Brexit’s twin risks for the Balkans


Picture of Denisa Kostovicova
Denisa Kostovicova

Denisa Kostovicova is Associate Professor of Global Politics at the London School of Economics

Shortly after the UK referendum, EU leaders met Western Balkan leaders in Paris. The EU message was clear: enlargement would continue as usual. But in the Balkans, fears abound that their region may slip off the radar, as the EU gets mired in the unprecedented task of British withdrawal. These fears accurately reflect the relationship between the EU and its Balkan partners. Balkan countries want EU membership, but the driver of change is still the EU.

Europeanisation in the Western Balkans has been equated with building regional peace and stability. The EU made integration conditional on cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), tackled the region’s political and economic fragmentation through a policy of regional cooperation, and took the lead resolving outstanding conflicts, such as over Kosovo. Yet Croatia is the only Western Balkan nation to reach the final destination, leaving five countries – all at different stages of integration – now making up a non-EU enclave inside the EU. The Balkan states’ long road to the EU suggests a need for vigilance of two risks: benign neglect and geopolitics.

Political declarations by local elites favouring European integration haven’t necessarily been accompanied by deeds. The political vision is not yet a reality. Countries have shied away from implementing EU laws, causing delays in visible improvements to people’s lives. In recent years, months and weeks, people in all five Balkan countries outside of the EU have held public protests over poor governance, corruption and abuse of the law. Their ire has been directed at local political elites, but the risk is that it may also damage trust in the European project’s ability to improve their societies. The EU’s biggest ally in the Balkans is the people who demand the rule of law and a better quality of life. That is why the EU shouldn’t allow Brexit to divert its attention from the Balkans. Benign neglect may allow elites to subvert the European project permanently by eroding popular attraction to a future in the EU.

The related risk of Brexit for the Western Balkans is the ascendance of geopolitics. European integration as a political project is based on the idea of interconnectivity, and the conception of power as cooperation. Europeanisation of the Western Balkans entails forging political, economic and cultural connections with the EU, as well as between Balkan states. But the geopolitical outlook is its antithesis – all about going it alone, and the conception of power as a threat. The Balkans has been a geopolitical battleground throughout history, and its position as a non-EU enclave within the EU makes it particularly conducive to the logic of competition and protection. Russia and Turkey have each stamped their mark on the region while the EU tries to exercise its magic power of attraction and transformation. But unlike the EU’s vision, which is future- and norms-orientated, Russia and Turkey have drawn on historic links reinforced by religious affinities. Russia appeals to the idea of Slavic brotherhood – a notion that resonates with large sections of the population in the Christian Orthodox areas. Turkey is seen as a natural guardian of fellow Muslims.

Russia and Turkey’s economic investments in the region have been on the increase, but they are still dwarfed by those of the EU. But this fact barely affects popular perceptions that Russia and Turkey can better understand – and possibly better protect – people’s interests.

Such sentiments persist despite Russia’s use of the Balkans to assert its own position towards the West. Russia has been seen to deliver when Serb nationalist interests are at stake. Its opposition to Kosovo’s independence in the UN is only one example. Brexit has been embraced by nationalists in the region, who interpret the UK’s departure from the EU as a blow to interconnectedness and a vindication of their Euroscepticism. Brexit leaves open the risk that both Russia and Turkey may increasingly provide a vision of an alternative future, exposing the region to open geopolitical competition.

If Brexit forces the EU’s Balkan involvement to stall, the critics will have a field day. They already say that Europeanisation has created weak states that are producers of instability and insecurity, through illegal people trafficking and trade, organised crime and the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism. But EU membership is a goal that continues to unite all Balkan states despite their divisions – both within states and between neighbours. In the post-Brexit climate, the EU needs to step up its engagement. Alternative visions for a non-EU future for the Balkans are as perilous for the security of the region as they are for the EU.

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