Europe is a place where things work. At least that's what people in the Balkans have long thought. It is looking less the case now, Krsto Lazarevic writes.
Which is Europe's highest mountain: Is it France's Mont Blanc, at 4,810 meters (15,781 feet), or the 5,642-meter Elbrus in the Caucasus? How one answers this question reveals how one relates to Europe.
Erwin Hanslik, an Austrian-Polish geographer murdered by the Nazis, assumed Europe's highest peak to be Ismoil Somoni - at 7,495 meters in Tajikistan. The Ural Mountains and the Bosphorus are arbitrary borders marking Europe's eastern frontier - more a matter of who is in and who is out.
Serbia's highest peak is open to debate in the Balkans. For many there, it is Gjeravica, at 2,656 meters, located in Kosovo, which most members of the United Nations recognize as an independent state. Ongoing border disagreements raise further doubt as to what is actually meant when we talk about Europe.
For some, it is the EU and wealthy, non-EU nations belonging to the European Economic Area (EEA), such as Norway and Switzerland. What about the Balkan states, which are also outside the EU? This region belongs to Europe as much as it doesn't - originally constructed as the "European" part of the Ottoman Empire, cut off from the "civilized" rest of the continent.
Balkanization of Europe instead of Europeanization of the Balkans
The people in the Balkans are themselves unsure if they belong to Europe. Most citizens of Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia naturally assume themselves to be European. Yet when traveling to France, Germany or Austria, they might say, "we're going to Europe." The same is true for young people, heading in droves to the EU for better work and educational opportunities.
Europe is viewed as a place that offers a future, outside the Balkans. Europe is where your aunt, a son or a sister earns good money. Europe is a place where the police are not corrupt and employment is offered on the basis of merit, not nepotism. Europe is a place where rule of law is paramount.
In the aftermath of war and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, people have clung to the hope that these values would spread across the entire continent. It is a hope not yet dead, but dying. In light of Brexit, few believe the EU will be expanding anytime soon.
Worse, a shattered EU loses its appeal. Postwar former Yugoslavia has been promised a Europeanization of the Balkans, but nowadays it looks more like a Balkanization of Europe.
The Europe-Balkan divide
For years, the EU has been wary of the rise of nationalism in the Balkans. Today, right-wing populism is surging across the entire continent. Disillusionment among young people is prevalent in Spain, Greece and Italy. The governments of Hungary and Poland are systematically hollowing out rule of law in their countries. Bulgaria has demonstrated that EU accession does not automatically translate into democratization and transparency. Hundreds of thousands of Romanians have recently taken to the streets in the hope of a better future.
The mental divide between Europe and the Balkans took on a physical dimension in fall 2015. When Serbians look towards the EU, all they see are fences extending from Hungary and Croatia. There can be only so many overtures to Brussels regarding EU membership. Fences tell people loud and clear: You are not welcome.
It is difficult to promote European values when the EU lets refugee children freeze outside, in the ruins behind the Belgrade bus station, to make a point. The Hindu Kush does not belong to Europe. Many unaccompanied Afghan children are stranded in Serbia, lacking education because they are coming from the border region with Pakistan where the Taliban rules and they do not take kindly to global-minded schooling. Yet the kids behind the Belgrade bus station have learned enough to know that 1) they find themselves both in and outside of Europe, and 2) The EU does not want them. Many from the Balkans feel the same.
Krsto Lazarevic (27) was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina and fled to Germany with his family as a child. He lives in Berlin and writes for various German-language media outlets.