Since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, political and economic relations between the UK and the western Balkan countries have been framed by, and harmonised with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and its Common Security and Defence Policy. This might be about to change.
On the 23rd of June, UK voters will head to the polls, deciding on whether or not to remain in the European Union. The results will have huge ramifications. This piece examines through a series of scenarios, the possible impact a ‘Brexit’ might have on the western Balkan (WB) nations’ (already slim) chances of accession to the European Union.
The first set of scenarios examines two possible results of a ‘remain’ vote’s triumph.
The first scenario shows the EU shaken by this ‘near miss’ entering into another introverted period of reflection. Noting the rise of populist right-wing, often anti-EU sentiment across the continent, officials representing their governments in the various institutions take steps to ensure the EU’s survival by re-aligning with their conservative, anti-immigration base. Subsequently, all accessions are put on hold and enthusiasm for accession dies still further in Brussels and in the populace of the WB countries. The fact that the EU lives on as a powerful, political and economic entity on whom the WB nations rely for trade would however, forestall the onset of any real/dangerous instability.
Alternatively in the second scenario, the near miss provokes a period of reflection which encourages a more proactive approach. The euphoria of surviving such a near miss prompts a re-commitment to its more positive principles and a determination to succeed and grow. Subsequently, the EU re-invigorates the process of enlargement and the western Balkan countries make rapid progress towards accession.
The second set of scenarios consider the possible results of a UK vote to leave the EU.
The third scenario reads much like the last. Shaken by a Brexit the EU unites, re-commits to broadening and deepening. The accession process is sped up to project a message of confidence and to secure the region even more firmly under its own influence. The fact that the UK’s voice is missing from the choir will make little difference to the governments and the people in the western Balkans. In the likelihood that the incoming post-Brexit government is one lead by a right-wing that has stated it will abolish foreign aid, UK input into the region would drop sharply. As the UK tries to re-assert itself on the international stage, it will chase ties with India, China, Russia and the US and the WB may well altogether disappear from its strategic map. This would be of little consequence to the WB countries however, should EU accession remain a realistic goal.
The fourth and last scenario is a more complex, more worrying domino effect. Looking across the continent from Estonia to France, the Right is on the rise. In Estonia, the anti-EU, right-wing EKRE is the country’s 3rd most popular political party. Recent reports show that a ‘Swexit’ is considered a possibility as the Swedish, always fairly Eurosceptic, watch their British counterparts across the narrow North Sea. In Slovakia, the EU hating, bona-fide Neo Nazi Marian Kotleba’s “Our Slovakia” took its first seats in Parliament. Across the border in Hungary, Orban’s hostility to the Union is also well documented. The Islamophobe Geert Wilders, happily championing the notion that the EU is finished, is Holland’s most popular politician and his party leads in the Dutch polls. He is promising an immediate Dutch exit of the union should he win. Then there are Austria and France. Le Pen and Strache, both knocking at the doors of power, with widely established anti-EU credentials, are increasingly appearing together in public, supporting a Brexit and advocating a ‘patriotic spring’ for Europe. In Germany, the right-wing Alternative for Germany, an anti-immigration, anti-EU party is currently the country’s 3rd most popular party.
In this last scenario then, a Brexit leads to Swexit, an Estxit, a Frexit etc, until the Union either dies, or re-emerges as something vastly different. Right-wing governments sweep to power everywhere, returning to realism, bilateral relationships and geopolitical hardball, with Germany dominant amidst them all. The possibility of accession will vanish for the WB countries, who will be cut adrift and amidst uncertainty and instability. The Orthodox countries will pivot relatively painlessly (for their leaders at least) towards Russia, who will jump at the chance to increase its influence in the region. Kosovo’s status will become a flashpoint once more, but with Belgrade backed by Moscow the point will be moot. Real problems will arise in Bosnia, as Dodik will certainly press for secession from BiH, leading the RS either to independence or to Serbia. It is unlikely the new Europe would put up any resistance to such a move, as the ground for this has already been laid with the French National Front, who are already on good terms with Dodik. From Vienna, Strache has backed Dodik and the RS’ right to self-determination, whilst in return Dodik has urged the diaspora to vote for the FPOe.
And to where would the Muslim population turn? Repulsed by the wave of Islamophobia in Europe, faced with break-up of their countries and the final triumph of Serb nationalism in Bosnia, the only option might be to seek support from other Islamic nations. The results of this might well be very positive, even desirable for Balkan Muslims – and in itself need not equate to a rise in violence and extremism – in the context of a wave of continent-wide instability however, the odds of such situations remaining peaceful are quite low.
In conclusion: scenario-generation pieces such as this are more often than not, wrong. Indeed, it is to be hoped that most of these scenarios are wrong in every aspect, because if not, more heartbreak will lie ahead for the region’s population.
Those in policy community and academia who hope for a better future for the western Balkans will have to seriously recalibrate their basic assumptions and approaches. In a climate of ever increasing xenophobia, Islamophobia, nationalism, anti-Semitism (also increasingly rearing its ugly head) and general insecurity, it will become increasingly difficult to counter the wave of volatile racism. Standing up to this tide can have consequences. The broken body of an internationalist, pro-Immigration, pro-EU British MP, left lying in the street of a small British town is testament to that.