A Test for the European Union in the Balkans
A central premise of the European Union is that economic integration will soothe the rivalries between nations that have ignited bloody wars on the continent for centuries. This approach is perhaps facing its toughest test in the Balkans. Serbia applied for EU membership in 2009, a year after Kosovo declared independence. In 2012 it was officially named a candidate by the EU. But now Kosovo has become a stumbling block.
The European Parliament on July 6 approved a report demanding that Belgrade recognize Kosovo as a “condition for EU membership”, not to mention that five members – Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia and Spain , who all have their own territorial disputes – refuse to do so as well. A subsequent Ipsos poll found that only 35% of Serbs supported EU membership, which previously had solid majority support.
When asked if his country would agree to the demand, President Aleksandar Vučić gave a sarcasm-laden response. “Nice, decent, polite: we won’t,” he said. “To be even more polite, we won’t take it into account.” The president said he had “exhausted the reservoir of decent answers” on Kosovo’s independence, which remains an open wound after its secession from Serbia in 2008.
But after Serbia has been so heavily EU-aligned in recent years, Mr Vučić would cause a major economic shock if he exited now. He admitted this when urging his Serbian compatriots to “take a reasonable view” of the EU’s new Kosovo demands. “Can we do without Europe and its investments?” he asked. “We have to be sensible enough so that our emotions don’t take over.”
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s bombing campaign during the 1999 Kosovo War left the Kosovo issue indelibly linked to Serb resentment against the West. For its part, Russia has always refused to recognize the breakaway state – as have EU states with their own territorial disputes. But with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February, bloc leaders feel compelled to settle the dispute once and for all.
They believe they can achieve this through sheer economic persuasion. The EU is by far the largest investor and most important trading partner for Belgrade. Since Serbia became an EU candidate country, it has received billions of euros in loans and grants backed by the euro. Russia’s political and cultural influence on the country remains strong, but when it comes to economic influence there simply isn’t any competition.
Mr Vučić’s comments make one thing clear. For Serbia, joining the EU would mean sacrificing identity for money. Centuries of national myth-making lie beneath the modern grudge against Kosovo, which lies at the heart of a Christian folklore surrounded by themes of Serbian martyrdom and oppression. In fact, many Serbs would see their country’s admission to the EU as a cowardly betrayal.
Cornered by EU demands, Mr Vučić has lashed out at Kosovo, claiming the country plans to expel Serbs from its northern region. Serbia’s defense minister recently sparked a nationalist backlash by endorsing the creation of a “Serbian world” that would include “the unification of all Serbs” into one state.
Serbia is not the only country where EU accession is fueling old conflicts. Violent protests have erupted in North Macedonia over the bloc’s proposal to defuse ethnocultural tensions with neighboring EU member Bulgaria. Bulgaria has been blocking accession negotiations for years because it refuses to accept the existence of Macedonia’s own history and language.
The EU’s proposal to break the blockade accommodates Bulgaria’s wishes and obliges North Macedonia to rewrite its constitution to include a mention of the country’s Bulgarian minority. The proposal, initially called “unacceptable” by North Macedonia’s prime minister, was subsequently accepted by the government and approved by parliament on Saturday – although passing the necessary constitutional amendment could prove a major hurdle.
A former Macedonian foreign minister described the country’s path to the EU as “entirely dependent on the satisfaction of Bulgarian demands”, while the opposition leader laments that “the Bulgarianization of our society has become the main condition for accession”.
Some Balkan political pundits argue politicians should leave these seemingly arcane disputes to academics and focus instead on the “more practical issues” of EU membership and its benefits. But such arguments miss the point. As evidenced by demonstrations against the proposed deal with Bulgaria, many North Macedonians would happily forego EU money if it meant trading off their sense of national legitimacy.
In both Serbia and North Macedonia, EU enlargement is based on the belief that economic arguments must ultimately prevail over nationalist zeal. The EU feels it has a duty to resolve these long-standing conflicts, but ultimately solutions must be found in the Balkans, not in Brussels.
Mr Nattrass is a British journalist and commentator based in Prague.
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https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-test-for-brussels-in-the-balkans-serbia-kosovo-north-macedonia-bulgaria-european-union-economy-nationalism-11658347559 A Test for the European Union in the Balkans