Westlessness: Lessons from the Western Balkans

The EU’s interventions in the Western Balkans succeed only when key member states and the US act strategically and pull in the same direction.

This year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC) coincided with several big anniversaries. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier mentioned two of them in his opening speech: the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations and the 30th anniversary of the reunification of Germany. In their own ways, both anniversaries symbolise the post-war period of multilateralism and Western cohesion, an era that many fear may be ending.

Another anniversary – one that carries its own lessons concerning the importance of cooperation between Western countries – will take place in November this year. The 25th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement marks a quarter-century of practical experience in American-European cooperation on post-conflict stabilisation and institution-building in the Western Balkans.

During the MSC, I heard repeatedly that the European Union must not miss the opportunity to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania at the European Council meeting in March, and thereby pick low-hanging fruit. It is true that interventions in the Western Balkans have been more successful than those in the Middle East and north Africa, where the challenges and regional hegemons’ leverage vis-à-vis Europe and the United States are exponentially greater.

Yet Western powers’ overall track record in the Western Balkans in the past two decades shows that breakthroughs on political stabilisation and institutional reforms have been rare, short-lived, and generally achieved during times of crisis. Indeed, crises have had a major role in facilitating successful interventions, helping refocus US and EU political attention on the region, and justify a stronger push for reforms. Importantly, these efforts yielded success only when key EU member states and the US acted strategically and pulled in the same direction.

Why has success been sporadic in a region with so much low-hanging fruit? In a nutshell, because – with the exception of a few reformist leaders who took the stage recently – established political elites in the region have a vested interest in maintaining state capture and more durable policy objectives than external actors, whose overall commitment and focus is significantly weaker. This is also why the EU framework on its own was never enough to incentivise local political elites to comply with reform requirements. Instead, this always required a complementary political push by the US or leading EU member states, even when the reforms were officially defined and legitimised as accession conditionality. Success was greatest when they all worked together through the informal Quint group, which includes Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the US, and a representative of the EU.

Established political elites in the region have a vested interest in maintaining state capture

At an MSC panel entitled “A Europe that Projects”, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for common foreign and security policy, called on the bloc to start speaking “the language of power” and for coalitions of willing member states to mobilise without waiting for a consensus to emerge in Brussels. In the audience sat Javier Solana, who is the first person to hold the office, and whose 1999-2009 tenure was marked by several foreign policy successes that the EU achieved in the Western Balkans precisely by using the formula Borrell spoke about. In fact, the history of EU achievements in the region is one of sporadic breakthroughs that usually follow the same pattern: in the aftermath of a crisis, Quint members act in unity.

There are many examples of this: the Quint group pressured the political leadership of Republika Srpska to adopt security and intelligence reforms in the aftermath of scandals that implicated it in sheltering war criminals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and in breaching the UN embargo on weapons exports to Iraq. German and EU pressure on the Serbian government following attacks that injured 30 Austrian and German Kosovo Force soldiers in North Kosovo led to political dialogue and, eventually, the Brussels Agreement. EU and US interventions following the 2015 wiretapping scandal in Macedonia led to the Przino talks and subsequent reforms of media and electoral laws. And, in 2017, the US pressured then Macedonian president Gjorge Ivanov to facilitate a peaceful transition of power in the aftermath of violent attacks on opposition MPs in the Macedonian parliament.

When opportunities have arisen, a coordinated approach to applying leverage has always been crucial to success in the Western Balkans. The problem the EU and the US now face is that the unity of key members of the Quint has been compromised by their open disagreements on potential changes to the Kosovo-Serbia border. US Presidential Envoy Richard Grenell’s tendency to “make deals” without consulting Europeans is not helpful in this regard. As the rift among these key actors grows, it is crucial to remember that Brussels, EU member states, and the US depend on one another to reinforce common policy objectives in the Western Balkans.

At the MSC, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that, if there was progress on reforms in North Macedonia and Albania, he would support opening EU accession talks with the countries at the European Council’s meeting in March. The next step is to reconcile the positions of EU member states: the Netherlands insists on decoupling Albania from North Macedonia, while others are adamant that they must proceed together.

One should keep in mind that, even if the EU were to open talks with Albania and North Macedonia, no new enlargement methodology would be sufficient to tackle the problems of state capture or weakness in the rule of law unless the Quint restores unity among its members. In the Western Balkans, “Westlessness” – a word used by the organisers of the MSC to denote, as Mark Leonard puts it, “the state of anomie that has afflicted the geopolitical debate for several years” – has always implied a policy void. Both Borrell and the Americans should keep that in mind.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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