The EU’s historic role in why Western Balkans enlargement is stuck

Watch this short talk between Ivan Vejvoda and me to get an idea of what I am working on:

Many people agree that the European Union’s enlargement process is flawed. As a consequence, none of the aspiring EU members meets their targets on the path to membership on time and some do not meet them at all. Simultaneously, a number of unwanted side effects occur, such as growing anti-EU sentiment or re-orientation of some states towards other global powers. While in one way or another this is true for all aspiring members, the EU’s disappointment with this situation seems to be particularly big in the case of the Western Balkans. The European Union’s stake in this region seems to be either higher or sometimes more personal than with e.g. Ukraine or Turkey. At least this is the impression you get when you listen to European leaders talking on the subject. One explanation would be that the cultural and historic experience with the Western Balkans ties us to them more strongly than to other countries. This is often framed in a nostalgic way that talks about the Habsburg Empire or the diplomatic relationships of Tito’s Yugoslavia with European states. 

However, the European Union is historically tied to the Balkans in more ways than it wants to admit. While Europeans spent a lot of money, time and energy to improve life the region for decades, it is equally true that Europeans made decisions that affected the Western Balkans negatively, too. The most drastic example is the inability or unwillingness to prevent the genocide in Bosnia in the 90s. At the same time, there is a notion within EU Europe that the Balkans need to overcome their past and focus on the future. It is almost as if Europe had never learnt that without coming to terms with the past, there cannot be a healthy development of society towards a better future. Another example would be the European Union’s continuous support for Balkan leaders who are leaning towards autocracy or who are actively dismantling liberal democracy while faking EU values in front of a European audience.

The European Union is without doubt a peace project unprecedented in history. Nevertheless, it has never been perfect in its track record regarding peace. The EU as an international organisation or the individual member states have had active roles in a number of violent conflicts ever since WWII ended and the organisation as a whole neglected its duty to prevent horrible things from happening in other instances. However, when European history is discussed in the context of the European Union, it is usually mainly about how the treaties were negotiated, how the European institutions developed, and about the vision of the leaders who envisaged the European Union. There are pages missing from the European history book and this creates vulnerabilities for the European Union. Arguably, the approach of not dealing with its own role, interests and past with the Western Balkans could be seen as having a negative impact on the enlargement policy the European Union is pursuing today. 

Ignoring the times when the European Union already existed but failed to make an impact in a way that fulfils the promise of the EU as a peace project is also very likely to be detrimental to the further development of the Union, its institutions and decision-making processes itself. Also, pretending that there were no mistakes in the past diminishes the credibility of the EU as a peace project. 

This project intends to fill in some of the missing pages in the history of the European Union for the benefit of both the EU and the Western Balkans. Empathy and a conscious approach towards the EU’s own role in addition to legitimate efforts to defend EU interests in the Balkans with peaceful means could be a small positive contribution to the enlargement process and a deeper understanding between the member states and the aspiring members in the region.

This project is made possible by the Europe’s Futures Fellowship, a joint initiative of the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM) and the Erste Foundation.