Brexit and the Western Balkans: What to expect?
When on June 23rd 2016, the United Kingdom choose to leave the EU through a referendum, the international community was faced by doubts and diplomatic uncertainties. This was all the more true for those parts of Europe which either had a large number of their citizens living in the UK, or were seeking membership or further inclusion.
The Western Balkans, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and further away Kosovo, felt these uncertainties strongly as they are all willing to join the European Union. The UK has been a valuable partner for the regional states – it helped Croatia’s bid for accession, promoted Serbia’s and, in a joint action with Germany, referred to as the “Anglo-German Initiative,” worked to boost Bosnia-Herzegovina’s chances of accession.
Brexit can also affect the UK’s relationship with the Visegrad Group, as the country’s decision to open its labour market for citizens of the new EU members in 2004 resulted in an estimated 1.2 million people from the region moving to the UK.
Brexit and the Visegrad Group
The UK’s leaving talks have met the opposition of part of the Visegrad Group. During a meeting of EU leaders in Bratislava in September 2016, the first without the UK, the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico expressed his concerns for the rights of EU citizens living and working in the UK in case of Brexit. “Unless we feel a guarantee that these people [living and working in Britain] are equal, we [Visegrad Group] will veto any agreement between the EU and Britain,” he stated when addressing the UK’s migration concerns.
The Western Balkans, or at least the countries which have the most to lose from Brexit, may look to the Visegrad Group for diplomatic assistance, however, it does not seem to be an easy option.
The migration issues concerning the UK directly involve the Balkans, too, since the recent refugee crisis led to the creation of the “Balkan Route” which has alarmed many Eastern European countries, some of them part of the Visegrad Group itself, such as Hungary. The influx of migrants into their territories caused them to reject the EU backed migrant quota.
Hungary held a referendum, and Fico was among the harshest critics of the migrant redistribution proposals. Being the area most affected, with Serbia hosting several refugees’ camps, the Western Balkans would be likely to ask its European neighbours for help, but the call might not be answered.
Poland, currently holding the Presidency of the Group, though not as heavily affected as Hungary by the migrants crisis, has often kept the EU-sponsored migrant quota at arm’s length with the same strength. However, Poland has still been promoting EU membership for Western Balkan nations, especially Serbia’s.
The Western Balkans’ internal struggle
Depending on how these scenarios will unfold there could be benefits as well as drawbacks for the Western Balkans. The words of Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, were reassuring enough in confirming that the Balkans are “at the heart of Europe and their future is inside the European Union.”
After all, the EU could commit itself to a faster enlargement process showing that the European project is still appealing, even in the wake of “Brexit.”
On the other hand, a departing UK could diminish the EU’s pull – the Western Balkan nations may not want to join a club which is going to lose one of its main promoters of enlargement. All in all, it is likely that both the EU and the UK will downgrade the level of priority to the area.
But the future does not only depend on what the EU and the UK can, or will, do during the “Brexit” talks; it also lies in what the region itself can achieve. Western Balkans, in fact, have to resolve their own internal issues. Migrant crisis aside, there are problems regarding the level of crime and corruption, the enforcement of the rule of law, and the functioning of democratic institutions. Also, war-time rivalries still persist and have slowed down the construction of a new, democratic, post-conflict society.
For example, in 2016, Serbia’s run to the EU slowed down after Croatia vetoed the opening of chapters 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights), 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security), and 26 (Education and Culture) of Serbia’s EU accession due to a disagreement over war crime legislations, and national minorities, as reported by BIRN.
Chapters 23 and 24 were eventually opened in July 2016, while number 26 in January 2017, granting Serbia more co-operation from other EU members, namely Visegrad’s member Hungary, but Zagreb unwittingly highlighted the importance of bilateral issues affecting the region and the countries’ road to EU membership.
As noted by London School of Economics’s Denisa Kostovicova, “the same pro-European elites in the Balkans have been good at paying lip service and adopting the laws, but not as keen on implementing them.” She therefore suggested that, despite partial improvements in the state of the rule of law, the judiciary and electoral systems, and the fight against corruption, Brexit, and the diplomatic ties with the Visegrad Group, the challenges faced by the Western Balkans might be first and foremost internal ones.
Antonio Scancariello holds an MA in journalism from De Montfort University, UK.