Backing the Balkans

Prioritizing EU Enlargement Post-Brexit

A migrant looks out of a train window near the Macedonian-Greek border in Gevgelija, Macedonia, February 24, 2016. Marko Djurica / Reuters

“When the Berlin Wall came down, it landed on Yugoslavia.” So said Haris Silajdzic, the one-time Bosnian member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, indicating how events in Europe tended to trigger violence in the Balkans. Perhaps less violent, but still pernicious, is the aftermath of Brexit, which threatens to disturb this still troubled region. The United Kingdom's departure, after all, will make the region’s own bid for EU membership more distant because it has exposed the dysfunction within Brussels and the EU’s need for reform. Nationalists in France, the Netherlands, and other EU countries are calling for their own exit referendums, which diminishes the will within the Balkans to engage in democratic changes, particularly if there is no EU to join in the end. And without a plausible route to Brussels, the Balkan governments’ drive toward political progress could slow. In the end, Brexit could embolden autocrats who are already appealing to the worst instincts of the region’s deeply divided, weak, and poor societies.

As Brussels reels from the aftershocks of the British referendum, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s de facto leader, must step up to the historic challenge of leading the continent through perhaps its darkest post-war hour. And there can be no better signal of Europe’s commitment to the European project than expanding it to the Balkans. Plans for enlargement have languished due to the high levels of corruption in the region. The political elites there employ nationalistic rhetoric and reopen the wounds of past wars to divert attention away from accusations of graft. They are in no rush to steer the country toward EU membership as that would mean boosting the rule of law, as well as the efficiency and independence of the judiciary, required by the EU accession rules.

A forthright plan for the Balkans will not only strengthen the EU, but also allow Merkel and her colleagues in Brussels to tackle growing anxiety, both in the United Kingdom and

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