The major problem is that Brussels doesn’t really have an idea of what it could offer to the Western Balkans, since the dummy cooperation in the form of the Berlin Process is not an offer at all. And although this attitude has its objective reasons in both the EU and the Balkans themselves, the results can be very bad. In the Balkans, the end of history has not yet come.
Without proper motivation, which Brussels neither wants nor can provide, the Balkans may still take a step back on their way to democratization, and worst-case scenario, drums of war may start rolling again.
The Balkan leaders do not view the Berlin Process as particularly appealing or desirable. Everyone is aware that it was meant as a placeholder to occupy the hearts and minds of the people in the Western Balkans, when hardly anyone in Western Europe seriously thinks that they might one day become EU citizens. On the other hand, this process cannot be ignored. It’s better to be a quarter step closer to the goal than to farther away from it.
The outgoing European Commission headed by Jean-Claude Juncker was eager for some Balkan success. The EC strongly supported Greek-Macedonian talks that unlocked the latter’s path to open negotiations, and even recommended starting accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. Except that, in June, the EU Council had once again postponed the decision on this matter — this time to autumn. This was due to France’s and the Netherlands’ resistance, but Germany did not play an overly constructive role in this respect. Thus, the promise given to our partners in 2018 has been broken. One does not need to write what this means for EU credibility.
I have long been skeptical of the year 2025, hitherto given by the Euro commissioners as a possible date of opening our doors for some countries in the region. And rightly so, as it turned out. The June decision on not taking steps confirmed that Brussels and the capitals of EU’s leader states are in no mood to think about expanding the Union. There are obvious intra-EU reasons for this. There is no denying that one can clearly feel a sort of expansion fatigue in the halls of Brussels. There are voices that the previous expansions of 2004, 2007 and 2013 were premature, so let’s not talk about even poorer countries waiting in line.
Thus, paradoxically — for example — the more severe the conflict between the government in Warsaw and the European Commission regarding compliance with the rule of law — let’s not discuss who is right in this matter for now — the greater the reluctance to think about more post-communist countries within the EU. Since we have so much trouble with Poles, Romanians and Hungarians, what will happen when we let Albanians and Serbs into our fold — old Union politicians and experts think and sometimes say out loud.
Simply put, the authorities in Budapest may quite freely interpret their own constitution, but they are nowhere as abusive as the government in Tirana; Poland may be torn by internal political conflict, but can serve as a model of national unity when compared to Bosnia and Herzegovina; and Bulgaria may be corrupt, but not nearly as much as Serbia. Finally, none of the EU countries has any problems with its universal international recognition, and this is a problem that Kosovo is still struggling with. It is not recognized by Spain, for instance, the homeland of Josep Borrell, who is proposed as the head of EU diplomacy.
Not everyone wants to join the Union
Moreover, Brussels has enough problems of its own to want to take on more burdens. There’s already the uncertainty as to the future of the transatlantic alliance, the Brexit soap opera, which everyone is already growing tired of but no one knows how to end it, the palpable breath of the impending economic slowdown, the open question as to what’s next in relations with Russia, the migration and climate crises hanging over everyone’s head like the sword of Damocles. The Balkans? Thanks but no, thanks.
On the other side, at least three of the six countries still do. Albanians from Albania and Kosovo are perhaps the most enthusiastic pro-Western nation east of the former Iron Curtain. Furthermore, it was the overwhelming support of the minorities that indirectly tipped the balance in Macedonia in favor of striking a deal with Greece. Indirectly, because although the referendum failed to reach the required voter turnout, it would not have been possible to push the agreement through parliament without Albanian parties.
The third state is North Macedonia. Let’s imagine that a prerequisite for Poland’s accession to the European Union and NATO is the need to change the country’s name, because one of the neighbors is not very fond of the traditional one. More or less absurd proposals are being pondered over our heads — the Vistula Republic, Sarmatia, the West Slavonic Republic. Some names may be intriguing, but the very fact of making such a case is humiliating. “You do not sell your name,” said stickers on Macedonian walls.
And although the records of absurd were reached by both sides in the Greek-Macedonian dispute — in Skopje, this was manifested in building pretend ancient Greek buildings in the city center — ultimately, there were two politicians who were able to solve it. Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev risked their own future in politics to sign an agreement that would theoretically unlock the path of Macedonia — North from now on — Westward. And the Macedonians finally accepted the agreement. If anyone deserves a chance from the Union, it’s them.
EU’s uncertain influence in the Balkans
In the other three countries, anti-Western sentiments are strong, or even prevailing. In the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Serbia itself, this is obviously due to bad memories — the NATO bombings of 1999 and the still vivid, though — let’s put it gently — not entirely true belief that the collapse of Yugoslavia was the result of a Western conspiracy. In Montenegro, the ambivalent attitude is the result of a certain part of the population identifying with the Serbian people.
All this means that a player who is still willing to play — Russia — is entering the political void that is still present in the Western Balkans. Although the Kremlin did not manage to carry out a coup d’état in Montenegro to thwart the country’s accession to NATO, nor to torpedo the Macedonian-Greek agreement through an externally-funded riots for the same purpose (Podgorica is already part of the Alliance; in the case of Skopje, the accession ratification process is underway). But the Kremlin still maintains influence in the region’s Slavic countries.
Members of the Serbian special forces took part in the plot in Montenegro and in organizing turmoil in Skopje. In the Serbian training camps, the Russians are training paramilitary troops of Bosnian Serbs, faithful to the newly-established member of the presidium of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik. Although moved to the capital, Dodik still rules the Serbian Republic of Bosnia from backstage and is more and more often hinting that he can still play the secession card of this part of the Bosnian federation.
Any attempts at tearing the construct with the capital in Banja Luka away from the rest of the country would threaten a new war. Just like the scenario of territorial exchange considered by presidents of Kosovo and Serbia as a way to normalize (though not formalize) the relations of both countries. Both these issues form a closed system, because Dodik associates his threat of secession with the situation where Pristina would hand over the lands north of the Ibar River to Belgrade in exchange for part of the Preševo Valley.
This should come complete with these countries’ internal problems. Neither of them was able to fully cope with organized crime. The situation of free media in Serbia is even getting worse as the ties between the local politicians and the mob strengthen. As in the 1990s, Bosnia and Herzegovina still remains a country unable to agree on the basic principles of the state’s functioning. Albania is paralyzed by internal political disturbance — the opposition has just boycotted local elections, just as it is boycotting the parliament’s work.
Adverse conditions do not prevent progress, as long as there is a motivation to overcome these issues. For Poland, such a motivation for change was the clear promise of opening doors to Western integration structures. Unfortunately, the only serious player determined to expand their influence in the region is Moscow. The Union is only slightly saved by the fact that, contrary to widespread myths, Russia is also inefficient (the Skripal affair! the coup in Montenegro!), corrupt and limited by faith in its own propaganda, which makes it difficult to regard its accomplishments in the Balkans as a success story.
The major problem is that Brussels doesn’t really have an idea of what it could offer to the Western Balkans, since the dummy cooperation in the form of the Berlin Process is not an offer at all.
The EU is inconsistent, and therefore unreliable, thus risking that someone more determined may sooner or later displace it from the soft underbelly, which is what the region still remains. For anyone to treat us as serious and reliable bidders, „one needs to wear shoes at a wedding”. Especially a Balkan one.