The Balkans: No War in Sight
The Balkans have been making headlines again since last year’s escalation of the refugee crisis. Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking recently to her fellow party members, warned that a closing of borders in Europe, specifically between Germany and Austria, could lead to conflict and war in the Balkans. This statement had multiple addressees: the German public as well as coalition partners, who were being warned what a collapse of the Schengen open-border regime could bring about internally as well as in the immediate European neighborhood. Her speech was also a warning to the leaders and states in the Balkans to cooperate rather than fall prey to mutual recriminations.
In concert with the EU, Germany is muddling through this crisis. For the moment there is a worrisome lack of a much needed, unified strategic approach to everything from asylum policies and relocation schemes to enhanced external EU border controls. The Western Balkans constitute only one piece of this complex puzzle. The clear and immediate goal is to stem the flow of refugees and migrants and to keep them in the vicinity of the countries from where they have fled, be they in the Middle East or Africa. The eradication of the root cause in the Middle East is badly needed but nowhere in sight.
Geography and geopolitics matter. The Balkans are not the periphery, as is sometimes said; they are the inner courtyard of the European Union, surrounded by EU and NATO member-states. This Southeastern European peninsula – the Western Balkans – remains the last non-integrated part of Europe. This is unfinished business for the EU and a serious test for its credibility. If the EU is unable to help spur the enlargement process to the Western Balkans, it is hard to grasp how capable it is in dealing with other challenges.
The EU Summit in Thessaloniki in June 2003 opened the pathway to full membership for the Balkan countries. All have committed to both EU and NATO integration (except, at the moment, Serbia when it comes to NATO). Only Croatia has made it into both NATO and the EU; the others are moving toward this goal, some clearly with great difficulty – in particular Macedonia (largely due to its dispute with Greece over its name) and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Montenegro, Serbia and Albania have achieved candidate status and the first two are already negotiating their entry.
Excerpt from article published on the February 2016 issue.