then, especially in Germany, where there was a sense of historical necessity in the name of which the European community had to be encompassed properly. The expansion process itself has also changed. Formerly, countries initially talked about starting negotiations and later about accepting members. Now it looks like the government can repeatedly block negotiations at every level, even indirectly. Politics has become more populist. The way France deals with Macedonia is a substitute problem, not a matter of interests.
It is also important to us that all countries have full membership and do not form groups. We should be pushing for a normal expansion policy to operate in the EU, with the real prospect of membership. France, however, is striving for us to discuss the expansion policy in the context of concentric circles, and therefore a policy that assumes that we will have a strong centre consisting of France and Germany, and only later all the Central European countries.
It’s also about money. Bulgaria is receiving 10 times more funding from the Cohesion Fund annually than Serbia. Even if the money is not used very well, it is a huge modernization impulse. The Serbs see how much progress Bulgaria has made. Telling that the Berlin process – where funds are scarce – can become a substitute, is fiction. The Berlin process can be compared to a nicely wrapped candy. We haven’t put in any new funds; we simply repacked those that were available to the Balkans. If we truly want an active EU policy in this region, we must transfer new funds to the Balkans for a start.
In Turkey’s future financial perspective, EU funds will be cut severely. If the Balkans receive those, there is still some hope. We must also work very hard on the absorption capacities of the countries in the region. All in all, membership is also a form of development support. The funds must come from somewhere; the source should be the EU.
What happens if we don’t convince the French and Dutch to think about the Balkans seriously? Can you imagine that in 10, 15, 20 years a Russian-Chinese-Turkish peninsula would appear in the southern centre of Europe? Is this scenario too imaginary and the great game of geopolitics just an exaggeration in the whole discussion?
MSz: I support the thesis that the Balkans are as important as they are relevant to Europe. Russia, China and Turkey (although the latter is simply returning to the territory it considers its own) treat the Balkans as leverage against the EU and the US. Russia cannot hit US interests. This isn’t even a proxy war category. Moscow invests little in the Balkans, and its low-cost policy shows that this is not a region it finds particularly important. Even in the previous Russian strategy, the Balkans were perceived as an important route for the supply of Russian raw materials to the EU, while the latest one does not include them at all. It turned out that it is easier to harm the EU inside its structures than do it through the Balkans.
Of course, the oil and energy sectors are under complete Russian control. Putin’s visit had already taken place, with a great parade, which served to legitimize both sides – showing how strong Russia is in the Balkans, as well as manifest that the Serbian president has Moscow’s support. There were no specifics, though. The Russians would like the Serbs to cross Rubicon: to give them bases, to not take part in NATO manoeuvres, to announce that the EU is not their goal. Representatives of the Balkans will not do this, due to their tradition of balance. Russia serves them as a leverage against the Union, and the EU serves as leverage against Russia.
We said that the Balkans came late in the 1990s for expansion. Or rather not so much lately, as overslept it entirely. A lot was happening in this region of the world at that time; there were very bloody wars, which grew to the rank of symbols and were even reflected in pop culture. How relevant were these conflicts for the process of Europeanization? Is such heritage a real obstacle to European integration, or is it just a convenient argument for the French to keep the Western Balkans at bay?
AB: Problems only exist between certain nations. The fundamental issue, however, is lumping all Balkan nations together. We are bearing witness to the creation of the stereotypes about the entire region, and its combination with ignorance and arrogance is prevalent in us as well.
The relations between the two most numerous nations, Serbs and Albanians, are now crucial for the future of the region. This involves the unresolved Kosovo issue. The issues of prejudice and mutual ties have been partially resolved, but there is still a lot to be done. I would point to Bosnia as the second major challenge, as it had only recently submitted an application for the status of the candidate and is awaiting its consideration.
However, it is worth looking at this region not only as a problem, but treating the Balkans as a source of inspiration. The 2001 conflict in Macedonia cannot be compared to any other in all of the former Yugoslavia. It was settled, however, and all refugees returned (although their number was much smaller than in other cases). Moreover, the Albanian-Macedonian parties were able to cooperate much better than, for instance, the Flemish-Walloon parties in Belgium. Positive processes also started triggering between the two nations living side by side. Many Albanians voted for the Macedonian party. Albanians currently account for 40% of the government, and the Turks are overrepresented, compared to their share in the country. The same can be seen in Montenegro, where the over-representation of Bosnians and Muslim Albanians is very clear and amounts to 45%, while they represent less than 20% of the population. The Montenegrin identity is emerging before our eyes, despite society’s many religions. The largest group are the Orthodox, but Muslims and Catholics also live there. These countries are based on civic nationalism, which may be a source of inspiration for us. When we look at long-term processes, we can find positive elements.
MSz: What I find disturbing is that we are postponing the prospect of expansion, while politics abhors a vacuum. We see the nationalist narrative coming back. It also comes back because politicians must have some legitimacy. They have no legitimacy in Europe and know that they cannot capitalize on Europe since we give them no room to succeed. In such a situation, they go back to nationalist rhetoric, which is an easy tool for mobilization. Such a situation in Serbia would be unthinkable as little as 10 years ago. What authority-building capabilities do politicians have in these small countries? We expect countries whose unemployment is at 20% – although their economic development is very dynamic, this is mainly due to a very low base value – to behave rationally. The Balkans are us, they are Europe, they are subject to the same tendencies, which may become dangerous in some political conditions. The generation that has experienced war is still active politically. Admittedly, there are a few factors that are blocking the new conflict, but we don’t know what comes next. Frozen disputes are always easy to use, especially by Russia. Postponing matters will take its toll on us later. Even back in 2008, Moscow had no problems with NATO membership and recognized that this was our sphere of influence. However, now it would rather take advantage of our weakness, which is why it postulates that a great international conference is held where we will talk about the Balkans. There is no doubt that Russia wants to once more return to the international scene, this time thanks to the Balkans.
The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.