Europe risks losing its Balkans backyard as other parts of the world are flocking to the region
The failure of the bloc to move ahead with accession talks forfeits a visionary goal as well as practical perks
The theatrics of Brexit at last week's European summit largely obscured another crisis – the failure of the bloc to move ahead with membership talks for western Balkan countries.
A number of European leaders – among them French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as Denmark and the Netherlands – blocked membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, prompting opprobrium from EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who described it as a "major historic mistake" and European council president Donald Tusk, who said he was "embarrassed" by the bloc's actions.
They have a valid point: Europe is losing its Balkans backyard and this development comes as other parts of the world are flocking to the region, with good reason.
When the religious and ethnic wars of the 1990s erupted across the former Yugoslavia, the future of the region was pretty obvious amid the bloodshed.
As the bullets flew, every transaction was done in deutschmark. Germany had a key role in the diplomacy while France and Britain were key to the military interventions that stopped the spiral of conflict.
Stabilisation was a project that was funded in euros, the currency that reflects the post-war revival of Germany. For the Balkans, all-important diplomacy was well-supported by political engagement from Brussels and other European capitals.
So far, only Croatia has been invited into the club of EU nations. The rest are effectively being told that a common European home has been put on the never-never list of international talks.
An appalling signal was sent out when Mr Macron abruptly ended talks on bringing in North Macedonia and Albania to the accession process when the issue was discussed on Friday in Brussels.
Many in the room were furious, among them Mr Juncker. "It's a major historic mistake,” he said. “I hope it will only be temporary and won't become engraved in the collective memory as a historic mistake.”
So far, only Croatia has been invited into the club of EU nations. The rest are effectively being told that a common European home has been put on the never-never list of international talks
Europe has often turned its focus on to its western core. Turkey has been sitting in the waiting room for decades. Balkan states first began EU accession talks at a summit in Thessaloniki in 2003. After Brussels, there is a feeling of shock and betrayal across the region. One analyst was said to have called Mr Macron “the European Trump” as he described the scale of the volte face. North Macedonia’s foreign affairs minister Nikola Dimitrov tweeted: “The least that the European Union owes the region is to be straightforward with us. If there is no more consensus on the European future of the Western Balkans, if the promise of Thessaloniki 2003 does not stand, the citizens deserve to know." It prompted a tweet from Mr Tusk, who pleaded for patience: "I would like to send a message to our Macedonian and Albanian friends: don’t give up! You did your share and we didn’t. But I have absolutely no doubt that you will become full members of the European Union."
The turning point of Friday's summit forfeits a visionary goal as well as practical benefits in a region with huge potential. The coastline along the Adriatic is an undoubted strategic asset but has not been fully exploited. Its people need the gold standard of EU membership to launch a host of ambitious projects.
There are glimmers of what is possible. Exhibit A is the Masdar investment in Serbia. This $335 million investment in Cibuk 1, a 57-turbine generation unit, has great potential. By coincidence, it was inaugurated last week. As an example of the strategic importance of wind farms in Europe, it is useful to know that the former iron curtain border between Austria and Slovakia has been developed into a giant, highly profitable wind farm.
The demographics in the Balkans are an asset that ageing Europe should see as a resource. A youthful population can compensate for older populations elsewhere in Europe.
Politics triumphed last week over a bigger vision for the region. The bad dynamic is not confined to recent days.
The news cycle is not kind to the Balkans. The area is portrayed as a hotbed of cyber chicanery and is even partly blamed for the alleged interference in the race for the White House in 2016. One advantage of membership for countries in central and eastern Europe is that the authorities have much more firepower to face down such activity.
The pressures on Bosnia Herzegovina are particularly acute. Its post-war future was under a cloud. Battling the spectre of new forms of Islamist radicalisation there is, say experts in the field, an increasingly uphill task. Meanwhile splits with nationalist factions are becoming ever more bitter, calling into question the settlement that followed the Dayton Accords, which ended the war in 1995.
For Mr Macron, there is a long-standing French foreign policy objective in blocking Balkans accession. A larger and more internally complex EU cannot act swiftly or deal well with its challenges.
Moreover, Mr Macron does not want to give open goals in domestic politics to the far-right politician Marine Le Pen.
At the moment of British withdrawal from the EU, Mr Macron sees an opportunity to assert a French foreign policy vision. Adding the Balkan nations to the voices around the table within the EU is a distraction to his grand plans.
As surely as Brexit, the decision marks the retreat from the ideal that the EU could hold pan-European ambitions in one central hub.
The French leader wants to shape Europe as a geopolitical player in the mould of Parisian foreign policy.
He is succeeding and his ambitions should be taken seriously. France boasts ownership of major diplomatic and strategic initiatives, from climate change to the Sahel to Iran’s nuclear deal.
It is reckless to cast off the Balkans so summarily. Europe’s rejects could find a common political project that allows them to stand apart from Brussels.
Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief for The National
Updated: October 19, 2019 12:19 PM