When it comes to the western Balkans and European integration, certain metaphors come in and out fashion. It used to be said that Balkan countries were like cyclists; they had to keep moving forward, otherwise if they stopped, they would fall off. This went out of fashion when it was realised that actually, if a country stopped, it did not just halt, it went backwards, and you cannot cycle backwards.
You can’t really sail backwards either, but never mind. After bikes, came yachts, as in the Regatta Principle. Now this is going out of fashion too. Maybe this is because, when Croatia arrived, the people on the boat all looked ragged, angry or sullen, and not all as though they had just won the America’s Cup. Besides, other boats, such as the good ship Macedon, were becalmed and the BiH-Boat3 was taking on water. I could go on.
So, now I think it is time for a new(ish) metaphor. This should be the Nike era. This may conjure up the image of, say the Nike of Samothrace in the Louvre, but I don’t like that because it is headless. No, my metaphor is far more mundane. Drawing on the motto of the shoe company, I suggest that Balkan countries “Just Do It.”
What I mean by this is simple. Everyone knows what to do and we are busy with other problems anyway. Everyone understands that adopting European standards and legislation is done first, for the benefit of their own citizens and only secondarily, because it also means you can move towards joining the club. The third point of course is that joining isn’t everything. It helps, but if you are sick, if you have not done it, as Greece and others have shown, then trying to run a marathon, in whatever shoes, will sooner or later give you a heart attack.
Some agree with me, but others are horrified. Dukagjin Gorani, a well known figure in public life Kosovo, says that what I suggest is rubbish, because he argues, Balkan societies are too weak to do what is necessary without help and besides their governments have been kidnapped by crooks. Up to a point that is true. But the issue is finding the right balance. Do too much and Balkan leaders shift responsibility to foreigners and do nothing except blame them when things don’t work, but equally do nothing and they do nothing.
What I am not suggesting then is Just Do It Completely on Your Own (Tick) but continuing – as ever – to look for the right balance. And, help there is when it is looked for and if there is the political will to use it. The Brussels Agreement of April last year, between Pristina and Belgrade was possible because, for various reasons, the prime ministers of Kosovo and Serbia both had the will, incentives and the courage to do unpopular things.
Contrast that with Bosnia-Hercegovina where the Sejdic-Finci issue, important though it is, has literally sidetracked the whole country and turned its leaders into a happy but useless flying circus, with, according to Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative, at least 300 meetings on it in the last few years. And so, what we have seen in the last few weeks, is that finally ordinary people have felt it necessary to Just Do It themselves, because their leaders wont. Whether or not this will lead to long overdue change in Bosnia remains to be seen.
At this point a little plain speaking is in order. First, when it comes to European integration the first thing to remember is that no one knows what sort of Europe will exist when western Balkan countries are ready to join. Unfortunately this does not mean there are many other policy options open. Geography and size and economic orientation mean that there is no viable Plan B out there, so what has to be done, has to be done, otherwise you stagnate and sag into a Bosnian position. So, Do It Anyway.
The second point, is to be careful what you wish for. My suspicion is that 95% of people reading this will be wholly sympathetic with the frustrations and anger of ordinary Bosnians. (The rest will be Bosnian politicians.) That is fine, but lets be hard headed too. Remember that Croatia’s referendum law was fiddled to help secure a yes vote in the EU referendum and there was much happy talk about direct democracy. And lo and behold, to the horror of the liberals who initiated it, this led directly to an illiberal referendum on gay rights – which could be just the start.
So, preaching Just Do It, is fine, but I am well aware that in Bosnia for example the risk is that unchecked it leads to Just Destroy It. It is a dilemma, and I freely admit it is not clear how you applaud people n’ plenums so long as they are doing the right thing – but check them if they start doing what you think is wrong one, for example, a Just Doing It referendum on independence in the Republika Srpska leading to a new conflict. Just Be Careful.
Thirdly, nothing is more important right now than the economy and jobs. Yes, the stats are gloomy but I suspect that there is much more activity going on than we generally realize. There are plenty of small and medium sized business, and I am not talking one man or woman shows, which are quietly getting on with making, employing and yes, Doing It. But, at the same time, they keep a low profile, frightened of predatory politicians, tax inspectors and unnecessary regulation. These people are an untapped source of real world knowledge and no one (that I know of,) asks them what they need and how to apply their combined knowledge for the greater benefit of everyone. Ask them.
And finally and probably unfashionably: Play Dirty for the common good. If the NSA and Google knows everything about you then I suppose they know everything about Balkan leaders. They play, the “oh look, what I have found in your file,” trick at home. I suspect that this is an underused resource when dealing with them in nudging them to do the right thing. So, that is a hold your nose and Just Do It for outsiders to tick off. When I studied international relations at LSE I never believed that theory, as opposed to stark realism, was worth much. Years of Balkan experience have only reinforced that prejudice.