IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2009


Panorama: The Mediterranean Year

Economy and Territory

Culture and Society


EU Presence in the Balkans: 2008 and the Promise of Europeanisation

Gerald Knaus

European Stability Initiative, Istanbul

At the EU Thessaloniki summit in summer 2003 the prospect of full EU membership was held out to the countries of the Western Balkans. Since then, some policymakers and analysts have assumed that the main question was not if, but when, the region would become part of a democratic and prosperous Europe. As Elizabeth Pond wrote in her book Endgame in the Balkans,

“The EU process of tutoring, hectoring, and funding candidates for membership has implanted hope in today’s parents for the prospects of their children –and this in a transatlantic atmosphere of cooperation rather than strife. The Weberian politics of drilling through hard wood proceeds, millimetre by millimetre. […] In their attempt to escape from the nineteenth into the twenty-first century the Balkans are already light-years away from what the most optimistic observers foresaw in 1995 or 1999, or even 2004.”

Although the Balkans’ recent past is full of tragedies (from Srebrenica in 1995 to the Kosovo war in 1999, from state collapse in Albania in 1996 to interethnic warfare in Macedonia in 2001), this (optimistic) view seems to hold; at least the future is certain and full of promise. Social progress, in other words, is irreversible.

The implication for policy-makers (and civil society activists) is that the most efficient way to advance the cause of democratization and social development is to help countries make progress towards EU accession. While EU membership clearly does not solve all of society’s problems –a look at today’s European Union easily dispels such illusions– it does provide a credible guarantee that the future will be different from the tragic past of the 1990s.

How plausible is this vision today, however, against a background of EU enlargement fatigue and a global economic crisis? And even if the overall vision of stabilising the Western Balkans through EU accession remains plausible as a medium-term objective, then what does it imply for policy-making in the interim –a period that is almost certain to last more than a decade, and possibly two?

There are also some who argue that in fact little has truly changed in the region. In this alternative (pessimistic) vision, which downplays the importance of a “European perspective,” the countries of the Western Balkans appear not that different from the fragile semi-democracies of the South Caucasus. European –yes, but also peripheral and with no credible accession perspective in the short term; a post-conflict region –yes, but also potentially pre-conflict, as some core status issues remain unresolved; fledging market economies –perhaps, but structurally weak, uncompetitive, highly dependent on remittances (what with unemployment rates often above 20%) and extremely vulnerable to any global economic downturn. 

In fact, neither the optimistic vision (which sees the Balkans riding the EU conveyor belt towards democratic prosperity) nor the pessimistic one (which sees the region as a perpetual powder keg) is useful when it comes to analysing the choices ahead. This much became obvious from events in the region in 2008. The Balkans have changed –and while it is not Central Europe, it is not the South Caucasus either.

A different axis for debate is necessary. For a better understanding of the Balkans in 2008, six points must be addressed: demilitarisation, status issues, (not) catching up, EU accession in the medium term, isolation and the credibility of the EU perspective. 

Demilitarisation of Politics

The Western Balkan region is today largely demilitarised. The notion of armed conflict to advance political agendas is no longer a credible threat to stability. Montenegro abolished conscription and destroyed the tanks inherited from the Yugoslav army following independence. Bosnia and Herzegovina abolished conscription in 2006 and now has one professional army instead of three (previously largely ethnic) conscript armies. Macedonia’s professional army has made a successful effort to increase recruitment of minorities, both Albanians and Turks. Croatia and Albania have both joined NATO. Serbia, whose military was at war with NATO in 1999, has seen significant reform of its armed forces. Until recently, military service was the essential component of (male) identity among young adults. A profound but often ignored shift towards a more civilian identity has taken place: for the first time in centuries young Montenegrins, Bosnians and Albanians are no longer trained how to fight and kill.

Without necessarily having an in-depth knowledge of EU institutions citizens of all these countries, and thus those of Serbia, know that the EU, while imperfect as other human constructs, gives its citizens that additional increment of security, prosperity and certainty

Arguably, this is the most important achievement of the past decade. It is certainly the basis on which a different future can be built. Problems like the lack of full freedom of movement for different ethnic groups within their own countries, opposition to the return of displaced persons, and challenges of physical reconstruction and demilitarisation –all widespread a few years ago in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo or Macedonia– have been overcome. The post-war period has largely come to an end in southeast Europe –unlike the South Caucasus, where armed conflict remains a very real threat.

Status Issues

In Kosovo, recognition of national independence by some but not all Balkan states and EU Member States has fallen short of settling the region’s most intractable status issue. For now, therefore, EU accession and regional integration are not even a credible medium-term vision for the poorest member of the Balkan family.

It now appears as if a confused EU policy has merely succeeded in re-labelling the different aspects of the Kosovo problem without seriously addressing them. Independence day has come and gone, but few issues in Kosovo have actually been settled –from the future role of United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to the future borders of Kosovo to the question whether Kosovo has any meaningful European perspective. This uncertainty exists against the background of a deeply worrying social and economic situation. Until there is a joint European stance on the issue of Kosovo’s status, the EU has nothing to offer to citizens of Kosovo beyond the status quo, and it can only hope that Kosovars will not start looking for alternatives to a European future for their country in the meantime.

(Not) Catching Up

In recent years a number of experts have argued that high growth rates in Western Balkan economies are evidence that the region is beginning to catch up with the rest of Europe following a period of disastrous social and economic decline in the 1990s. 

It is far from certain, however, whether this process is already underway, or whether it can continue under current conditions. Real unemployment rates in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia were above 20% even before the onset of the current global economic crisis. The structure of exports shows that the region remains far from being integrated into European production networks. Weak governance and a continuing image problem continue to bedevil real development in the Balkans. Poor education systems remain a real problem in parts of the region.

EU Accession Remains a Medium-Term Goal for the Region

One of the most dispiriting facts for pro-reform elites in the region is the distance that still separates their countries from the rest of Europe. Even in the best of worlds it would take more than a decade for Serbia or other Western Balkan countries to become EU members. But the fact that as of spring 2009 some Western Balkan states (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, and of course Kosovo) have still not submitted an application for EU membership shows how distant the goal of accession remains.

TABLE 1 The “Realist Scenario” for EU Accession

Bulgaria Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina
1993Association Agreement2008
1995Membership application2009
1997Candidate status2011
2000Opening negotiations2014
2004Closing negotiations2018

Even the scenario above might appear overly optimistic for some of the Western Balkan countries. Macedonia signed its Association Agreement in 2001. Bosnia, meanwhile, had to wait another seven years. Most EU Member States, in fact, do not expect Bosnia to make progress towards achieving candidate status in the near future –some are actually discouraging the Bosnian government from submitting an application for EU membership in the near future. An EU perspective that remains so distant is unlikely to motivate leaders to make painful compromises.

The Region Remains Isolated –Though This May Be about to Change

On the eve of the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari told the International Herald Tribune (IHT), “A clear signal of European commitment to the region would be if the EU would ease and then lift the visa regime, as it did with Croatia. At present, visas make travel from the region to the European Union difficult.” Since then six years have passed. Others have repeated Ahtisaari’s call. In the meantime, however, the people of the Western Balkans, aside from Croatia, have become not less but more isolated –more so, in fact, than at any previous point in their history. (Only Albania was more isolated under its peculiar form of communism.) The isolation of southeast Europe has undermined progress in many fields. It has also contributed to cynicism about the “European future” of the region.

Table 2 is an overview of selected countries out of the Henley Visa Restrictions Index –Global Ranking 2006. It shows the number of countries to which people from a particular region can travel without a visa: while a Finn can travel freely to 130 countries and a Romanian to 73, a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina can only visit 25.

TABLE 2 Number of Countries to Which Passport Holders Can Travel without a Visa

Country of originNumber of visa-free destination countries
Serbia and Montenegro32
Bosnia and Herzegovina25

Recent EU enlargement has added to the problem, making it more difficult for a Serb, for example, to travel to neighbouring Bulgaria, Romania or Hungary. Despite European rhetoric to the contrary, the recent trend has been negative.

At the same time, visa facilitation is an area where 2009 might still see substantial progress. For the first time since 1991 there is a credible prospect that the EU might lift the visa requirement for some of the countries of the Western Balkans. This would go some way towards addressing another critical point: the credibility of the EU membership perspective.

The European Perspective Matters –But Only if It Is Believed

In 2006, on the eve of Romania’s accession to the EU, Romanian analyst Alina Mungiu Pippidi wrote,

“The existence of a European option prevented Romania from staying as Albania or regressing to become a new Belarus […]. More than any constitutional or electoral law, European integration and the prospect of accession to the EU have shaped Romanian politics, and it is in this challenging environment that Europe achieved its largest success to-date. Romania’s transition may have seemed long and strenuous for Romanians, but from Ceausescu’s snipers and Iliescu’s vigilante miners to the signing of the Accession Treaty with the EU [it] has taken only fifteen years.”

For most of the transition period, Romania was governed by ex-communist Ion Iliescu and his parties. During the first six years, Iliescu and company allowed several former communist organisations to maintain and consolidate their positions.

The European Commission’s 2004 regular report complained of a secret service in the Ministry of Justice. “This service –the Independent Service of Protection and Anti-Corruption– is fully staffed by former Securitate officers and was still spying on judges in 2004. It had its powers trimmed only in 2005.” The first years after the fall of communism proved difficult, with an unreformed political elite (led by the Party of Social Democracy in Romania/Social Democratic Party, or PDSR/PDS) –its roots in the powerful apparatus of the communist party– holding the reins. The turning point in Romania’s reform story was December 1999, when EU leaders, meeting in Helsinki, decided to open real accession talks with Romania.

“In Romania, Iliescu tried an in-between approach in the first years of the transition and failed. Policy changed only after 2000, with the PDSR/PDS agreeing to keep the economy open to competition and foreign investment, in other words, to continue the policy of the previous CDR government.”

“By 1999, two-thirds of Romanians still thought that communism had been a good idea badly put into practice. […] Politics changed importantly after Romania applied for EU membership, and furthermore, after it was granted ‘candidate’ status in 1999. This meant that tutorship from Brussels had become acceptable even for the PDSR.”

In the end the EU accession process brought about a dramatic transformation:

“The prospect of accession to the EU opened the door for a new type of political change, a change pushed from below but taking advantage of external conditionality, necessary in a society where powerful people remained above the law.”

Is this also a credible vision for change in the Western Balkans? After 1999 the notion that Romania had a genuine chance to join the EU was essential for the transformation to work. Mungiu-Pippidi argued that the public desperately wanted Romania to join “Europe.” The country’s “laggard status” was bitterly resented. “The PDSR/PSD [Iliescu’s party] needed the Romanian economy to become successfully integrated with the European one, and after securing their domestic domination, seeking European recognition was their next important objective. Romania’s former communists have been genuinely convinced of the EU and its advantages.”

In today’s Western Balkans –with leaders and voters becoming growingly sceptical of an EU membership perspective– such ideas do not resonate as well as they did in the Romania of the late 1990s. At the same time, no alternative vision to mobilise broad-based social and institutional change has emerged. 

This raises the prospect that parts of the Western Balkan region may remain in limbo for some time to come, caught between a post-conflict past and an uncertain European future, burdened by high unemployment and weak institutions, and (in the worst case scenario) isolated from the rest of the world. Complacency, based on a belief in the all-curing potential of European integration, is not warranted, particularly when the EU itself has not offered countries like Serbia or Bosnia a sufficiently credible membership perspective –or, as in Kosovo’s case, failed to articulate any perspective whatsoever. Even if a return to conflict appears implausible, this alone does not ensure a path towards stability.


Mungiu-Pippidi, Alina. “Europeanisation without Decommunization: A Case of Elite Conversion” in Phinnemore, David (ed.). The EU & Romania. Accession and Beyond. Federal Trust for Education and Research, p. 17-28, p. 22 and 25, 2006.