Western Balkan nations are back in the news. This time, unlike in the 1990s, the headlines are not about war, conflict and massacres in the region but about the thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan trekking up north from Turkey, through the Balkans, to reach Germany and other western European countries.
It used to be the dangerous sea routes that were in the news as refugees fled civil wars, deprivation and more to seek shelter on Europe’s southern shores. The focus has now shifted to the Balkan land route and the efforts of the region’s governments to stem or even stop this flow.
It’s difficult to keep a “harshness towards refugees ranking” of the different states in the region. And frankly, it is also difficult to keep track of just which country is sealing the routes, building fences, imposing quotas and the like. Directly or indirectly, they all seem to be doing something nasty.
It’s a macabre race to be the toughest kid on the block. But perhaps the toughest are the so-called “Visegrad Four”, composed of the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, which have made no secret of their loathing for the refugees and are clamouring with increasing insistence for border closures between Greece and the Balkan states, especially Macedonia.
While they may be grumbling about the crisis, at a conference organised in Brussels last week, many of the regions’ top policymakers were also underlining that the inflow of refugees through the region illustrated the importance of the Balkans to the rest of Europe.
The sentiment was shared by Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner for the neighbourhood and enlargement policy. Western Balkan countries can turn the migrant crisis to their advantage given their importance as transit zones, the EU’s enlargement chief said.
“I believe this crisis has opened the window in the way that much more people, politicians, are looking to the western Balkans,” he said, adding: “There is a better understanding among European leaders that the western Balkans are already surrounded by EU member states, and it is quite clear at a certain moment that they should also join the family.”
Joining the “family” is not going to be that easy, however. For all their insistence that they are part of Europe, the truth is that beyond geography, the conduct, values and policies followed by many countries in the region put them firmly outside the European mainstream.
The Balkan states may have found friends among the EU’s “new” member states — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia — whose own belief systems are increasingly un-European, but many in western Europe are appalled by their behaviour. Still, the Balkans’ reputation got a fillip last week when Bosnia Herzegovina formally applied for EU membership, joining Serbia, Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro which are also in the queue to join the EU.
There was much cheer and self-congratulation of course with officials pointing out that even as the EU lurches from crisis to crisis, it’s “power of attraction” for outsiders remains untarnished.
But much as they would wish otherwise, the western Balkan states are years away from being ready to join the EU.
And having learned from the premature entry of Bulgaria and Romania, the EU is in no rush to open its arms to the region.
In fact, one of the first things that EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker did on taking over in 2014 was to decree a five-year standstill on any further EU enlargement.
And even as they accepted Bosnia’s application, EU officials were warning that the country — and the region — needed to carry out a series of reforms.
Let’s not forget that the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, part of the break-up of Yugoslavia, killed some 100,000 people. The country remains split along ethnic lines and is still economically impoverished.
The Dutch foreign minister, Bert Koenders, speaking on behalf of the EU’s Dutch Presidency, has warned that Bosnia’s application would only be considered after “meaningful progress in the implementation of the reform agenda is achieved”, meaning Sarajevo would not be given candidate status for now.
It’s not just Bosnia that has problems, however. As John O’Brennan of Maynooth University wrote recently, “Twenty years ago, the Dayton Agreement was meant to definitively settle the ‘Balkan Question’, but today the region remains politically explosive, an economic basket case and a substantial security risk for the EU.”
Critics warn that corruption is rife across the region, there are major deficits as regards the rule of law, economic growth is low and foreign investors are hesitant about moving in.
The message from the EU is that the western Balkans “must integrate to integrate”, meaning they must first build their own cross-border links before joining the EU. But regional integration is weak and unconvincing, with the region’s politicians admitting that there is much work ahead if countries are to move from being “enemies to neighbours”.
In a glaring example of a dismal lack of regional cooperation, many Balkan countries are putting up their own national candidates for the job of the next United Nations Secretary General.
When asked why they could not throw their weight behind one candidate, the response from one Balkans official was honest: “That’s a step too far for now. We are not there yet.”