The consequences of the United Kingdom’s imminent exit from the EU following the June 23rd referendum will be felt across the continent but perhaps nowhere more so than the Western Balkans. But the drama of “Brexit,” and with it the resurgence of grand geopolitics in the Balkans, obscures the more quietly devastating headline of the past year. It has been yet another year in southeastern Europe marked by parochial political feuding and economic stagnation.
This result is all the more disheartening because not too long ago it appeared that the region had made a historic and collective breakthrough, a deliberate decision to genuinely move forward, together, towards Europe.
At last year’s major Western Balkans Summit in Vienna much was made of the meeting’s marquee initiative: the Connectivity Agenda. The Vienna meeting was itself a continuation of the so-called Berlin Process begun a year earlier, while the Connectivity Agenda was meant as a wide-ranging effort to modernize and integrate the region’s economic and transportation infrastructure. In fact, the Agenda was to be the most significant regional policy initiative since the 2003 Thessaloniki Declaration.
It was a bread and butter approach meant to make up for the years lost in the quagmire of post-Yugoslav brinksmanship and distrust. Finally, conversation would turn to jobs and wages, education and transportation.
In other words, with consensus achieved on the prospect for a joint “European future,” the task was now to implement this future, to build the material linkages and networks to support the region’s accession processes. That was the Connectivity Agenda at the apex of its optimistic vision.
Twelve months on, and on the occasion of the third Western Balkans Summit, this one in Paris, what has come of the plethora of vital economic revitalization projects identified in last year’s glossy brochures? What has actually been achieved? According to the EU’s own officials, “efforts have been insufficient and the country track record very disappointing.” Just out of the oven, the bread is already stale.
Doubtlessly, the brunt of the responsibility for the apparent stillbirth of the Connectivity Agenda rests with the respective regional governments, as officials in Brussels are quick to point out.
Despite their grandiose promises to the contrary, politics in the Western Balkans has continued to be riven by the provincial and partisan confrontations of local leaders. From unnecessary elections in Serbia to the on-going crisis in Macedonia, the quixotic candidacy application of Bosnia-Herzegovina to the parliamentary fracas in Kosovo, it’s hard to find much meaningful “governance” anywhere in the neighbourhood halfway through 2016.
What has been “accomplished” by regional actors is still largely in the concept stage. Even the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), the Sarajevo-based body meant to assist in the development of just such regional initiatives, has struggled to produce anything other than promissory notes. According to its most recent quarterly report, the only concrete task accomplished by the group between January and March of 2016 is the “[launch of] the preparation of a register of ancillary infrastructure and interoperability and signalization aspects on the Road Core Network,” in addition to the publication of a minor study.
But the technocratic vagueness of the RCC’s report, like the broader failure of regional governments to make meaningful strides towards the implementation of any of the envisioned projects, is not merely a local disease. The problem is also with the EU itself. After all, it is Brussels which has spent the better part of the last two decades doling out loans for those questionable Balkan IOUs and their promises to “launch the preparation” [sic] of actual political and economic reforms.
And while the EU has struggled to hold its regional partners to their word, the Union’s competitors have learnt from Brussels’ “soft power” failures. It is only days after the Brexit referendum and Russia has already begun quietly floating the idea of Eurasian Economic Union membership for the region’s non-EU states, in addition to the beginnings of an anti-NATO security apparatus. Though many claim Russia’s presence in the region is still only that of a “spoiler,” the radical pace at which European politics has shifted in the wake of the British referendum should give policymakers in Brussels serious pause.
Nor is Russia alone in offering alternatives to the “only game in town.” Following the recent visit of President Xi Jinping to Belgrade, China is now an undeniable (if still quiet) factor in Western Balkan politics. Beijing’s so-called “16 + 1” initiative, part of its New Silk Road venture, aims to modernize and upgrade the region’s antiquated infrastructure and transform it into the entry port for European market bound Chinese goods. On paper, the similarity to the Connectivity Agenda is striking.
Yet the differences are significant. Unlike the EU, and as evidenced by their engagement in Africa, the Chinese are not interested in political transformation. In fact, recalcitrant authoritarians willing to sign off large tracts of land and resources to Chinese firms in exchange for lump-sum payoffs fits precisely with the realpolitik development strategy that suits both Beijing and most local leaders. And it is security guarantees for intransigent Balkan elites that the Kremlin also offers.
The Chinese and Russians may be helping to build roads but it is only the EU that hopes that these highways will lead to functional, accountable, and democratic institutions. High hopes, however, are not enough.
Brussels must realize that the familiar, if always boggy, terrain of the Balkans has shifted underneath its feet. The EU can no longer afford to meander aimlessly in the region, and the Connectivity Agenda cannot be allowed to go the way of so many previous policy initiatives. Now is the time to reflect and double-down on that which only the EU can offer the Western Balkans.
First, the Paris summit cannot merely be another venue for photo ops and vague promises. Regional leaders must be named and shamed for their failures over the past year. Otherwise, the credibility of the Union itself is at risk.
Secondly, it must be publically acknowledged that the European perspective will not remain open indefinitely for the region. Brussels cannot tolerate a decades-long process for construction of a simple highway, never mind political reform. Accordingly, the Connectivity Agenda must be stressed as a vital test case.
Finally, Brussels cannot tolerate half-hearted efforts at EU integration. If regional governments prefer to throw their lot in with Moscow or to otherwise abandon core Euro-Atlantic commitments, then they must understand that Western money and support will likewise disappear.
In Paris, most minds will still be on events north of the Channel. Although the current focus on the fate of the United Kingdom is understandable, the EU still cannot afford to ignore the Western Balkans. If it does, it may lose more than another "member"—it may lose the region as a whole.
This piece was made possible with the assistance of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Dialogue Southeast Europe office in Sarajevo.