SOFIA – The Balkans is the European Union’s untold success story. The EU’s commitment to bringing the region within its borders remains firm. In September, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, succeeded in breaking the deadlock in Serbia-Kosovo relations by bringing both sides back to the negotiating table. The EU’s soft power remains as visible as ever.
Moreover, just this month, the visa wall surrounding the region for the last two decades finally fell for everyone (with the exception of the Kosovo Albanians). It is as if the crisis in the EU’s center had not reached its Balkan periphery. This, at least, is how the European Commission wants to see the Balkans, and how the region wants to present itself.
But the reality is less re-assuring. A closer look reveals that the Balkans currently is a mixture of Greek-style economic problems, Berlusconi-style politics, and Turkish-style enthusiasm when it comes to the EU’s will to integrate the countries of the region.
To understand this mixture, imagine a rainy election day in an unnamed country, and that almost three-quarters of the ballots are returned blank. The government demands that the elections be re-held, when the sun is shining. The result is terrifying: the protest increases, with 83% of the electorate voting without choosing a candidate.
That is the plot of José Saramago’s novel Seeing – an anti-utopian vision of post-political democracies where people are angry, the elite are conspiracy-minded and insecure, and social life is paralyzed. It is also a fair depiction of how citizens in the Balkans feel about their new political systems.
Saramago’s anywhere is the Balkans’ everywhere. When asked by the latest Gallup Balkan Monitor poll to say whom they trust, most respondents expressed faith in the Church, the EU, and the United Nations, but were deeply suspicious of national institutions, including those that are elected.
Ten years after the last war in the region, the Balkans still comprises an assemblage of frustrated protectorates and weak states. Bosnia and Kosovo are trapped in the labyrinth of the politics of semi-independence; Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia are small and claustrophobic republics with populist and divisive governments and opposition forces that are discouraged and discouraging at the same time.
Serbia has lost Kosovo, but it still has not found itself, while Croats are split over joining the EU, with a majority planning to vote against it. Serbs and Croats still disagree about history, but many agree that paying taxes is a waste of money, and most agree that no party or politician expresses their views.
The EU has lost its magic, but it has not yet lost its importance. True, faced with the choice of keeping the constitutional name of their country or compromising with Greece for the benefit of joining the Union, Macedonians are sticking to their guns. Serbs also say that it is more important to pretend that Kosovo is part of Serbia than it is to join the EU.
But declarations are one thing and reality is another. It is clear that if the region’s citizens are to have any realistic hope of a better life and political stability, it will be related to their country’s EU prospects. And here is what makes the Balkans so important for understanding the new condition in Europe. People from the region still believe in the EU, but they are not sure that the EU believes in itself.
Moreover, they no longer know how their economies will be able to grow in post-crisis Europe. Previously, there were two models for small economies seeking to incorporate themselves within the EU: the Irish model of radical market reforms, and the Greek model of creative bookkeeping and absorption of European funds. Now both models have derailed.
The impact of the EU’s current crisis in the Balkans can be best understood as a crisis of political imagination. Just two or three years ago, people in the region worried about living on the outskirts of Europe; now they worry about Europe itself. Once it was popular to tell Macedonians that they could become another Belgium. Now, one has to ask if Macedonians should want that outcome, given the wasteful and complicated way in which Belgium functions today. Indeed, no one promises that Belgium will not collapse in the next 10 or 20 years.
How will the Balkans’ multicultural institutions, built after a decade of war and fervent nationalism, be sustained at a time when leading European politicians are heard to say that multiculturalism is dead? How can institutional arrangements established to stop the war be transformed into an effective guarantee for a common future that includes EU membership?
Focused on their own problems, Europeans do not have time to think about how the crisis in the EU impacts the countries on Europe’s periphery. This should change. The Balkans’ “new normality” is very much a reflection of Europe’s.