Opinion: UK-EU cooperation in the Balkans

Opinion: UK-EU cooperation in the Balkans
Image Source: “Sarajevo sunset” by M1key.me is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

While the focus of the West has been rightly on providing military and diplomatic support to Ukraine, NATO and the European Union cannot afford to take their eyes off the Western Balkans. It is crucial to see this moment of crisis as not only an attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, but as a wider Russian test of the durability of the postwar European security order. As EU and Western Balkan leaders hold their summit in June, the regional stabilisation process in southeastern Europe has never been more important. 

Context

The Euro-Atlantic integration process in the Western Balkans is at its most perilous moment since the outbreak of the Yugoslav wars of secession in the 1990s. The ambition of the six countries in the region to integrate themselves into NATO and the European Union looks as if it is far from achievable. 

Confidence in the EU enlargement process itself has been undermined. The 27 EU member states have yet to allow North Macedonia and Albania to begin accession talks – despite Skopje removing a key obstacle towards EU membership in securing a historic settlement with Greece in 2018. Some member states, including France and the Netherlands, remain reluctant while Bulgaria shows no sign of lifting its veto on North Macedonia. 

Europe has paid the price for its disengagement. Zoran Zaev, one of the most pro-European voices in the region, resigned as North Macedonia’s prime minister after his party suffered in local elections at the end of last year. Conditionality, the instrument that the EU deploys in the Western Balkans to foster democratic reform, has taken a severe reputational hit. The EU now faces the risk of losing its political influence in a region that is vulnerable to interference from states hostile to Western interests. 

The Risks

The reduced incentive to implement the much-needed reforms for EU membership strengthens Russia’s foothold in the region. A Transparency International report in 2020 found that all six Western Balkan countries suffer from state capture, which is where corruption and lack of judicial independence allow private interests to shape government decision-making. 

The energy sector is particularly susceptible to Russian influence. Last year, the Kremlin-controlled gas giant, Gazprom, announced that it would begin supplying natural gas to Bosnia and Herzegovina through the Turkstream pipeline, which runs from Russia to Turkey through the Black Sea. This extension of Russia’s gas transit network means that Moscow can exert political pressure on Bosnia as it seeks to develop its economic and democratic systems. 

NATO must also review its approach towards the Western Balkans. Cooperation between the alliance and the largest and most politically significant country in the region, Serbia, has deepened since 2006. However, frustrations with the slow pace of EU enlargement have reignited ethnic tensions. 

The omission of Bosnia and Kosovo from plans to create a “mini-Schengen” or a border-free travel and business zone between Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia raised concerns over rising Serbian nationalist influence in the region. Serbia has since challenged the demilitarisation agreement with Kosovo, and the Serb-administrative Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia has threatened to withdraw from the state institutions established under the Dayton Agreement that settled the 1992-95 war. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine risks setting a dangerous precedent where the use of force can reshape the internal postwar boundaries of Europe. This makes the Western Balkans a region of particular concern. If Russia manages to secure Ukrainian neutrality as a result of its assault, Putin may feel emboldened to use the tensions that arose from Yugoslavia’s disintegration as a mechanism to obstruct the region’s integration with NATO and the EU.

Ways Forward?

In order to meet this new threat from Moscow, the UK should consider reviving the Berlin Process with the EU. The regional initiative, founded by Angela Merkel in 2014, includes the UK, EU member states, and the six Western Balkan countries. It was created to maintain momentum in the EU enlargement process. 

Brussels took a significant step towards aligning its agenda with the diplomatic role of the Berlin Process. The Strategic Compass, the document setting out the EU’s plan to strengthen its security and defence policy by 2030, proposed a “tailored partnership” with the Western Balkans and boosting cooperation with bilateral partners, including the UK. 

However, the UK is not in an ideal position to classify the region in southeastern Europe with the same level of strategic importance as the EU. The Integrated Review failed to define the scope of cooperation between the UK and the EU in security and defence matters after Brexit. 

The unpredictability of the emerging security situation in Eastern Europe calls for an urgent rethink of the UK’s foreign policy priorities. The Western Balkans should be seen as a key area where the UK and the EU can work together to advance their shared interests. Policy coordination in the region under the Berlin Process may offer a strong platform on which to counter the Russian threat facing the Euro-Atlantic space.

Categories: Europe, International, Security

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