Why the EU's Fate May Rest with The Balkans

Following the French presidential election and Emmanuel Macron’s victory, Brussels must now re-focus on Europe’s more immediate threats.

This year's French election season was widely argued to be a referendum on Europe itself. A Le Pen win would have resulted in an in-out French referendum, and such a ‘Frexit’ could have aided the proliferation of anti-EU sentiment across the continent.

‘When France sneezes’, as they say, ‘Europe catches a cold’.

But this hypothesis was always questionable considering Le Pen was never going to prevail on May 7. While polls can be wrong, Macron’s lead was so great that only the bravest would have bet against him.

Macron’s triumph was a victory for Brussels, breathing fresh life into the EU after Brexit shattered its hubris. But while the French election result won’t fracture the EU, immediate threats to Europe’s long-term stability do exist.

In the Balkans - long a tinderbox for violence and unrest - instability is re-emerging on the back of economic stagnation, endemic political disenfranchisement, and burgeoning nationalist sentiments.

Should the Balkans once more descend into even localised violence - for the fifth time in a century - a consolidated EU response would be demanded. But at a time of division and uncertainty in Brussels, could this really be achieved?

A History of Violence

I first visited Mostar, Bosnia in 2014.  From a distance, while descending the mountains as dawn broke, the city seemed a picture of tranquility. The water of the Neretva, the river that cleaves Mostar in two, runs turquoise in the morning sun. Towering over it is a 16th century Ottoman masterpiece, the Stari Most bridge.

Only once you walk the cobbled streets does the city’s darker past start to surface.

The Stari Most bridge is overlooked in the distance by a towering 30 meter cross, only visible from East Mostar - the city's Muslim district. 

The Stari Most bridge is overlooked in the distance by a towering 30 meter cross, only visible from East Mostar - the city's Muslim district. 

Today, Mostar is a popular destination on a new Balkan tourist trail. But the city is still known for the two year siege the Muslim-majority East Mostar experienced at the height of the Balkan Wars in the early 1990s - one of the most bloody and destructive campaigns of a ghastly conflict.

That devastation continues to define the city. While the war wreaked havoc on both sides of the Neretva, it’s East Mostar that retains most of the scars.

Buildings remain semi-razed, too expensive to fix but also too expensive to tear down. Bullet holes and craters are ubiquitous. Piles of rubble, twenty five years old, are common. I was warned as I set off for a hike to avoid certain trails - some still patrolled by military - as they remain littered with landmines two decades after the siege broke.

The fighting in Mostar was brutal, and the destruction was indiscriminate. A two-year sniper campaign tormented the city between 1992 and 1994 by a Catholic-majority opposition from the towering Hum Hill.

Today, from where sniper fire once rained, a 30 meter Catholic cross stands tall, towering over East Mostar in a provocative statement intended to fuel the religious divisions that define the city's past. It is a stark reminder that in the Balkans, the tensions of yesteryear are ever present.

Those who fought in that campaign are now entering middle or later age, and their memories of conflict are still raw. They experienced bloodshed, and knowing its horrors, fear its return.

For their next akin, there are no such memories. But the physical destruction that remains scattered throughout Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina and much of the Western Balkans serves as a constant reminder of the region’s long history of conflict and injustice.

For this new generation, the economic malaise facing the region mixed with a resentment for the post-war status quo is volatile. And once more, the Balkans are on edge. Political crises are emerging with a startling frequency and consequence, with the impact likely to extend far beyond the peninsular.

The Naretva River runs turquoise and cleaves Mostar in two.  

The Naretva River runs turquoise and cleaves Mostar in two.  

A bomb shelter overlooking Mostar from the east, as a heavy fog sets it. War-torn buildings like this are left to decay all over the city, some 25 years after a ceasefire came into force. 

A bomb shelter overlooking Mostar from the east, as a heavy fog sets it. War-torn buildings like this are left to decay all over the city, some 25 years after a ceasefire came into force. 

Regional Unrest Demands Attention from the EU

In Macedonia, political tensions between sparring factions have now descended into parliamentary violence. Recently, years of animosity culminated in the storming of the parliament in Skopje. Up to 200 protesters marched in, sacked the building, and left a major party leader bloodied.

Montenegro, while recently ratifying its accession to NATO, did so only after a bitter political fight that has left the small country divided.

And Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia are all experiencing volatility in their internal politics.

These tensions are exacerbated by Russia, as it continues to assert its influence in the region - one it has long considered within its sphere of influence. Moscow’s willingness to stir tensions in Balkan states is part of a long-term strategy aimed at swaying public opinion towards Moscow’s interests and not Brussels’.

 

The Balkans are a final frontier for EU Expansion

Shanties in Schkoder, Albania.  Albanians hoping they may soon enter the European Union will have to be patient. 

Shanties in Schkoder, Albania.  Albanians hoping they may soon enter the European Union will have to be patient. 

The Balkans have long been a final frontier for the expansion of the European Union.

Policymakers in Brussels hoped that by encouraging EU accession throughout the region, it would come to adopt many of the democratic and economic reforms that facilitate peace.

The strategy makes sense, but there is one problem: the Balkans, simply, are not integrating with the EU, and are unlikely to do so.  

Slovenia is an EU member and Croatia may be on the path to membership; Montenegro is a member of the Euro-zone monetary bloc and now NATO. But Serbia, Albania and Macedonia are unlikely to enter the Union. Kosovo, unrecognised by Serbia and Russia, has no credible path, either.

With 2016’s Brexit vote, the ongoing unrest in Ukraine, and a rising tide of euroscepticism throughout the EU, the bloc’s future has been placed under warranted scrutiny. It cannot afford another Balkan conflict.

This means that the EU has to re-think its approach to keeping the fragile peace on its doorstep.

 

A Fractured EU Response to Balkan Instability Would Undermine Brussels

Should the Balkans descend into violence once more, peace would require consolidated EU action. A failure to coordinate an effective response would undermine the bloc’s utility. Unilateral Russian intervention, on the other hand, would be plausible as it sures up its influence the region and seeks to shape a future peace in a way that benefits Russia.

Macron’s victory in France has assured there will not be a Frexit any time soon. But the tensions in the Balkans show no sign of abating.

Brussels needs to re-assess its priorities, and face today's urgent threats to its stability rather than focusing on hypothetical worst-case outcomes from national elections across the continent.