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 across the continent, about migration. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have crossed into continental Europe via the Balkans route from Greece. As a tenuous and controversial deal with Turkey—it essentially outsources the Syrian refugee problem without resolving it—languishes, the only chance for implementing a coherent European-wide migration strategy is to bring the continent’s southeastern flank into the European fold. For example, if the Balkans were incorporated into the EU, Brussels could help fund temporary shelters for Syrian refugees that land in the Balkans and facilitate better registration and processing. What’s more, a failure to stabilize the Balkans will add to the migrant problem. Citizens in the region who see no future there will simply head north. That is already starting to happen. Tens of thousands of Kosovars left mostly for Hungary and Germany earlier this year to flee a corrupt government and a collapsing economy

Although skeptics of EU expansion point to longstanding “enlargement fatigue” as the reason why some member states are having second thoughts about the union, the truth is that Europe—from the Baltics to the Balkans, from Iberia to Scandinavia—is suffering from a far more debilitating and dangerous condition: crisis fatigue. There is the still-unfolding migration crisis, the Ukrainian civil war, and the euro crisis. Europe simply cannot afford another cataclysmic event. And right now the Balkans are at risk of adding to the drama.

Macedonians protest against a name dispute between Greece and Macedonia, April 14, 2008.
Ognen Teofilovski / Reuters

In Macedonia, the same forces that nearly pulled the country into war and potential dissolution 15 years ago have reemerged. Thanks to a Greek veto over Macedonia’s EU and NATO aspirations, the country’s political development has essentially come to a standstill. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has pandered to the country’s chauvinistic forces by initiating what he calls “nation rebranding.” It is an appeal to an Macedonian identity of antiquity and this nationalistic project has not only repelled the Albanian minority, but has also created a deep rift among Macedonians. Opponents have been branded as foreign mercenaries and national traitors by Gruevski’s regime. There is also domestic division over the longstanding dispute with Greece over the country’s name, Republic of Macedonia. Athens accuses Macedonia of stealing the name from the eponymous Greek province. Some Macedonians are open to a name change, others are staunchly against it.

It is against this overcharged scene that the current government has cracked down on the media, prosecuted political opponents, and captured state institutions by installing party members in key judicial and prosecutorial roles. Recently, a trove of leaked wiretaps, revealing corruption in the upper ranks of the government, forced Gruevski to step down under the terms of an EU-mediated deal with the opposition. But so far, he and his party colleagues, which include the country’s president, have resisted the agreement’s stipulations to hold free and fair elections and accept the legitimacy of the Special Prosecutor’s Office, a judicial body created by the agreement to prosecute the crimes exposed by the wiretaps. The migration crisis has only played into Gruevski’s hands, allowing the government-controlled media to blame the EU for neglecting Macedonia amid a crisis that has shaken the whole continent. At the same time, Gruevski has fomented fear about possible Islamization of the country, which has a sizeable Muslim population. The potential for intra-Macedonian confrontation to devolve into wider inter-ethnic conflict is real. Creating a clear timeline for Macedonia’s EU membership and removing superficial obstacles (such as Greece’s, and now Bulgaria’s objections, to the name “Macedonia”), could inject a needed boost to the reform process and lessen some of these internal rifts over the country’s future.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik.
Damir Sagolj / Reuters

Kosovo is another country that desperately needs the carrot of EU membership to entice its leaders into making difficult but needed reforms. As with Macedonia, Kosovo is riven by internal ethnic divisions. Serbs control the country’s north and ethnic Albanians control the south, even though the region still holds a slim majority of Serbs who live uneasily in their dispersed enclaves. The EU mediated a deal to give Serbs more autonomy, but it elicited bitter opposition from hardline Albanian nationalists. Opposition figures tossed tear gas canisters into parliament earlier this year, including during a session to elect the country’s new president. These clashes are happening alongside rising unemployment and corruption. Unsurprisingly, many disenchanted Albanians have simply left for the EU. But without a clear pathway to the union, this malaise will grow, opening up similar avenues for conflict.

Finally, Bosnia-Herzegovina has experienced some of the most brutal conflict in the region. In the aftermath, London and Berlin worked hard to repair the country, launching brand new socio-economic reforms and leading it into its most constructive period in a decade. For example, the government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina has begun reforming the public finance sector to reduce the deficit and increase public revenues. Although it is in a transitional period, the government has, so far, stabilized the budget, increased short to long-term savings by $534 million, and reduced its debt by 1.4 percent. The country’s normally polarized elites have also passed new laws on labor and civil service, but they have yet to make changes in other areas, such as corruption and political patronage, which continue to weigh on the country’s economy, sparking mass riots two years ago. On top of this, Bosnia faces rigid divisions within its Serb, Bosniak Muslim, and Croat communities and some young people have been lured to Syria by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Brexit has exacerbated these problems since if the United Kingdom leaves, it will no longer be present at EU meetings. It may opt to discontinue financial support through its embassy in Sarajevo and, depending on what stance London will officially take after it elects a new government, it may not promote or encourage Balkan integration into the EU.

Meanwhile, Milorad Dodik, the mercurial president of the Serbian entity, Republika Srpska, has rejected the country’s endorsement of the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. This accord is the framework for Bosnia’s EU integration process. He claims that it would hurt Republika Srpska's agricultural sector, that it stands to lose $56 million. But in reality, Dodik’s refusal to cooperate over EU integration has more to do with the fact that allowing Brussels to straighten up the country might force him to accept certain realities he prefers to ignore. For example, the recently published 2013 census results indicate a possible increase in the Bosniak population. But Dodik has argued that the results wrongly reduced the size of Serbian population. On top of all this, Dodik continues to flirt with Moscow, as well as with the idea of Serbian independence, which would all but guarantee renewed conflict.

Although the Balkans have been the site of the EU’s most calamitous failures, Brussels had begun to use its leverage, namely membership into the union, to goad the country’s divided leaders into making important compromises. Brexit threatens to withdraw those gains. During this moment of shock and dismay, European leaders, and perhaps those in Washington too, need to roll out a bold new plan for Europe. Enlarging the union by finally extending a hand to the Balkans would be a good place to start.

  • EDWARD P. JOSEPH is Executive Director of the Institute of Current World Affairs and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC
  • SASHA TOPERICH is Senior Fellow and Director of the Mediterranean Basin Initiative at the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS at Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C. 
  • OGNEN VANGELOV is a PhD Candidate in Political Studies at Queen’s University in Canada and Canada Vanier Graduate Scholar. 
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