The European Union and the Balkans: enlargement or empire?

Ivan Krastev
7 June 2005

A crisis is approaching in the Balkans that is both dangerous and timely. What makes it dangerous is the fact that the European public is totally unaware of it. What makes it timely is the fact that this is the crisis that the European Union badly needs at the moment.

In the aftermath of the French and Dutch rejections of the European constitution it is in the Balkans where the referendum on the credibility of the EU will take place. It is in the Balkans that the EU should either demonstrate that its transformative power can work in regions where states are weak and societies are divided or it will sink into irrelevance. The Balkans is the make-or-break test for the union. The EU can survive the premature death of its constitution but the EU cannot survive a new Srebrenica.

Also in openDemocracy’s “Europe: after the constitution” debate: Theo Veenkamp, Kirsty Hughes, Mats Engström, Aurore Wanlin, John Palmer, Dan O’Brien, Krzysztof Bobinski, Gwyn Prins, Neal Ascherson and Frank Vibert draw lessons from the French and Dutch campaigns.

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A fracture zone

The outburst of violence in Kosovo in March 2004 failed to capture Europe’s attention. The international community has decided to trivialise the disruption and not focus public attention on it. In comparison with the other international nation-building sites like Iraq and Afghanistan, the Balkans looked like a success story and nobody was in a mood to challenge this success.

Unfortunately the border between failure and success is the least guarded border in the postmodern world. And diplomats are the worst border guards. We can hope that the wars are over in the Balkans, but the smell of violence still hangs heavy in the air. What we face in the region is not the prospect of a new Balkan war but a nasty combination of state failures and small criminal wars.

The region’s profile is bleak – a mixture of weak states and international protectorates, where Europe has stationed almost half of its deployable forces. Economic growth in these territories is low or non-existent; unemployment is high; corruption is pervasive; and the public is pessimistic and distrustful towards its nascent democratic institutions. Criminalisation of politics in the Balkan states and statelets goes hand-in-hand with the internalisation of the criminal networks.

The international community has invested enormous sums of money, goodwill and human resources here. It has put twenty-five times more money and fifty times more troops on a per capita basis in post-conflict Kosovo than in post-conflict Afghanistan. But despite the scale of the assistance effort in the Balkans, the international community has failed to offer a convincing political perspective to the societies in the region. The future of Kosovo is undecided, the future of Macedonia is uncertain, and the future of Serbia is unclear. We run the real risk of an explosion of Kosovo, an implosion of Serbia and new fractures in the foundations of Bosnia and Macedonia.

The report of the International Commission on the Balkans makes clear that the real choice the EU is facing in the Balkans is enlargement or empire. Either the EU devises a bold strategy for accession that could encompass all Balkan countries as new members within the next decade, or it will become mired instead as a neo-colonial power in places like Kosovo, Bosnia, and even Macedonia. Such an anachronism would be hard to manage and would be in contradiction with the very nature of the European Union.

Unfortunately the signs of such a debilitating future are already visible in the quasi-protectorates – Kosovo and Bosnia. With no real stake in these territories, international representatives insist on quick results to complex problems; they dabble in social engineering but are not held accountable when their policies go wrong.

George Orwell’s lesson

Bosnia is the country that has received most democracy assistance per capita in the world and at the same time the Office of the High Representative using the powers provided by the Dayton agreement is in the business of dismissing elected officials almost on a daily base. If Europe’s neo-colonial rule becomes further entrenched, it will encourage economic discontent; it will become a political embarrassment for the European project; and, above all, European electorates would see it as an immense and unnecessary financial and moral burden.

You do not need a colonial project to become a colonial power. George Orwell’s 1936 essay Shooting an Elephant, recalling his experience as a minor colonial police officer in Burma, explains it best. One morning, Orwell was told by his superiors that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar, and that he should do something. He took his rifle and moved in the direction of the bazaar, deeply reluctant to shoot the large animal. When he reached the bazaar, he found a huge crowd of people.

“And suddenly I realized,” Orwell wrote, “that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had to do it. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at”.

Orwell’s Burma incident gave the writer “a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act”. It reminds me a lot of Europe’s Balkans story today. The only alternative to imperial Europe is enlarged Europe. But is the EU’s expansion in the Balkans really possible in the context of the “no” epidemics that started in France? Could the Balkans survive the rise of the “bad public” in western Europe?

The most surprising feature of the current debate in Europe is that enlargement – the most impressive success of the union – has been turned into its most vulnerable spot. Scared by the scale of the anti-establishment uprising that is underway in Europe, the elites are afraid to make their argument in favour of the further enlargement of the union and to defend the urgent need for integrating the Balkans.

What political commentators are inclined to represent as a clash between “yes” and “no” camps is more a clash between the “no” camp and the “sorry” camp. The outcome is easy to predict. It is also easy to judge that the Balkan public is not in a waiting mood.

The land of “unknown unknowns”

The policy of constructive ambiguity embodied in documents like United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 for Kosovo (1999) or the Constitutional Charter of Serbia and Montenegro (2002) worked yesterday and it is not working today. It can be credited with draining the tensions in the post-Milosevic Balkans, but now the politics of constructive ambiguity risks turning into the politics of destructive ambiguity. The consensus among Balkan observers today is that the region is at breaking-point and there is an urgent need for European action. The current status quo is a clear and present danger. The decision of the international community to move with the status talks on Kosovo is a realisation of this dangerous reality.

Also by Ivan Krastev in openDemocracy:

“We are all Brits today: Timothy Garton Ash’s Free World” (September 2004)

“Ukraine and Europe: a fatal attraction” (December 2004)

The risk is that in the absence of a European Union membership perspective the status negotiations for Kosovo will open not the road to peace but a road to war. Closing the status issues in the Balkans in a constructive way is possible only in the EU accession framework. In the absence of a clear perspective for joining the EU, Macedonia will not survive as a state and Kosovo and Bosnia will remain protectorates forever.

So to the real question: is the European public ready to endorse imperial Europe if it is not ready to endorse enlarged Europe? And will this imperial Europe be less costly in financial, political and moral terms?

Blocking the accession of the Balkans to the European Union equals the destruction of pro-reform leaders and constituencies in the region and turning the Balkans into the land of “unknown unknowns”. The hope is that in one of the unexpected twists in history the Balkans will save the EU just before the EU saves the Balkans. But in order for this to happen Europe needs leaders who remember that at its foundation the primary purpose of the European Union was to provide not jobs, but peace and security.

Further reading and resources:

Institute of War and Peace Reporting; reliable, accurate reporting and analysis

Mark Mazower, The Balkans (2002); best short history

Centre for Liberal Strategies, a Sofia-based think-tank

European Union and southeast Europe

School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London-based research and teaching institution

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