The idea was born on the Balkans. The current Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić had formulated it: Would not it be practical to unite the Balkan countries in a common economic area? This could be the first step toward EU accession. The EU quickly accepted the idea gratefully. At the Western Balkans Summit this Wednesday in Trieste, the fundamental decision was made.
In the Balkans half a dozen countries are pushing into the EU – but, in a deep crisis, the Union is busy with other things. Thus the customs union could also be a good instrument to gain time. The EU does not have to accept new members, but maintains its influence in the Balkans – where rival powers struggle for influence.
Croatia and Slovenia are now already in the EU. Montenegro, Serbia, and Albania are candidates for accession. Bosnia has applied for membership. Macedonia is trying to settle the eternal dispute over the country’s name with Greece, after which Athens will no longer block a Macedonian accession to the European Union. Kosovo also wants to enter the EU.
The times of the great expansions are over. The EU has also entered the crisis because it is difficult to control with 28 states. After to the Brexit, the inclusion of numerous new states in the Balkans seems difficult. A Balkan customs union attached to Brussels could be an emergency solution. Behind the scenes it has been discussed for years, as an instrument to defuse the eternal powder keg of the Balkans without having to expand the EU.
Economically, the Balkans is unimportant to Europeans. On the other hand, it is, as in the past, of central importance for European history. Where formerly alliances brought a little stability in the explosive mixture of nations between Belgrade and Skopje, Sarajevo and Tirana, today the hope of an EU accession is the guarantor of peace. Correspondingly, tensions are growing in the Balkans. EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn emphasizes time and again that the goal of the accession remains the same. It is the formula that “positive dependency” can help each other to defuse the ubiquitous ethnic tensions in the region.
Basically it would be a rebirth of the old Yugoslavia, though only as a customs and transport union. Minus Croatia and Slovenia, of course, which already belong to the EU. But with Albania. Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Macedonia – it would be a union of the poorer successor states of Yugoslavia. One can understand why Belgrade might like it. Serbia would be the focus in such a structure, to which everything would gravitate.
The disintegration of Yugoslavia left a vacuum
Just as Belgrade dominated Yugoslavia, it would shape this new Yugoslavia. Macedonia would no longer have to fear for its existence. It would finally be part of a larger alliance instead of alone and defenseless, surrounded by hostile neighbors: Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia, who are all of the opinion that Macedonia is not a real country, that it partly belongs to them, and that there are no Macedonians as such. Even in Bosnia, as part of such a union, they might be less afraid of falling apart one day.
As far as people are concerned, polls show that the disintegration of Yugoslavia is the one thing to be regretted by each of the successor republics, except perhaps Kosovo. The disintegration of Yugoslavia left a vacuum in the European power structure that has never been filled. Just as the disintegration of the Habsburg Empire once made Europe more fragile with Hitler taking advantage of the weakness of the dwarf states, the end of Yugoslavia has created a permanent conflict in the heart of Europe that has never been completely eradicated. Where Russia, Turkey, the USA, Germany, in short, the great powers play their game with the fire for geopolitical dominance.
The old Yugoslavia collapsed because of internal tensions, especially the rivalry between Serbs and Croats. A new Western Balkans Union would also be bipolar: eight million Serbians in Serbia and Bosnia, five million Albanians in Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia would dominate it and compete with and against each other.
Of course, it is not about the creation of a new state; such thoughts are basically as rash as the political fears and hopes of those affected. But, some may think, Germany also began as a customs union. And, of course, the EU itself, which today is very much concerned with political power relations and future visions.
Concretely, more than 30 bilateral treaties that deal with the trade relations of the various Western Balkan countries with the Europeans should be sorted out. To link them with a single treaty and a single agreement between a Western Balkan customs union and the EU would be a considerable simplification and could promote economic growth.
The fact that such a regional economic integration could also simplify and speed up EU accession is logical. Especially in relation to Kosovo, where the fears of such a Balkans Union are greatest.
A first step
But an EU membership for Kosovo suffers from the fact that it is not an independent state in the eyes of Serbia, but belongs to Serbia. There are similar problems programmed between the EU and Turkey in the Cyprus question – Turkey does not recognize the EU member Cyprus as a state because the island is divided and only the Greek part belongs to the EU.
In this respect one can understand Montenegro’s fears: the country has been the most advanced of all Balkan countries in its accession negotiations with the EU, and if a Balkan Customs Union ultimately became a substitute for full EU membership, the country would have the most to lose, However, for Kosovo, whose chances are the lowest, such a Union could be an opportunity to take at least a first step toward the EU. The Union will not be ready for further steps.
This article was first published in Die Welt.