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EU-Balkan ties a 'two-way failure'

Interview: Boris GeorgievskiAugust 27, 2015

The EU has no real strategy toward the West Balkans, Professor Ulf Brunnbauer tells DW prior to the EU-Western Balkans conference in Vienna.

Belgien EU-Parlament in Brüssel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Hoslet

DW: Do you think that the EU is doing enough to help the West Balkans region and bringing it closer to the EU?

Brunnbauer: I think we can speak of a two-way failure. On the one hand, the EU, or more accurately, its major powers such as Germany, have not done enough over the last years to bring the West Balkan countries closer to and ideally into the EU. It seems that there is certain enlargement fatigue and the ongoing Greek crisis, as well as the conflict in Ukraine have preoccupied European leaders and institutions.

On the other hand, governments in West Balkan countries have also failed to push forward the required reforms with the necessary vigor. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, there is no progress at all because of the intransigence of ethno-nationalist elites. Macedonia is experiencing a roll back of democratic freedoms. Serbia still rejects what it ought to do to recognize Kosovo's independence. And corruption and problems with the rule of law plague all countries in question.

Yet, one reason for these problems is that political elites do not feel that their countries have a real chance of getting into the EU in the near future. We know that potential membership is the only really strong foreign policy instrument the EU has. Without that, I fear, there will be further regression in the Balkans. Also to counter that, and to give the people in the region a perspective, a kind of Marshall Plan for the West Balkans is necessary

Deutschland Ulf Brunnbauer Professor
Professor Ulf BrunnbauerImage: Anna Perezolova

Is the EU trading democracy for stability in the region by accepting undemocratic practices in some countries?

I do not think there is a conscious turn toward supporting, or accepting, authoritarian tendencies in the name of stability. There is also a sense of fatigue, maybe even disappointment, among EU politicians that it takes so long to implement European standards. With respect to Serbia, EU policies do indeed appear naïve. They are closing their eyes to the obvious authoritarian tendencies of the current government. What the EU needs to do quickly is to recognize how terrible and high the costs will be if the current inertia continues. If not the already widespread popular disillusion in these countries will increase, leading to more domestic instability.

There is an ongoing debate in Germany about the large number of asylum seekers from the Balkan countries and whether or not to declare additional countries (Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro) as countries of safe origin. Do asylum seekers from the Balkans have legitimate claims, considering the situation in their respective countries?

Asylum seekers from the Balkans typically do not have credible claims to asylum as defined in the Geneva Convention because they are not persecuted as individuals on grounds of political conviction, race, religion, etc. Insofar, when speaking about asylum, declaring these states as countries of safe origin seems reasonable. On the other hand, there are many reasons why people want to leave the economically desperate conditions that prevail for many people in these countries. In the case of the Roma minorities, we can say that as a group they face structural discrimination all over the Balkans (and Europe). The main problem is that the EU and its member countries do not have sound immigration policies. EU countries need immigrants, but there are so few options for legal immigration from third countries available, that economic emigrants from the West Balkans apply for asylum as the only way to get a right to stay in countries like Germany.

Thousands of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia are trying to reach Western Europe through Macedonia and Serbia every day. While Greece is forcing them to cross into Macedonia illegally, Hungary is building a wall on its border with Serbia. Can the EU do more to help these people and the countries overwhelmed by the crisis?

What we are witnessing is a complete failure of the EU member countries. In the face of a humanitarian crisis, EU governments are pursuing a beggar-my-neighbor policy. This is inhumane with respect to refugees who flee from war and have undergone terrible travails on their way to Europe. It is also very short-sighted because it creates problems for countries which even in normal times do not have functioning provisions for the protection of refugees. It is very unfair that poor countries in southeastern Europe are left to deal alone with a pan-European problem. It is also dangerous because countries like Macedonia are simply overwhelmed by the number of refugees, which can make such weak states even more fragile.

Prof. Dr. Ulf Brunnbauer is Deputy Director of the Institute for East and Southeast European Studies and Professor of History of Southeast and Eastern Europe at the University of Regensburg, Germany.