New German government will need to engage more deeply in the Western Balkans
Germany is a reluctant leader within the EU, even more so in external affairs. Nevertheless, it has become clear that Balkan leaders look to Berlin, rather than Brussels or other European capitals. With a new coalition government on the horizon, it is important that Germany expends some political capital on bringing the remaining Western Balkan countries further into the EU’s orbit.
On February 6th, the European Commission unveiled a new plan, EU-Western Balkans Strategy: a credible enlargement perspective, in an attempt to revive long-stalled regional hopes of closer EU integration. With a new government in Berlin almost formed, Germany must expend some political capital on the Western Balkans to ensure the latest plan is not another false dawn.
A history of conflagration
The Balkan region might be relatively small in geographical size and population, but its politics have reverberated far and wide for centuries. The region was a battleground for imperial conquest and the crucible for struggle between – amongst others – the Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian Empires. Most of the so-called Great Powers vied for influence in the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, for instance, set the dominos tumbling towards the First World War. More recently, the conflicts that erupted as Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1990s became one of the first tests of the post-Cold War world. The “Balkan route” was crucial during the 2015 migration crisis. Balkan countries provided the guns used in terror attacks in Western Europe while various articles report how its countries are implicated in organised crime and corruption, as well as a drug trade targeted at European consumers. In short, EU leaders ignore the Western Balkans at their peril.
Europe struggled to deal with the violent break-up of Yugoslavia and ultimately required American military and diplomatic power to bring an end to the carnage. In the years since, however, the EU’s strategy has been founded on the soft power implicit in its membership process. By incorporating the EU’s legal framework, the acquis communautaire, aspirant countries sign up to democratic institutions, open markets and therefore entrench “European values”. Or so the thinking goes. Thus far only Croatia and Slovenia are EU members and many observers express disappointment at the results of membership in neighbouring Bulgaria and Romania.
Of the remaining six countries, two have started accession negotiations (Serbia and Montenegro), two are candidates (Macedonia and Albania), and two have applied for candidate status (Kosovo and Bosnia and Hercegovina). All six now have visa-free travel and Stabilisation and Association Agreements. Nevertheless, all must also overcome substantial obstacles if they want to move closer towards EU membership. Serbia and Kosovo are still in dispute as a result of the latter’s succession in 2008. Macedonia’s progress has been blocked by Greece due to a 25 year-long naming dispute. Bosnia and Hercegovina has been at uneasy peace ever since the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that brought an end to its civil war. All of these issues require substantial negotiation and herculean problem-solving skills if they are to be resolved satisfactorily. The EU, on the other hand, has been distracted by an intimidating in-tray. The long-running Eurozone crisis, Brexit and the rise of populism have left time for little else.
As EU leaders have disengaged in recent years, or at least been occupied with other challenges, others have filled the vacuum. Russia has increased its presence in the region. Moscow was particularly roiled by Montenegro’s acceptance as NATO’s newest member and has been implicated in destabilising the country’s domestic politics. China and Turkey have also increased their activities in the region while others worry about the attraction of violent religious extremism. Several of the six have experienced political turmoil in recent years. Macedonia was gripped by a constitutional crisis until recently, a political moderate was assassinated in Kosovo this January while Montenegro claimed its leaders were the target of a Russian-backed attempted coup in October 2016. A number of Balkan “strong men” have stepped into the breach, such as Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, as public support for EU membership has concurrently declined.
EU Commissioners’ Balkan firefighting
It has been left to the EU Commission to implement policy in the Western Balkans, in particular the commissioner for enlargement, Johannes Hahn, and foreign policy chief at the European External Action Service, Federica Mogherini. In fact, Hahn had considerable impact during the Macedonia crisis while Mogherini has brokered numerous talks between Balkan leaders and made several visits to the region. Both launched the latest initiative. Mogherini acknowledged Russian regional influence while Hahn warned that the EU could not “import” bilateral issues into the block. This was underlined by a recent border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia. Jean-Claude Juncker’s planned visit is also seen as a means of encouragement to Western Balkan countries, demonstrating how the EU is still committed to the area. Serbia and Montenegro have been given the, albeit ambitious, possibility of membership by 2025.
“From a European perspective, it’s important to understand that we either export stability or we import instability”, said Hahn in January 2018.
The Commission, however, is in urgent need of assistance from national leaders when it comes to the Western Balkans. And although President Macron is due to visit Serbia, this to all intents and purposes means Germany. Angela Merkel has shown before, during a previous Serbia-Kosovo impasse, how her intervention can generate results. Germany has also initiated other schemes – the 2014 Berlin Process, Berlin Plus, a “mini-Marshall Plan” – of combined economic (including infrastructure and ‘connectivity’), civil society and diplomatic support. The Berlin Process is meant to provide a bridge (and continued engagement) between rounds of enlargement and boosters have praised its efficacy. Nevertheless, higher level diplomacy engagement will be required to solve the numerous bilateral problems. The prime ministers of Greece and Macedonia recently made an apparent breakthrough over the name issue. This should be given maximum support by other European leaders, as Germany’s reputation in Greece has suffered during the years of austerity. Elsewhere in the Western Balkans Germany can make a significant difference. The new foreign minister in the mooted “GroKo” is likely to be a social democrat, historically more sympathetic to Russia than the Christian democrats. This will probably mean, wisely, that Berlin’s focus will be on the EU, rather than NATO, enlargement. German policy-makers also talk about a strategy to increase regional integration.
Germany is a reluctant leader within the EU, even more so in external affairs. Nevertheless, it has become clear that Balkan leaders look to Berlin, rather than Brussels or other European capitals. With a new coalition government on the horizon, it is important that Germany expends some political capital on bringing the remaining Western Balkan countries further into the EU’s orbit. The alternative for both the EU and the Balkan region – on a whole host of issues – if membership hopes dim further, will be much worse.
Robert Ledger is a freelance researcher and writer on British and European politics. He holds a PhD from Queen Mary University in London.