Will regional cooperation take off in the Balkans?


Picture of Senada Šelo Šabić
Senada Šelo Šabić

Research fellow at the Institute for Development and International Relations in Zagreb. Editor-in-Chief of the ‘Croatian International Relations Review’

Cooperation in the Western Balkans rests on the basic understanding that it benefits each country in the region and Europe as a whole. If countries are first able to cooperate on a smaller scale – among neighbours – they will be prepared to do the same on a larger EU scale.

Each country that emerged from the ashes of the former Yugoslavia has had to undergo painful and complex transitions to build institutions, economies and cohesive national identities. These state-building processes are ongoing, and political stability – a prerequisite for economic development – is still missing. But these are not ambivalent exercises. To qualify for EU membership, these countries know they have to embrace liberal democratic values, which include the protection of minorities and the fight against organised crime and corruption. Regional cooperation, it is believed, would thus help strengthen democracy and the growth of Balkan economies ahead of EU membership.

Deindustrialisation coupled with the human losses and physical destruction of the 1990s wars continue to impede economic development. For the countries of the Western Balkans, emigration is a traditional feature of society and is primarily economic, although in some cases during the communist era was politically-motivated. But the profile of labour migrants has changed recently. While in the past it was usually low-skilled male workers from underdeveloped regions who sought their fortune in the West, the trend has shifted. It is now high-skilled workers of both sexes and from urban areas who are leaving. Labour mobility is not problematic per se, but if unabated will leave southeast Europe without those who could be engines of political emancipation and economic progress.

Unable to deliver prosperity, local politicians empower nationalist ideologies of an imaginary glorious past

Furthermore, economic stagnation undermines the political authority of governments. Unable to deliver prosperity to their citizens, local politicians seek support from and empower those segments of the society nurturing nationalist ideologies founded on an imaginary glorious past. To be clear, if a healthy form of national pride would stimulate a will for hard work, a commitment to legality and solidarity, and respect for every citizen, a resort to national myths would be something to desire. But nationalist rhetoric that exhausts itself in feuds over and against the ‘other’ has repeatedly failed to bring any lasting good to the people who follow it.

This escapism is not exclusive to the Balkans, but here it is more damaging because of the memoires of recent wars and the unfinished reconciliation process. Growing fears of extremism and illiberalism led to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s warning of renewed conflicts in the region. Although said in the context of the refugee crisis, and perhaps intentionally exaggerated, the message was clearly that the Balkans are far from stable.

To refuel enlargement, the 2014 Conference of Western Balkan States initiated a new regional scheme known as the ‘Berlin process’. It focuses on strengthening connectivity in the region by investing in transport networks, energy infrastructure and youth cooperation emulating the Franco-German model. Solving open bilateral issues, in particular border disputes, would demonstrate the will of participating countries to invest in regional stability and overall reconciliation

The EU has been slow to recognise and invest in its natural and willing ally – liberal civil society

But enlargement has to change from being an elite-driven process. The EU has been slow to recognise and invest in its natural and willing ally – liberal civil society – and not exclusively in elected politicians, many of whom have a vested interest in continuing to pay lip service to reform agendas without the genuine will to see them through. The EU should know what to earnestly pursue in the region. A focus on stability should not come at the price of anti-democratic drives such as media control, rampant corruption, harmful nationalistic rhetoric, and a general lack of will to sustain the rule of law. The EU may be preoccupied by problems much larger than “petty” Balkan issues. It may feel weakened on many aspects. Yet in the Balkans, it still has (certain) political clout. The majority of Balkan citizens want to join the EU. The EU, if willing, could use different instruments to underline its core principles and interests.

Conditioning financial support on real reform progress is beneficial in two ways. It shows responsibility to EU taxpayers, whose money is spent propping up the Balkans, and to citizens of Balkan countries who are committed to European values and seek the EU alliance to change their societies from within. A policy of empowering civil society is slow and less structured, but in the current circumstances is the best investment the EU can make. By strengthening free media, academic mobility, youth cooperation and independent institutions that protect the rule of law and fight crime and corruption, the EU would provide breathing space for a political alternative to grow. This, after all, is the proclaimed goal of the EU – to help Balkan countries build stable democratic governments accountable to their citizens and responsible for their futures.

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