Vucic’s plan B should become plan A – treat the EU as it treats you

The latest in the series of broken EU promises and failed EU initiatives stand in sharp contrast to the modest but constructive “mini-Schengen” agreement among Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania. This, not continued begging at Europe’s door, is a way forward for Albania and the south-of-the-border shards of the former Yugoslavia.

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By David B. Kanin

One would think the latest insult perpetrated by the European Union against Balkan peoples would put paid to the notion that the latter have no choice except to be grateful at the opportunity to leap into the potholes studding their so-called European paths. Indeed, some press and political commentary has expressed exasperation with the EU’s disunity and harmful behavior. However, other editorialists and the usual interviews of and never-ending meetings among European functionaries instruct disappointed Balkan supplicants to remain patient and continue to crawl toward EU membership. There is no question many European diplomats and Balkanists are sincere in their criticism of French President Macron for punishing North Macedonia and Albania for his pique with EU structural shortcomings, but their efforts at providing solace and encouragement do no one in southeastern Europe any good.

Regarding the Balkans, the European Union is not so much an enemy as an obstacle to stability and development. Europe’s masters look at the region as having the sole function of satisfying their need to deny the fact of Europe’s smallness. The entire European narrative is propelled by this denial – we once were great and powerful and you had to do what we told you to. Having stupidly destroyed ourselves in the wars of the twentieth century, we have learned our lesson and become wise and humane – so you still have to do as we instruct. Never mind the facts – and they are facts – that we are telling you to do as we say and ignore what we did, and that we really have no idea how communities in conflict can settle their scores without, eventually, fighting them out. We Europeans need you to obey our commands and swallow our insults because your only purpose in life is to enable us to believe in our own importance.

In short, the only “European paths” are the ones the French, Germans, Italians, and smaller members of the Club are on with signposts perpetuating a perverse nostalgia for Europe’s lost global influence and a teleological golden-days endpoint that keeps disappearing over the horizon. The Balkan politicians, public intellectuals, and self-selected members of “civil society” who sign onto this totemic secular mysticism are guilty of enabling Euro-entitlement and Balkan work avoidance.

The latest in the series of broken EU promises and failed EU initiatives stand in sharp contrast to the modest but constructive “mini-Schengen” agreement among Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania. This, not continued begging at Europe’s door, is a way forward for Albania and the south-of-the-border shards of the former Yugoslavia. Aleksandar Vucic’s initiative, however much the Eurocrats sniff at it, offers Balkan residents an opportunity not just to move more easily within their region, but to consider other practical improvements they can bring to their social, commercial, and cultural transactions – without the unnecessary and often disabling involvement of EU or American mediation. There is no question Vucic is channeling Aleksandar Obrenovic and Tito for the sake of his own reputation and it is clear this is only part of a security strategy that also includes a willingness to strike a deal with the Internationals over Kosovo. Nevertheless, his initiative provides Balkan societies with an opportunity to escape the exogenously constructed diplomatic treadmill they have been on and finally take responsibility for their own future.

Of course, the mini-Schengen idea will not solve the central security issues that will continue to set the table for possible future conflict if and when it is no longer the case that no one wants to go back to war. Kosovo’s sovereignty will remain contested, even if Washington is able to push both sides into an agreement. Bosnia-Herzegovina will remain congenitally dysfunctional, North Macedonia’s stability will depend on consociational cooperation between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians, and the broader question of political and social relations among Albanians throughout the southern Balkans will remain open. It is important to remember that all this will remain the case even if somebody puts something psychotropic into Europe’s drinking water and the EU grants membership to Balkan supplicants.

For this reason, the mini-Schengen idea could be expanded into a status-free zone in which each entity, whether universally recognized state or not, would participate in dialogue, debate, and negotiation. Kosovo, with or without the asterisk it made the mistake of accepting, the three component communities of Bosnia, smaller communities in all countries or entities, and perhaps even the sliver of people overhyped as civil society (as long as they get off their high horses and treat people who do not agree with them with respect) all would have a say along with the states. The overriding purpose would be to overcome the region’s hitherto indelible problem that outsiders find it easier to move into and out of the Balkans than those living in the Balkans do to move among points within it.

This would involve more than road and pipeline building, although infrastructure projects will remain a lot more useful than rhetoric around constitutions, political parties, transparency, rule of law and the catch-all slogan of “reform.” A mini-Schengen process could provide a forum for managing identity disputes as well as a conduit for improved regional transportation, communication, and commerce. The initiative could evolve into a structured, practical means of managing conflict, based on the recognition that any eventual, workable solution to border disputes, competition for jobs and resources, and sovereignty issues must contain an ethnic as well as civic component. Such a forum might usefully discard the fashionable academic and diplomatic aversion to people who maintain their family, religious, national, and communal loyalties.

Meanwhile, the blowback and sense of failure accompanying the French decision to block the EU accession processes of North Macedonia and Albania could lead Macron eventually to change his mind. Perhaps the Europeans will craft some figment that makes it appear the yellow-brick road to Europe has reopened. If so, Balkan membership candidates should take a page from Turkey, which sensibly chooses no longer to play along with EU teasing and dishonesty. The Balkan states – all of them – have worked to hit the moving targets of the accession process. Now it is the EU that must prove it is worth the attention of southeastern Europe. It, not the Balkan states, should be filling out some sort of Acquis and pleading for acceptance. And if Russia and China offer better deals, Balkans leaders should take them and not look back.

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).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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