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EPA/Neil Hall

Britain’s role in the Balkans – why Boris Johnson is about to turn pro-EU

Here’s a paradox from Brexit Britain. This summer, at a summit meeting in London organised by the UK’s Foreign Office, a hard Brexiteer – the foreign secretary Boris Johnson – will be the designated advocate of EU membership for the Western Balkan states. A country preparing to leave the EU will preach the accession of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, FYR Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro to the European Union. A country seeking to “take back control” from the heavy-handedness of Brussels will advise others to relinquish their sovereignty to that same superstate. What’s going on here?

The London summit in July will host the leaders of the six Western Balkan states and those of Britain, Germany, Italy, France and Austria. It’s part of the so-called Berlin Process, an intergovernmental initiative introduced by Angela Merkel in 2014 whose goal was to help the development of the Western Balkans by focusing on investment, connectivity, infrastructure and regional cooperation, with the ultimate aim of their joining the EU.

So far, as part of the process, a Regional Youth Cooperation Office has been established to “promote the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation between the youth in the region through youth exchange programmes”. An agreement has also been signed for the settlement of bilateral disputes. There is also talk of a Western Balkans Economic Area, where goods, services, investments and skilled workers would be able to move without obstacles.

The Berlin Process includes, from the EU side, the five strongest and most prominent member states. Every summer, the leaders of these countries meet with the leaders from the six Western Balkan countries to reaffirm their commitment to the region’s European integration. They also aim to attract pledges for investment and take a family photo during a highly publicised summit.

Delegates arrive at the 2017 summit in Trieste. EPA

Now, following a commitment made in 2014, it’s Britain’s turn to be the host of that summit. The 2018 meeting is an opportunity for the UK to show that it has something substantial to offer to European affairs despite Brexit. After all, every host so far has shaped the agenda by including their own expertise. In Vienna, three years ago it was civil society engagement, in Paris, two years ago, it was climate change. Last year’s summit in Trieste dealt with the rule of law and the fight against corruption.

Delicate balance

Despite its imminent departure from the EU, Britain does still have a useful role to play in the Berlin Process. That might include its security expertise as a strong military nation that remains an enthusiastic member of NATO. With geopolitics becoming increasingly significant for Europe’s foreign policy, the Western Balkans is one of the most vulnerable regions of the continent. From a security perspective, the region is highly exposed to risks on the periphery of Europe.

The security risks in the region include a generic fear of return to the wars of the 1990s among some post-Yugoslav states, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, the rise of organised crime, geopolitical and geo-economic competition from China, Russia, or Turkey.

Then there are the existing bilateral disputes among post-Yugoslav states. All have unresolved border issues – some of them subject to international arbitration. And all these disputes affect stability. None of the states have threatened to use military force against each other to resolve these issues, but any security assistance from abroad to one country may be seen to antagonise the interests of the neighbouring country.

Focusing so heavily on the issue of security can also actually harm political progress. People in the region increasingly experience a backsliding of democracy.

As a recent House of Lords report noted, there is “serious concern that gains made towards good governance and the rule of law are in danger of being lost as countries in the region turn to authoritarian leadership, nationalistic politics and state capture”. And a recent report by Human Rights Watch found that most countries in the region still face serious challenges in upholding human rights standards.

Because the primary concern has, for so long, been security in the Western Balkans, such anxieties have, for the most part, fallen on deaf ears in Western capitals. Geopolitical concerns have allowed local leaders and governments to enjoy lax political conditionality for the sake of security and stability – what has been labelled “stabilitocracy”. As a result, liberal politics have deteriorated and advances made during the 2000s have eroded.

It’s important that any security agenda embraces democracy, human rights, and rule of law – the “holy trinity” of political transformation, which itself is a necessary condition for security and stability in the region. That should be the common goal of both the Berlin Process and the European Commission, the latter having recently adopted a new enlargement strategy for the Western Balkan candidate states. The biggest challenge for Johnson and the Foreign Office, on this particular occasion, is to find ways to cooperate effectively with the European Union, aiming at the inclusion of the Western Balkan countries in the European family, at a time when the UK is excluding itself from it.

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