How the EU’s identity crisis poses a real threat to peace in the Balkans

Kosovo Albanians gather to protest against a visit from Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić. EPA/Valdrin Xhemaj

It is a truism that Europe is in crisis. Its central authority, the European Union, has overreached with its determination to unify the continent, intruding too deeply into its ancient nations’ sovereign affairs.

The resulting backlash has been dramatic: civil unrest, the rise of rejectionist parties, the abandoning of the Schengen arrangements, secessionism in the Mediterranean and the UK’s decision to quit the club.

However, the crisis is not confined to the EU. It is also being felt in its Balkan backyard, where hopes of joining the EU have effectively been ended.

Early last decade, the EU made a commitment to integrate the Balkans. Not only did the locals want this but integration offered the key to stability in a region whose mismatch of peoples and borders had led to four wars in the 1990s. The region calmed as it made the transition to democracy and free market economics, and there was a sense that once the Balkans made it inside the EU, its disputed borders would become irrelevant.

That was once the plan. But this summer, European leaders, led by France, imposed a moratorium on any further enlargement of the EU, pending a fix to its myriad internal problems – above all, a deeply defective eurozone which could disintegrate when the next recession strikes.

With no prospect of this in sight, the reality facing the Balkans is that its prospective membership of the EU is on permanent hold. This will inevitably have consequences, above all in Serbia, the region’s largest and most powerful state, and one which has hitherto fixed on EU membership to revive its politics and economy.

A major setback for Kosovo

In recent years, Serbia’s pro-European president, Aleksandar Vučić, has eschewed the hardline nationalism of previous governments. He has disowned Bosnia’s Republika Srpska and offered to recognise Kosovo, which broke unilaterally from Serbia in 1999. In return, he hopes to buy the goodwill of Europeans and open the door to the EU.

But with enlargement now off, the calculation will change. Serbia no longer has an incentive to strike a deal with Kosovo if the key benefit – EU membership – is off the table. Nor does it have a compelling reason to spurn the expressed wish of the Bosnian Serbs to unite with their motherland.

Angela Merkel had bad news for Aleksandar Vučić this summer. EPA

The risk instead is that Serbia’s leaders will revive the unresolved national questions from the 1990s. Already, the country is experiencing a popular backlash against Vučić’s Kosovo policy. With the opposition happy to exploit this backlash and Vučić under pressure to shift his position, Serbian politics is once again moving to the right.

A continuation of this course would create a new opportunity for the Bosnian Serbs, who could decide at some point to make a bid for independence, gambling on Serbia’s cooperation. If they did, Bosnia’s Croat population would not be far behind.

A revival of nationalism could also see Serbia annex northern Kosovo whose Serb population looks to Belgrade for safety from Kosovo’s increasingly dissatisfied Albanian majority.

This would have further consequences. Unnerved by Serbia, Kosovo Albanians would draw closer to Albania for security. The two countries could even unite, as their respective leaders have repeatedly pledged to do – if not in an enlarged EU, then outside of it. That, in turn, would create a new geopolitical option for Macedonia’s unhappy Albanian minority which would try to join this enlarged Albanian state.

If such a scenario played out, the result would be the emergence of three fully-fledged nation states – Serbia, Albania and Croatia, each encompassing almost all of their respective national communities in the region.

But much about this scenario remains imponderable. How violent would such a process of reordering be? What would happen to the rump Bosnian and Macedonian states after their minorities seceded? Could others, such as the US, yet fill the vacuum created by the Europeans and stabilise the region?

Unfortunately, with Europeans preoccupied by problems inside their own house, there is little will or capacity to think much about the potential for conflict in the Balkans. Instead, the EU’s default position is to persist with the goal of integration, at least in formal terms, even as its most powerful politicians publicly repudiate this goal.

Unless the EU can restore its stability and revive the policy of enlargement, its continued internal crisis can only be bad for Europe’s most fragile region.