While most think tankers and Policy makers are concentrating on how the Balkan EU accession process can be kept alive, they are missing a far more fundamental, if less sexy, topic: depopulation.
In 2020 Bosnia & Herzegovina will finally disintegrate. Serbia and Kosovo will restart stalled talks and strike a historic deal which will involve an exchange of territory and people. After this Kosovo and Albania will move towards uniting as will Serbia and the breakaway Republika Srpska in the now former Bosnia. As war breaks out the Russians will send troops to help the Bosnian Serbs. Milo Djukanovic the president of Montenegro, who has been in power in one form or another since 1989, will retire and North Macedonia will move fast towards EU accession.
Relax! Absolutely none of this is going to happen. In a year’s time the political landscape of the Balkans is going to look pretty much the same as it does now.
Sure, there might be the odd important development, but it is unlikely to be dramatic. October 2019 saw a serious setback in terms of EU enlargement when President Emmanuel Macron of France vetoed the opening of accession talks for North Macedonia. Albania was also blocked though in that France was not alone. President Macron said the EU needed to reform first before it expanded further. So, what could happen is that there is a breakthrough by spring which rejigs the current accession formula, North Macedonia is allowed to open talks and the Balkan EU accession process is kept alive. Think-tankers and policy makers have already begun working hard on how to make this happen.
The problem is that while they concentrate on this, and while they also discuss what the Americans, Russians, Chinese, Turks and Arabs might be up to in Europe’s backyard, they are also missing a far more fundamental, if less sexy topic. That is that the populations of the Balkan countries are shrinking at alarming rates. Their people are having fewer children, they are ageing, emigration is rising, and, unlike in western European countries, the Balkan states have no immigration to make up for the shortfalls.
In this the Balkan states are not unique, and membership of the EU for Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, has only made things worse because of the ending of any restrictions on being able to move and work. The same phenomena are afflicting much of central and eastern Europe – only in the Balkans they appear to be even more dramatic.
On current projections by 2050 Bulgaria’s population will have shrunk by 39% since the end of communism, Romania’s by 30%, Bosnia’s by 29%, Serbia’s by 24%, Albania’s by 18% and so on. Moldova’s population has already shrunk by a third in thirty years. Fertility rates are at historic lows. The average Bosnian woman has 1.26 children, in Serbia that number is 1.48, in Bulgaria 1.58 and so on.
In the past, when a Balkan country joined the EU, and when labour restrictions were lifted, large numbers began to move to richer ones like Germany and Italy in search of work and then many decided to settle. In Italy there are now 1.2m Romanians (more if one includes those who have acquired citizenship over the years), there are 673,592 registered in Spain and 696,275 in Germany. But, today the need for labour, for everything from bus drivers to doctors, means that restrictions are already being lifted for people from non-EU Balkan countries, Ukraine and Moldova, so this exodus is accelerating even before joining or otherwise integrating with the EU.
This population shrinkage is having dramatic and visible effects. Rural areas are depopulating and in many parts development is now being stunted by increasing labour shortages. In many, if not all areas of the Balkans, there is no shortage of work, but there is a dire shortage of well-paid work with good conditions. Huge numbers of medical workers are emigrating to Western countries as are the young, the energetic and the skilled. And money is not the only reason they are leaving. Polls show a lack of confidence in the future. Corrupt justice and second-rate education and health systems are not improving, and since it is easy and cheap to go, that is what people are doing.
Not everyone is going for good though. The ease with which people can travel and work legally and cheap flights have given rise to a new form of commuting. Women come to Italy to care for the elderly for a few months at a time, or men go to work in slaughterhouses in Germany. They return home for a few months and then venture back west for another few months.
In the short-term Balkan governments are not necessarily unhappy about this phenomenon. Those aboard send back remittances, unemployment numbers go down and there are less angry people who might vote against your ruling party at the next election.
In the longer run however few know what to do about the looming problems that low birth rates and emigration are giving rise to. Pension systems have been under pressure for years but what happens when you actually have more pensioners than people of working age as will happen in Serbia in 2021 according to its statistical office? In rural and depopulating regions where there is little work, those in search of it have little incentive to move to areas where there is. Why pay rent in Sarajevo and work there for a low salary if you can pay rent but be paid ten times more if you move just that bit further away to Milan or Frankfurt?
Governments from Croatia to Moldova are stuck for ideas and even more so for cash when it comes to dealing with the problems of demography and depopulation. But it is increasingly clear that these issues are causing interlinked problems from one end of Europe to the other. For example, it is clear that a rapid rise in the immigration of Poles and Romanians tipped the balance for large numbers of angry working class voters in the UK’s 2016 Brexit vote. And, while Westerners are increasingly voting for populist and anti-immigration parties, far-right nationalist parties are flourishing in many regions afflicted by emigration such as Bulgaria, Hungary and eastern Germany.
So, watch the Balkans and the wider region but don’t let the humdrum issues of the mechanics of EU enlargement, Serbia-Kosovo talks or external actors in the region distract you. There is a far bigger issue at stake that affects all of us in Europe. Next time you are in hospital and looked after by a Bosnian nurse and treated by a Romanian specialist remember that if you were Bosnian or Romanian and lived in a small town back home, there would probably be no specialist left to see you or even a nurse to care for you. In the meantime, a foreign company that was thinking of investing in your town and employing you has decided not to because so much of the potential workforce has left.
For the good of all Europe these are problems that must not be ignored and for which there are no easy answers.