It was a “little difficulty in the Balkans” in the summer of 1914 that resulted in the deaths of 16 million European soldiers by November 1918.
It was the break-up of the Yugoslav federation that led to a Balkan civil war from 1991 until the turn of the millennium that caused 140,000 deaths and 4.4 million refugees and internally displaced people.
Two very good lessons from history to encourage the European Union to welcome the six Balkan states—Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Albania and Macedonia– to join the European club.
The EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner, Federica Morgherini, has for over a year been commuting between Brussels and the Balkans negotiating accession. Next Sunday European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sets off on a six-day tour to finalise details for the Balkan states to start on the road to full EU membership by 2025. In May the EU heads of government special summit in Sofia is expected to act as a rubber stamp.
For Brussels the goal is political stability on its south-eastern border, and a block on Russian and Chinese expansion. But there is an economic and political price to pay. This was underscored by Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, when he warned: “The EU must not repeat mistakes of the past.”
Reading between the lines, he meant the difficulties that were created by the absorption of the Eastern European states after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The EU rushed in to fill the political vacuum and the East Europeans welcomed the West to escape the Russian bear hug.
But their absorption has created difficulties. The free movement of people principle resulted in hundreds of thousands of Polish workers flooding British job markets—one of the major reasons for the Brexit vote result.
On top of that, totalitarian nationalistic political roots have spawned right-wing populist governments who balk at EU rules regarding an independent judiciary, movement of people and a free press. This has left Brussels with the sticky problem of whether or not the Visegrad four (as they have become known) should be allowed to stay in the club.
The Balkans political history is similar. Oppressed by the Austro-Hungarians and the Ottomans; wracked by civil wars before the First World war; then the spark that caused the first World War; unstable in the 1920s and 1930s and a united communist state until the death of Tito. It is a shaky foundation, and at the moment the six countries do not meet the anti-corruption requirements, or those involving a free press and independent judiciary.
Then there is the financial factor. The EU will be taking on six countries with an average income per head of $16,800 a year. This compares to $40,000 for the Eurozone countries. This means that the Balkan states will be net recipients of EU funds for many, many years to come at a time when—because of Brexit—the EU will have lost ten percent of its income. This financial fact of life is unlikely to go down well with the North European taxpayers or with those in the South who will now have to share the aid pot.
Let’s not forget the principle of the free movement of people—one of the key pillars of the European Union. It is only natural that an Albanian earning $11,880 (the average income in that country) , will want to take advantage of EU membership by finding a job in Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, or the Netherlands. It is just as inevitable that there would be a backlash in those countries against Balkan immigrants.
The threat from China and Russia is real. The Chinese have been wooing the Balkan states by pouring billions of dollars into the region in the form of both aid and investment. The Russians, on the other hand, have been de-stabilising the region. They already have strong historic ties with Serbia where almost half of the population prefers Russian to EU ties, and Moscow has been accused of sponsoring a failed 2016 coup in Montenegro.
As usual, it is a balancing act. There are good reasons for and good reasons against Balkan membership. What is certain that it has to be carefully considered.
Tom Arms is the author of The Encyclopedia of the Cold War and editor of Lookaheadnews.com