On Thursday, November 20, 2014, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) welcomed GMF’s Senior Advisor Sir Michael Leigh, GMF’s Senior Vice President of Programs Ivan Vejvoda, and Sciences Po Senior Research Fellow Jacques Rupnik for a roundtable discussion on the current state affairs in the Balkans entitled Unfinished Endeavors: The EU and the Western Balkans. Kyle Scott, a Senior Resident Fellow at GMF, moderated the discussion.
In his opening remarks, Scott described the breakup of Yugoslavia as “a wake-up call” for Europe on the difficulties of democratic transition, and emphasized the effects of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s declaration of “no further enlargement” on the political landscape of the Balkans. Vejvoda followed up optimistically, stating that the region’s general trajectory is good, maintaining that the Balkan’s proverbial “compass has remained pointed toward the EU and NATO.” Vejvoda contextualized Balkan efforts toward integration, pointing to Germany’s place “in the driving seat” of Balkan support and the economic crisis that has antagonized progress. Leigh supported Vejvoda’s positivity, declaring that the “basic dedication” to EU integration is still present in the Balkan countries, but erred on the side of caution, noting the “hopes of rapid improvement” have “sunk[en] on both sides” due to the monumental tasks of state building and “overcoming bilateral conflicts.” Additionally, Leigh soberly noted the general reluctance in the EU to expand, attributing this to feeling “burned by the last absorption” that occurred in 2004 and 2007 with the acceptance of nine Eastern European countries. He strongly suggested that the EU needed to educate the public about the benefits of expansion, which Leigh said is undersold and largely misunderstood by the public in Western Europe. Professor Rupnik agreed with the favorable outlook, observing that the region has not attracted news, and that this in itself is good news. He tempered this view by highlighting the ongoing tension between Serbia and Kosovo, stating that “nationalism doesn’t disappear.” While the EU is “the only game in town,” he said, it struggles with internal challenges that threaten external legitimacy, specifically with regard to the Ukraine crisis, Europe’s economic woes, and Greece’s refusal to recognize Macedonia. Rupnik stressed Leigh’s point on public opinion, which he claimed will continue to obstruct enlargement.
A question and answer session followed the speakers’ remarks, with Bosnia and Herzegovina prominently featured. Scott remarked on the irony of Bosnian politicians potentially be jailed under the reforms they would pass and Rupnik suggested the constitution should be changed, despite the stalemate over the status of Republika Srpska. In response to questions about bilateral conflicts as spoilers for EU integration, Leigh explained that EU integration was an agreement between sovereign states and that “it takes two to tango.” Rupnik echoed Leigh’s sentiment, describing the EU as “diffusion of nationalism” rather than “dissolution,” but acknowledged the paradox of the EU’s simultaneous roles as a builder of nation-states and a mitigator of nationalism.
All recognized the importance of successful EU integration for the Balkans, emphasizing the potential attractiveness of Russia in the face of unattainable membership in the EU and the limitations of the EU to solve the conflict between Macedonia and Greece. In spite of these hurdles, Scott concluded the discussion by positively assessing the EU’s current role as a “magnet” for the Balkan countries and its dedication to continued involvement in the region.