There is one paramount question to be asked after 18 years of EU enlargement efforts in the Western Balkans: What will happen if we don’t see materialize what we want to happen? We wanted to have democratic and prosperous Balkans integrated into the EU at the latest by 2014, but now we find ourselves debating whether the possible entry date of 2025 is not too optimistic. At the same time, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is telling us that in a realistic scenario – that is, having annual growth rates of 3.2% per capita in the Balkans and 1.4% in the EU – a convergence of the Balkan with the EU average can be achieved in 60 years. EBRD's pessimistic scenarios with slower growth rates speak of about 200 more years to catch up with the EU average.
In recent years, the EU has resembled a union of crises, seemingly as fragile as the Balkans. The Balkans were full of fear ever since the end of 1990s, while Europe was growing, hoping, building a new community. Over the last couple of years, the EU, too has become a lot more fearful, has joined the Balkans. After years of technocratic business-as-usual, the refugee crisis in 2015 – Ivan Krastev describes it as Europe's 9/11 – brought the Balkans back on the European radar. Europe’s "soft underbelly" is pulsating again.
What do we see on the Balkans’ horizon? We see that geopolitics is back on the European playground, and that the Balkans have become one of the crucial playing fields for Russia, China, Turkey and all the other new actors, whose activities may hinder the European future of the region. This changed geopolitical landscape is partly a result of the EU's internal crisis over the last decade and the relative loss of the EU's normative power in regions like the Balkans. Yes, the enlargement still represents the most valuable geopolitical option for the WB and yes, the EU is indeed showing signs of waking up, but this seems not be enough to prevent other geopolitical powers from playing their games in the region.
We see new forms of authoritarianism and new nationalisms reclaiming the Balkans, while right-wing populism and new appetites for strong men are again populating the EU scene. We see that the linear and normative democratisation and Europeanisation assumption – "do your homework and reform and you will join the club of European democracies" – hardly seems to be valid anymore. Democracy in the Balkans has been hijacked by politicians who hide behind "their" notions of democracy and instrumentalise it for particular interests. This is fundamentally endangering democracy and destroying its normative and emancipatory potential, thus also limiting the impact of the EU's transformative power.
We desperately need a new set of ideas beyond the established and well-known, mostly technocratic, answers dominant in the EU and provided so far to the Balkans. The apolitical technocracy is killing utopia. There are so many – sometimes too many – policy proposals on how to move forward, many of them clever and well calibrated. The EU enlargement strategy presented in February and all subsequently designed new initiatives announced by the EU are also perfectly fine. Yet, there is no guarantee that all this will be successful – recent negative events in the region from the infamous Djuric incident to new rhetorical clashes between Serbia and Croatia or the attack on an investigative journalist in Montenegro are very telling.
These incidents point at something more fundamental: some countries in the region – or, more precisely, some strong men and their political parties running the show on the domestic front – simply seem not to be ready to risk their own privileges and power positions for the sake of serious EU integration efforts. They need to be ultimately tested, and challenged where and when needed, not appeased for the sake of an illusion of regional stability (see the debate on stabilitocracy). This ultimate test has to be based on the underlying fundament of the European success story, namely European values, that is, the values of open societies. Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty goes: "The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail." This is precisely where the EU needs to go – refocusing on values, drawing red lines in cases where they are violated, and building a new narrative of "free and open societies" in the Balkans as the future we want to see. Once the value message is set right, it will strengthen all those pro-EU forces: citizens, grassroots movements, courageous journalists. It is hard to see how enlargement can happen without a new equilibrium based on the meaning of values and rule of law within the EU. This is why dealing with both the Western Balkans and Poland, Hungary and all other hotspots of illiberalism will decide Europe's future in terms of its normative foundations.
The EU and probably all of us who wish to see a European future of the Balkans materializing, see the year 2018 and years to come as years of hope and new chances. Speaking about hopes and chances leads us immediately to the debate about the fate of the EU, the fate that is very much debated nowadays, but the fate whose contours we still don't see. Here I am deeply convinced that the future of the region is intrinsically bound to the ultimate fate of the EU. If the EU continues to struggle the way it has been in recent years, if the East-West and liberal-illiberal divide within the EU that we face today persists, if the socio-economic challenges and inequalities within the EU cannot be overcome, in brief – if the EU remains in crisis there will be no enlargement of the EU to the Balkans. Not in 2025, not in 2030, not any time soon. Renewing the EU and reconstructing it towards more unity, solidarity and shared responsibility is a must. The more of the Union we get in the next few years, the more secure the Balkans' future will be. And the Balkans need to find ways to contribute to the Unions' renewal actively.
"The new" Hannah Arendt teaches us, "always appears in the guise of a miracle." A miracle is what we need. But – unlike in fairy tales – we have to work towards that miracle, both in the EU as well as in the region. The miracle also includes elements of real utopia beyond any possible technocratic and policy solution. Meaningful democratisation in the Balkans cannot occur through mere technocracy. Ultimately, it must be a political project, one that embraces the necessity of deeply embedding democratic norms and values in these societies.