Tomorrow, European leaders will almost certainly again reject the request by Albania and North Macedonia to open negotiations on EU membership. In doing so, they will confirm what has been clear for a long time – that the process of enlargement is over, and that the Balkans are not going to join the EU.
In truth, key states in the EU, most notably France, never really wanted the EU to enlarge to the east, which confers disproportionate benefits to Germany, thereby upsetting the balance of power between Paris and Berlin while weakening the cohesion of the EU as a whole. From France’s point of view, that undermines the whole point of European integration, namely, to prevent war with Germany and provide a platform for amplifying French power.
For as long as London actively championed enlargement and Berlin was basically supportive, Paris could not hope to block enlargement. Now, however, with the UK on its way out of the EU and Germany politically paralysed, France has become increasingly explicit in its opposition, and has found support from peers such as the Netherlands and Denmark which worry about the consequences for organised crime and immigration of opening the EU up to the Balkans.
The one caveat in France’s position is its willingness in principle to accept an expansion of the EU, once its members agree the reforms needed to stabilise the fragile Eurozone. However, that remains as elusive a prospect as ever.
Frustrated nationalisms and unhappy minorities
This matters because, since last decade, European integration has been the West’s device for displacing the Balkan peoples’ historical quest to establish nation states, of the kind that prevail in western Europe.
European integration has been the West’s device for displacing the Balkan peoples’ historical quest to establish nation states, of the kind that prevail in western Europe.
Back in the nineties, the US and its allies concluded that nation statehood could not be realised either peacefully or legally, and so imposed a compromise settlement that established independent states based on the borders inherited from the former Yugoslavia, but not nation states, because most of these newly-independent states had large ethnic minorities.
As a palliative, the EU offered the peoples of the region the prospect of membership as a substitute for their core goal of national independence. In doing so, its hope was that the process of joining the EU would change the nature of the region, transforming poor, authoritarian and non-consensual states into the kind of prosperous, democratic, law-bound polities where unhappy minorities would be permanently content to live. On eventual accession, the various Balkan nations, currently divided by regional borders, could be reunited inside a borderless Europe - in effect, this was the Yugoslav solution, recast for the twenty-first century.
So, the end of enlargement also marks the end of the West’s game plan for suppressing the region’s frustrated nationalisms, with the logical consequence that the peoples of the region will revive the business of nation state formation, left unfinished in the 1990s.
New Cold War
That is already enough to create a combustible situation in the region. But the end of EU enlargement is also playing out in parallel with another international drama, namely the United States’ decision to fight the ‘New Cold War’ in the Balkans.
Another international drama [is]... the United States’ decision to fight the ‘New Cold War’ in the Balkans.
The origins of this date back to the crisis in Ukraine in 2013-14, to which Russia responded by trying block the integration of those states in eastern Europe which were not already members of NATO, including several in the Balkans. Its mode of entry into the region’s politics was to back the grievances of local groups which were in conflict with the West, in return for a commitment not to join NATO.
Unsurprisingly, Washington viewed this as a challenge to the stability of its settlement in the Balkans and, after an absence of a few years, returned to the region with the aim of pushing Russia out and finishing the job of integrating the region into NATO.
The first clash came in Macedonia in 2015, where the then-government became embroiled in a massive corruption scandal, fell out with the West and turned to Russia for support. A two-year diplomatic battle then ensued at the end of which the US succeeded in ousting the government and replacing it with a pliant administration that prioritized NATO integration.
This was followed by a contest for influence in Montenegro, Russia’s oldest ally, which the Americans pressurized to switch sides and join NATO. They succeeded, but only after a Russian-backed attempt to assassinate the pro-NATO prime minister failed at the last minute.
Kosovo’s legal limbo
With Macedonia and Montenegro secured, the US then turned to the question of Serbia where Russia was firmly entrenched. To neutralise its influence, the US concluded it had to address the issue which bound the Serbs to Russia, namely their anger over what they saw as the illegal confiscation of Kosovo back in 2008. Since Kosovo’s independence could not realistically be reversed, that meant finding terms for its recognition that satisfied the Serbs, and then persuading Kosovo’s Albanian population to accept them.
The result was a secret deal between the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo to partition the territory, with a small Serb-dominated enclave in the north passing to Serbia in return for Belgrade’s recognition of the Albanian-dominated south. If all went well, Serbia would have no further need for Russia and Kosovo could end its debilitating state of legal limbo.
Unfortunately for Washington, the deal collapsed on contact with the outside world. For one thing, it caused apprehension in many European countries, including Germany and the UK, which feared that moving borders would set a dangerous precedent for the fragile states of Bosnia and North Macedonia.
More importantly, the deal also generated a furious backlash in Kosovo whose people had understood the country’s independence within its existing borders was an established fact. Unsurprisingly, many felt betrayed by the US whose belated message to them was that independence was actually conditional on the blessing of their old adversary, Serbia.
Kosovo’s response was twofold. The prime minister attempted to pressurize Serbia into recognizing Kosovo unconditionally, by imposing 100% tariffs on Serbian imports and asserting the government’s authority in Kosovo’s northern enclave, leading Serbia to deploy its army to Kosovo’s border earlier this year. Meanwhile the president, realizing that popular opposition to Serbia’s condition precluded a negotiated agreement on recognition, initiated moves to unify Kosovo with the recognized state of Albania.
Where two dramas meet
And this is where the two international dramas playing out in the Balkans – the New Cold War and the end of EU integration – meet. With the failure of its bid to join the EU, Albania now has nothing to lose from pursuing the alternative goal of national unification. Neither does Serbia which will at some point be compelled to annex the Serb enclave in Kosovo’s north to prevent its incorporation into an Albanian national state.
That in turn will create a generational opportunity for the Serbs of Bosnia to try and break away, offering their territory to Serbia as compensation for the loss of Kosovo. And a united Albania will create a new geopolitical opportunity for the Albanians of North Macedonia, who will want to attach their territory to this new state. It remains an open question how violent this process would be, but history suggests it would not be peaceful.
The probability is [the US] will again have to reorder the Balkans, as it did in the 1990s and 2000s, to accommodate the nationalist forces which the EU has failed to suppress.
All this will create a headache for the US which has asserted its leading role in the Balkans with the aim of neutralising Russia but will end up responsible for managing this new round of instability. The probability is it will again have to reorder the Balkans, as it did in the 1990s and 2000s, to accommodate the nationalist forces which the EU has failed to suppress.
Given the predictability of all this, some may wish the EU would simply honour its earlier commitment to integrate the region, starting with an offer tomorrow to open membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. But as realpolitik takes over, the time for wishful thinking has long passed.
Timothy Less is speaking on Re-ordering the Balkans at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on October 19, 2019.