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Monday, 2 December 2019

Unresolved issues in the Western Balkans: Progress or Deterioration?

There are many issues that currently plague the region of the Western Balkans – from poor rule of law and crippling corruption to the authoritarian tendencies of many national leaders in the region. This seminar on 27 Novenmber, chaired by Sir David Madden, did not aim to cover them all but only focus on some of the most urgent problems and the key unresolved situations.

Adis Merdžanović, Research Associate at SEESOX, focussed on the diminishing role of the European Union which has hitherto acted as the main reform driver in the region. In the wake of Emmanuel Macron’s ‘Non’ on the opening of talks with North Macedonia and Albania, Merdzanovic presented a nuanced analysis of how we got here and what options are on the table. While disagreeing with Macron’s mode of creating alarm about membership, which has led to a great loss of credibility across the region, Merdzanovic’s analysis was also based on the need to rethink the accession process. While he did not see much space for the implementation of Macron’s non-paper which introduced a gradual accession in seven steps, he applauded the regional ‘mini-Schengen’ proposal aimed to imitate the EU Schengen open border area. He also stressed that ideas of ‘functional integration’ (Jan Zielonka) and ‘membership on probation’ (Pierre Mirel) have a lot to offer to the debate. Merdzanovic concluded that we need to ‘return to a value-based’ approach to membership and the European Integration itself.
While agreeing with the proposition, Jessie Barton Hronešová, ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow at ODID, stressed that without solving some of the ‘wicked problems’ of the Western Balkans, namely the unresolved status of Kosovo and Bosnian dysfunctionality, European Union membership is not an option for these two countries. After outlining the history of the Kosovo-Serbia relations and the current frozen state of their ‘normalisation’, she presented some recent survey-based data. These data demonstrated how domestic populations resented the territorial exchange proposals and how divided the Serbs and Kosovars are on the issue of resolving the state. Moreover, according to a 2018 Faktor Plus survey, up to 81% of Serbs in Serbia are against a recognition of Kosovo. While this does not mean that a modus operandi cannot be found (as recognition is distinct to normalisation), such (and other) polling shows how sensitive Kosovo’s recognition remains. On the issue of Bosnia, Barton-Hronesova noted that the main threat is currently coming from within, given the growing nationalist and authoritarian tendencies of the Bosnian leadership. She also suggested that Bosnia is now in the midst of a double migration crisis: one that concerns the staggering numbers of Bosnians leaving the country (‘human drain’ as she called it) and the other in the form of up to 35,000 migrants and refuges from Iran, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq who are ‘stuck’ in the country.

The seminar was marked by a great deal of scepticism, both from the presenters and from the audience. The discussion mainly focussed on the issue of progress on the EU path and what Macron’s No in reality meant. Both speakers agreed that while it fundamentally undermined the rule- and value-based principles of the EU, a second chance might open in the coming months (e.g. summit in Zagreb and the French-German proposal for a set of conferences). The key agreement was that domestic reform needs to be encouraged, rather than dictated, and not all hope is lost – yet.

Jessie Barton Hronesova (SEESOX Associate; ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow at ODID, Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford)

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