The European Union is an obstacle to Balkan Development. The desire to get into the European Union is an even bigger obstacle.
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By David B. Kanin
Europe’s migrant/refugee crisis is out of hand. Every day, thousands of people desperate for a chance in life respond to Angela Merkel’s poorly thought-through invitation and join the million or so who have preceded them on the road to “Europe.” When they get there, social welfare workers and NGO specialists will see to their immediate needs and help them progress step-by-step toward their Oz-like image of the Germany Merkel has told them will welcome them. Some of these travelers have the money and training to plug into labor markets in Germany and a few other northern European countries. Others will have a more difficult time. All players in this drama are getting ready for winter. None have a clue what this drama is going to mean to themselves or to social fabrics in Europe and the Middle East. The powers-that-be in the EU appear ready to pay Balkan states to house many thousands of refugees in what they tell the region will be “temporary” shelters which – given the continuing inundation of the region by far more people than Merkel and the others have prepared for – may well be inadequate to the task. The locals would do well to remember how “temporary” have been the camps in which Palestinians have been languishing since the late 1940s. The future the EU is aiming at in the Balkans may end up looking more like Lebanon than “Europe.”
What is clear is that neither Merkel, other national authorities, the functionaries on the European Commission, nor any other EU mouthpieces are willing to take responsibility for the economic and social stresses affecting the countries the travelers trod through on their way to the promised land. Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban has taken a lot of flack from self-righteous politicians, activists, and pundits, but – one by one – his neighbors have adopted some version of measures he put in place to control the human flood. Fences, police, alternating efforts to rush people through or keep people out and other shifting expedients mark the actions of government in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria. Chancellor Merkel, attempting to shore up support in her political party for her teetering open border policy, warned that closing Germany’s border could lead to new Balkan wars – not exactly a helpful comment. For an example of more effective – and certainly more decisive – management of a somewhat similar people-moving problem, please read Anna Komnena’s account of the approach taken by her father, the Byzantine Emperor Alexios Komnenos to the arrival at Constantinople’s gates of the throngs taking part in the First Crusade.
One thing is clear. The EU is not going to be able to come to terms with this. Its authorities and spokespeople will continue to spew forth the default rhetoric they have been using in attempts to deflect attention from their failure to anticipate and manage crises breaking out at home and around the Mediterranean since 2008, but this fabric of words is wearing thin.
And yet, those southeastern European countries that are not yet members of the vaunted European Union still cling to their role as dutiful supplicants. They continue to let various nabobs preach the teleology of the EU’s coercive utopia, which consists of totems and taboos having more to do with “Europe’s” claim to global relevance than with any opportunity for a better Balkan or European future. Balkan elites seem not to have internalized the lesson provided by Turkey’s appropriate decision to drive a hard bargain with a “Europe” that continues to keep Ankara at arms length. The Turks refused to knuckle under to EU efforts to shift accountability for dealing with a problem that was made worse by Berlin to them and to the Greeks. It should be clear by now that the EU will attempt to force as many countries in Southeastern Europe as possible to take on increasing portions of the migrant/refugee load.
It is a shame regional rivalries, the weight of nationalist baggage, and disputes among politicians and patronage networks continue to prevent serious discussion of alternatives to the dead end that is the EU. Countries in the Balkans cannot win no matter how their membership applications work out. If they do not get in – or their applications are relegated to the indefinite future – their misdirected priority of getting into the Club will mark them as failures. If they do get in, they will relegate themselves to a permanent future as subalterns. Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Croatia are being consigned to a status something like the poorer parts of former Yugoslavia. The latter were recipients of proceeds from a federal fund meant to be for their benefit that served only to enrich local elites, frustrate populations in Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia, and anger donors in Slovenia, Croatia, and Vojvodina.
The default focus on getting into the EU permits Balkan politicians to avoid doing the work it would take to tackle their countries’ economic and social problems. Work avoidance enables these patronage bosses to maintain their focus on their personal wealth and on providing their supporters with good government and government-controlled jobs. The complicated process of moving toward an application, actually applying, and navigating the bureaucracy to obtain membership permits ministers to slough off responsibility for their countries’ futures on a European Union (and United States) eager to find people willing to treat them like great powers and to give orders like the hegemons they once were.
An alternative model for the future could be adapted from the history of proposals for a Balkan Union put forward by Serbian Prince Michael Obrenovic and Communist Chief Tito eighty or so years apart, from the record of Balkan conferences held between the World Wars, or even the idea mooted last spring to use a meeting in Craiova, Romania to form a new consultative group. Balkan states would begin to serve their societies if authorities look away from Brussels and Washington (and Moscow too) and discuss how to build the infrastructure and economic architecture for a common regional market. Obviously, this would not put to rest the communal, religious, and social rivalries that continue to weigh on the region. That would take politicians with the courage and vision to attack social inertia head on and to forge cross-border policies designed to enable regional development without regard for instructions from international overseers. But a serious, sustained effort to create a better material future in a regional context might establish a habit of constructive engagement and a willingness to take a chance on accepting responsibility for decisions and policies.
In the meantime, more refugee/migrants are on their way – the EU estimates the number could reach 3 million by 2017. Good luck with that.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).