Hold out a help­ing hand

The Guardian Weekly - - Theguardianweekly -

The Euro­pean Union’s task of enlargement re­mains starkly in­com­plete: the bloc’s south­east­ern flank is largely in limbo. Al­most 20 years af­ter the Balkan wars ended, there’s a gap­ing hole on the map, bounded by mem­bers in­clud­ing Croa­tia, Ro­ma­nia and Greece. In 2015 the refugee cri­sis ex­posed how swiftly na­tion­al­ist pas­sions could re­turn to the re­gion. As hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple trekked north­wards, vol­un­teers helped pro­vide food and cloth­ing to des­o­late refugees. But ten­sions flared among gov­ern­ments, and troops were even de­ployed at some bor­ders. Two years on, the Balkan route is mostly closed, but the re­gion’s prob­lems are still vivid.

The ques­tion of how to sta­bilise the Balkans, an­chor democ­racy there, and bring the re­gion closer to EU in­sti­tu­tions re­mains an im­mense chal­lenge, given in­suf­fi­cient at­ten­tion. Balkan civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists are in­creas­ingly con­cerned about un­em­ploy­ment, cor­rup­tion and a brain drain as young, ed­u­cated peo­ple leave for jobs else­where in Europe. They say it is cru­cial to re­boot the prospect of EU mem­ber­ship for Ser­bia, Bos­nia, Mace­do­nia, Al­ba­nia and Mon­tene­gro, to en­cour­age much-needed re­forms. They are right. The Balkans mat­ter to Europe not just be­cause of the mi­gra­tion is­sue, but also for en­ergy routes, se­cu­rity and the fight against or­gan­ised crime. Lit­tle has been done to ad­dress un­der­ly­ing prob­lems.

The good news is that aware­ness of this seems to be grow­ing. The pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean com­mis­sion, Jean-Claude Juncker, said re­cently that, if the EU wants to en­sure more sta­bil­ity in its own neigh­bour­hood, “then it must main­tain a cred­i­ble enlargement per­spec­tive for the west­ern Balkans”. In 2018 the UK is due to host a spe­cial sum­mit on the west­ern Balkans – an ini­tia­tive pre­sented by the gov­ern­ment as ev­i­dence that “Bri­tain is leav­ing the EU but not Europe”.

For the Balkans ques­tion is as much about broader in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion as it is about val­ues. The EU is con­fronted with strong com­pe­ti­tion from ex­ter­nal pow­ers seek­ing to se­cure footholds on its doorstep and cap­i­talise on the re­gion’s weak­nesses. Rus­sia plays on Ortho­dox and Slavic ties, and Turkey seeks to pro­mote a “neo-Ot­toman” vi­sion. But more dis­tant ac­tors, in­clud­ing China and Saudi Ara­bia, are in­creas­ingly ac­tive. One civil so­ci­ety ac­tivist in Bel­grade de­scribes this as “an un­be­liev­able geopo­lit­i­cal game that would have been unimag­in­able in 1989”, when the com­mu­nist bloc started crum­bling.

As the EU speaks of rein­vig­o­rat­ing its 60-year-old project, it needs to build a sta­ble re­gional ar­chi­tec­ture for the Balkans. More EU funds should be di­rected to­wards the re­gion as en­tice­ment.

Churchill once said that “the Balkans pro­duce more his­tory than they can con­sume”. If left un­ad­dressed, bad gov­er­nance and old feuds could back­fire on ev­ery­one.

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