By Denis MacShane*
In Berlin this week, the leaders of Germany and France announced that the Western Balkan ambitions for Europe would be rejected for at least another 5-10 years. It is a short-sighted, if not foolish move.
By denying any prospect of a European future to six small European countries located between the Aegean and the Adriatic, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel are effectively playing into Vladimir Putin’s hands.
Each EU candidate on its merits – no longer?
It used to be that each country’s hopes to become a small EU member state and get the same benefits as those Eastern and Central European countries that joined the EU 15 years earlier were treated on its respective merits.
Macedonia – now officially the Republic of Northern Macedonia – has made heroic efforts with Greece to solve its name problem. Albania, too, is moving forward steadily under Edi Rama.
Twenty years after European democracies intervened to stop massacres and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Kosovo is still being punished. The main reason is that Serbia cannot accept that — like Ireland after 1920 — Kosovo is now an independent nation.
Playing into Putin’s hands
It has been a central Kremlin foreign policy goal this century to prevent the Western Balkans from stabilizing into poor but normal European states.
Russia has constantly meddled to prevent any final Macedonian settlement with Greece. Athens had to expel Russian diplomats as they tried to stop Greece and Macedonia agreeing on the name change.
President Macron acknowledged in 2017 when he had a vision for Europe that “The EU will have to open itself up to the Balkan countries, because our EU is still attractive and its aura is a key factor of peace and stability on our continent.”
Were these remarks intended as paying more than lip service to the aspirations of these countries?
The region does have major problems
Of course, the Western Balkans region has major problems with corruption and organized crime, but they are no worse than those of other EU Balkan members or Italy’s and indeed Spain’s.
After all, it was in Spain where a conservative prime minister fell over corruption and where the party — the PP — just lost heavily in last weekend’s national elections. The evidence showed that in ministries, banks, regions and towns, politics and business were corruptly intertwined.
Is it about Muslims?
Now Macron has changed policy 180 degrees. The assumption is that he does not want to give any ammunition to Marine Le Pen who will denounce the fact that three of the nations – Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia – have European Muslim populations.
But there are more Muslims in France and Germany combined (13 million) than in all of the Balkans (6.6 million).
President Macron and Chancellor Merkel should not allow their EU policy to be dictated by Islamophobes like Marine Le Pen or the AfD in Germany.
What Macron and Merkel have done is to deny to the 19 million Europeans living in those countries any hope. And without hope, one can pretty much count on the worst trends always rising to the surface.
Serbia may choose to become a new Kremlin satellite in south-east Europe — but there is no need to punish Macedonia, Albania, tiny Montenegro or Kosovo.
At the very least, as the European Stability Initiative recommended this week, the EU should allow visa free travel for Kosovans and support Kosovo’s entry into the Council of Europe. Greece could help by recognizing Kosovo — as could Spain, Romania and Slovakia.
Let’s be realistic
Waiting for the Balkans countries to become Sweden or Switzerland is not serious politics. It is the first time that Europe has slammed the door shut on poor European nations and denied them the chance to grow.
Many in the region will draw the obvious conclusion that since it appears that Europe won’t come to them, they will go north and west to Europe.
Who knows, that may well be what’s desired in Germany, which increasingly has to contend with labor shortages.
*A Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK’s Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexit No Exit: Why Britain Won’t Leave Europe.” [London]
** First published in theglobalist.com