Re-imagining the Balkans

The Balkans. The ‘powder keg of Europe’, sitting on Huntington’s ‘fault lines between civilisations’[1] has been at the epicentre of geopolitical tremors throughout modern history. In the wake of Croatia’s admission as the 28th member of the EU in July 2013, it seems that the rest of the region is set on a similar path.

Image courtesy of President of the European Council, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of President of the European Council, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Indeed, the EU made its intentions clear through the Thessaloniki Declaration back in 2003, declaring that ‘The future of the Balkans is within the European Union’[2]. Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo and Macedonia have all applied for EU membership, and there are hopes that some of them will be admitted by 2015.

Recent events, however, have highlighted the underlying difficulties of ‘Europeanising’ the region. Croatia has been threatened with EU sanctions over her reluctance to change her extradition laws that are preventing those accused of atrocities during the 1990s Balkan Wars from facing trial.[3] More recently, a member of the EU’s law-and-order mission was shot dead in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo.[4] Coupled with the current financial difficulties within the EU, the road forward seems rough at best.

The key issue here is Serbia— the most populous country in the region (7.2 million) and arguably the dominant actor with a hefty load of historical baggage. Any attempt at incorporating surrounding countries into the EU without giving thought to her reactions would be unfeasible and counter-productive.

According to a public opinion research conducted in July 2013 by the Serbian government’s European Integration Office, 50% of the Serbian population would vote for EU membership, while 24% would vote against it.[5] Ostensibly, this is an encouraging statistic. However, the picture gets less rosy when one looks at why the Serbians want to join the EU.  When asked about what candidate status would bring to Serbia, the following were the two most popular responses:

  1. Better life, new jobs (38%)
  2. Access to European funds (33%)

These are all economic reasons, which is not problematic in itself— after all, the initial founding of the EU was based upon the belief that economic cooperation would gradually be consolidated by a ‘spill-over effect’ that would expand areas of cooperation into political and cultural dimensions. However, given the current economic standing of the EU, we must be forced to consider whether EU membership can meet these expectations, and what would happen if it doesn’t.

The poll also suggests that Serbians consider the EU as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. When asked whether reforms essential to EU membership need to be implemented because they fulfil conditions set by the EU, or should be implemented regardless of EU criteria, a large majority (68%) of respondents opted for the latter option. As such, it seems that EU membership is seen as a convenient tool to accelerate domestic reform, rather than a goal in itself. This reasoning is applicable to the rest of the region.[6]

Juxtaposing this pragmatic motivation against the issue of Kosovar independence, one wonders if the current economic predicament of the EU would weaken the incentive for membership to a point where ‘giving up Kosovo’ would be seen as too high a price to pay. Kosovo remains a volatile issue domestically, as ‘no political leader in Belgrade has yet been willing to tell Serbian voters… that Kosovo was lost back in 1999’[7].

In a recent article in Politika, diplomats in Brussels have asserted that the vital condition for EU negotiations to commence was a smooth election in Kosovo in early November.[8] It remains to be seen whether this will happen, as tensions surrounding the election remain high— an assembly representing the Serb minority in Kosovo has already voted unanimously to boycott the upcoming elections[9], despite pressures from Belgrade.

One potential solution is to require all the Balkan countries currently applying for EU membership to join at the same time— no one will be admitted until everyone fulfils the membership criteria. This will bring two possible benefits. First, it would accelerate internal dialogue between the Balkan countries, without the EU being seen as ‘interventionist’; a label they would want to avoid given the region’s concern with autonomy, stemming from recent NATO interventions in Kosovo and pride from being the leader of the Non-Alignment Movement during the Cold War. Second, this would ensure that the region as a whole would have attained a certain level of stability when it gains membership. It would mean a slower process, but would ensure a stronger union.

Apart from the challenges posed by ‘hard’ issues related to economics and politics, there is also a host of oft-overlooked ‘soft’ challenges. This exclusion is understandable, since ‘Europeanization’ is defined by the EU in strictly institutional terms— reform of political institutions and establishment of a market economy etc. Given the cultural heterogeneity of the EU, a ‘hands off’ approach when it comes to cultural issues is understandable. This would be fine when there are no significant differences in cultural standing between members— France and Germany might have been hostile during the foundation of the EU, but it is unlikely that they would have considered their own or the other’s culture as inherently inferior.

I argue that this is not the case in the Balkans. The entire region was under the influence of the Ottoman Empire, making it culturally distinct from Western Europe. Moreover, as Todorova argued in her seminal work Imagining the Balkans, the term ‘Balkan’ was transformed ‘as a geographical appellation into one of the most powerful pejorative designations in history’[10]. This is coupled with a ‘negative self-perception’[11] over the Balkans themselves, as shown by Croatia’s efforts at distancing herself with the region during her membership application.[12]It is beyond the scope of this article to examine the nuances of her argument, but it is safe to say that despite being geographically in Europe, the label ‘the Balkans’ has been culturally constructed through a prolonged process of ‘othering’ that gives it negative connotations.

In more concrete terms, the EU would be admitting countries with a Muslim majority for the first time[13], and it would be naïve to think this would not cause tensions within the EU. The controversy over Bulgarian and Romanian workers that has taken on cultural and racial undertones suggests that tensions would be inevitable should countries like Albania or BiH become members.

What is needed, to paraphrase Todorova, is a reimagining of the Balkans. This would require the EU to re-conceptualise ‘European identity’ and to address cultural issues in its admissions criteria. One possible way of realising this would be to scrutinise the treatment and conditions of Muslim populations of current EU member states. It would also entail an active attempt at encouraging a positive reconstruction of the Balkan identity within the Balkans; a process Balkan countries themselves should also be responsible for.

The fundamental goal of the EU is to maintain stability within Europe. As the EU seeks to expand into the Balkans, it must adapt itself as well as requiring the Balkan countries to do the same. Only then can a truly solid union be possible, which would finally smooth over Huntington’s ‘fault-line of civilisations’.

[6] White, Lews and Batt ed., Developments in Central and East European Politics 64

[7] White, Lews and Batt ed., Developments in Central and East European Politics 71

[10] Todorova, Maria Imagining the Balkans 7

[11] Todorova, Maria Imagining the Balkans 38

[12] White, Lews and Batt ed., Developments in Central and East European Politics 60