Europe's Balkan dilemma

FT World Weekly


Today, we're looking at the Balkans, an area that dominated international attention twenty years ago after the wars in Bosnia and Kossovo. But it slipped from the headlines in recent years. Joining me to discuss the region, and at some certain prospects are the T euro penatta, Ben home, an Fokin correspondent, Valerie Hopkins. Ben the F T this morning described the Balkans as the most volatile region in Europe. Why would he say that? Because historically, it has been a region that has been full tired of by competing power blocks. You know, the ultimate empire the Austro-Hungarian empire the Russian empire and that has left kind of overlapping, national, and ethnic and religious divisions. And we are still living with the legacy of that, and sort of overlaid by an incomplete transition to democracy and the rule of law after communism and. Then probably on top of all of that you have corruption. It's deeply rooted. So Ben before we continue. Let's just define the region. How big is it? And how significant so we're talking about the western Balkans region roughly twenty million people about the population of the Netherlands, but with a really tiny economy, about the size of Slovakia's. And we're talking about Serbia Montenegro Bosnia Herzegovina Albania, north Macedonia, and Kosovo, of course. So it's a pretty small number of people with a pretty small combined GDP. It's not significant, but it's always been a source of instability as we've known for the last century. Valerie, Ben referred to this as a kind of incomplete process and some of the countries in the regions, maybe all of them have hurt. The delta Modeste nation will be joining the EU I'm thinking, particularly of north Macedonian Albanian, but they're finding very hard. Yes. Well, that's true. They've been hoping to join but also the e u has been hoping for them to join I mean for the first time this was articulated in two thousand three in there. I e you some. In Thessaloniki, all of the countries of the western Balkans were promised a credible path to accession we're given unequivocal support from the Member States and one year ago after north miss Adonia and underwent quite comprehensive changes north Macedonia, to its name, and two other reforms and L Bainian committing to a very onerous judicial reform were promised that they would get a green light this year. And as we saw yesterday that decision was punted again, for a couple of months, at least until October and from their point of view, how much of a disastrous. Well, it's quite a big disaster. I mean, enormous Adonia which recently changed its name in order to end a decades long conflict with Greece over their name, which Athens believed implied territorial desire over the Greek region of the same name, the whole public support for the agreement and public support for the government is riding on the guarantees towards progress towards the EU that are written into that. So north Macedonia, has moved forward in terms of its NATO membership. Several countries, I think, have already ratified the NATO accession protocol for them. But, you know, the European Union membership is what the public really wants and at a certain point, it may become untenable for the leaders of the country to stay in power if they can't deliver on what was promised them, and that would be a disaster for them. And for Europe. Yeah. Mean Ben you've been pretty critical of the youth decision. What's the argument for saying the eaves being sources that it had a unique? Novo paternity to put these two countries move firmly on the path of judgement. EU rules values and sort of binding them into the EU orbit, we have to remember that sort of enlargement process. If you just put aside the various problems that we've experienced over the is in the grand sweep of history. It's been a remarkable success for the EU it stabilized the region, it's brought prosperity and it's dissolved the division between eastern western Europe and the argument just to recap for those who don't totally recall took the EU from what fifteen countries to now. Twenty eight to twenty eight. Yeah. And so, in argument is probably the most effective European Union foreign policy, and it has helped put countries on the right path, and stabilize democracy and promote reform and promote the rule of law. But perhaps there are now plenty of people in the EU think we've reached the end of that process and the legacy problems from previous enlargements have come back to haunt the EU. Maybe the enlargement the accession process was not rigorous. Enough. And so now there are plenty of people who are having second thoughts about it. Yeah. And I mean just to play devil's advocate, I suppose if you are European politician, you will say, well, sure the future of these countries matters, but as he was saying Elliott's twenty million people in the, you have the rise of populists across Europe and places like France, the Netherlands, Britain's voted for Brexit. And it doesn't appear that accession to countries like, oh, near is popular. So perhaps that wise, not to do it quite possibly. But I mean, I think the calculation has to be how long can you keep these countries on the path to accession without ever actually giving them accession at the end of the day? And that solvency something that the EU has tried with Turkey and it's backfired arguably spectacularly, although you could also blame premise, Erta one, perhaps originally topper one for the kind of backsliding in democracy, and the sort of drift away from the European mainstream, in Turkey, but I mean that is clearly the calculation it would be good for Europe if. If Albany could be put on the path to membership even if it never actually meets the criteria to join fully, and you mentioned Obama. Valerie back from there. Give us a description of where the country is in terms of its economy, and its politics because when I was growing up out, mania was like the most isolated place. It was North Korea Europe. And the idea that it might even be close to joining the paean union in some ways, seems miraculous. Well, indeed, it is. And it's quite far off. But I think, you know, to build on what Ben said many Member States have grown tired of the process and have learned that they need to impose further and further restrictions. We see that many of the countries that have joined in recent decades still have problems with their judicial systems. So we're talking countries like Romania Bulgaria, yes, Hungary. If I may say, so the conditions and the demands that Brussels and the Member States have made on countries, which are hoping to join have actually become much more onerous Albania, my story that I did while I was in Toronto was about the extremely onerous. Writing process that all judges, and prosecutors are being subjected to which has left. The country's supreme court with only two judges. One of them I think is being vetted this week. So it may have only one judge so far, only one judge survived because the two tional court, I believe, has only one judge, which is actually quite stabilizing, on the political. See now as the parliament has moved to impeach the president for calling early elections. And no one in the court can judge on this. I don't wanna get too deep into their politics. But I would like to say to that Albanian has also accepted to host the first FrontEx mission FrontEx being the US Border police agency because during the two thousand fifteen migrant crisis, the EU sort of realized woke up and remembered that actually all of these countries in the Balkan route are inside of Europe that if you have weak states week, police weakens to, to Sion's at that will have consequences for the security and safety of the rest of the block. So there should be more interest in improving those institutions and the best way to do it all. Of the academic work that's been done in the Balkans shows that the carrot of enlargement, and of a real credible accession path is the best way to inspire reforms, but how is the economy doing? And how connected is opening to the rest of Europe, now compared to those days of isolation. I mean silly, anecdote but, you know, I come across our Bainian in London now buildings around the corner. So to some extent, they seem to have been integrated little bit. Well, absolutely. I mean, quite a significant portion of Albanians left the country in the nineties jobs, better opportunities. And I think it's rare to meet now lenient who doesn't speak at least two or three languages. But now, people are coming back business ties between mania and especially Italy, Switzerland UK are very strong and the economy's growing, I think actually in the Balkans. The economies are growing much faster than the EU average about four five percent. They still have a long way to go to catch up, but there's quite a lot of vitality and what about this issue of organized crime, which is thrown at all the countries in the Balkans. But I think particularly. Albania for those sitting in Brussels or elsewhere, saying, do we really want country in that condition inside the EU, how serious is the problem? Well, it is a serious problem. And it you know, it also goes to show that again you can't separate the Balkans. Even with the Albania or north as Donio, anyone not being inside of the EU criminals will always find a way to engage in their activity. It seems to me in some of my discussions with police dodges prosecutors that sometimes this threat is overblown. For instance, the Dutch parliament, several weeks ago passed a Bill asking their government to withdraw visa-free travel for all Baynes, dude organised crime. And then when you go and inject a Dutch officials, they say actually, this is not necessarily for violent crime. A lot of people are trying to get on both. Maybe they're trying to come to the UK but actually they're not necessarily being arrested for trafficking in drugs, or persons Ben turning to the other country. We were talking about north Macedonia that I suppose, makes the point that this is also still an issue. To some extent, war and peace. I mean they had extremely tense relations with Greece for sometime. Yes. They have done over the dispute over the name after the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. And that, of course, has prevented Macedonia, north Macedonia is now 'cause integration into the Atlantic community, the NATO. So I mean, it really was a huge that Ford when Zorn's Iovan Alexis, it press the Greek premier achieve this deal, and it still highly contentious in Greece. And we have a general election next month in Greece, where you are likely to see the return of a center, right? New democracy led government and new democracy has been very, very critical of the naming deal with north Macedonia. It remains to be seen whether they will actually go as far as to block their entry, but I suspect Athens will be a lot less accommodating in the future than it has been over the last couple of years. And if I recall correctly at the time, there was some evidence, which the Cyprus government acted on the Russian espionage Intel. Emergence agencies trying to stoke up opposition to the north Macedonia settlement does that raise. Also, I suppose a subsidiary issue, but crucial one which affects Europe's judgment, which is that to the extent that this area is not integrated with the rest of the EU becomes the sort of floating space. And there is no evidence that not just the Russians but also the Turks and even the Chinese are taking an interest in the western Balkans. Absolutely. I suspect it's possible to maybe overplay, the extent of Russian influence, although it has been substantial an acute in some places such as the authentic your and Montenegro and this attempt to stoke up resistance to the referendum on the name changed Illinois with Macedonia, which the Greeks are pro Russian country, actually expelled him Russian diplomats accusing the spine. The Turks are obviously increasingly involved in Bosnia to governor, and Albanian in Kosova, and the. Please spot an opportunity to extend their influence through commerce and through infrastructure spending. So, yeah, we're replaying centuries of history where this region has been kind of plaything for the great powers. And of course, I suppose it's easier for Europe to ignore to the extent that these above Ling cute problems, but lots of problems as long as it doesn't actually break out into violence. Now I mentioned at the beginning of the program that the broad or can region. We were at war twenty years ago is there danger of the old conference coming bubbling back. Or is it more that we're talking about serious, but subsidiary issues of people flows economic crises organized crime, and so on, is there danger of real all while I think you'd be foolish to rule out the danger of a return to conflict in this area in the sense that forty years ago, you might have done the same thing but history has shown how quickly this place can erupt into. James, and I suspect that remains although I'm sure it has reduced in the last ten twenty years, and there is more at stake for the region's inhabitants. If they have a clear path to e membership, which will bring guarantees of security, and better economic prospects. And the end of the day, I have the firm feeling that it's often corrupt politicians who have their own economic interests at heart, who are perpetuating the kind of ethnic divisions in this region. More than popular convictions. And Valerie euro correspondent on the ground. So how stable or unstable does it seem to you? Well, I do agree with Ben that seemingly innocuous crisis can escalate. And I think that in most of the countries, you really do have this kind of boiling, the frog situation where I is correspondent struggle with sometimes seemingly small jumps in a story, actually could carry larger consequences later. But I think rather than conflict, the major risk is just that the country will empty out with people losing hope. That they will be able to create a better life for their children and grandchildren. For instance, in Bosnia, which is a population of three and a half million in the last three or four years. I think two hundred thousand people left since January some thirty thousand people have already left the country. And that's when I talked to people, it's really a matter of losing hope that they will join the European Union and have a better life. So these countries will suffer catastrophic demographic decline. And western Europe will find if they didn't integrate them, they'll show up on the doorsteps. Well, many of them, actually are getting jobs in western Europe, which are empty, you know, these are educated workers doctors dentists health worker, social workers, so it's not the same as migrant crisis. Most of them are going legally with work permits, but they're leaving their home countries for good. Okay. We'll, we'll have to leave it. Thank you very much indeed, to buttery Hopkins in the studio and to Ben holes. Well that's it for this week until next week. Goodbye.

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