Yes—though obstacles of all kinds seem to stand in the wayby David Howell / January 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
Conundrum. How can British parliamentarians writing a report on the West Balkans be recommending the European Union as the best pathway forward for the countries of the region if Britain itself is planning to pull out?
This was the question with which members of the House of Lords International Relations Committee, of which I am chair, were politely confronted as they visited Belgrade, Sarajevo, Skopje and Pristina as part of their recent enquiry.
There are three points here worth making—two of them emphasised in the committee’s report just published, and one lying outside the scope of the report but very much part of the backdrop to the whole story. In short: the accession of the West Balkan states is to be hoped for in the long-term—but other options should be explored.
The first point is that the UK remains, and must remain, fully engaged in the West Balkans, regardless of whether we are part of the EU. In or out of the main EU treaties we are a major European power and we have a continuing strong role to play in European security. We have significant interests in avoiding any repetition of past horrors and tragedies in the Balkans, and in promoting what we see as the best path towards greater stability and reduced tensions (which regrettably persist) in the area.
The UK will in fact be the host to the summit conference on the West Balkans later this year, as part of the continuing Berlin process on European integration. The hope is that the West Balkans will eventually accede. Why should Britain’s own exit make this any less the case?
However, this is not the only forward pathway and not a very encouraging one at the moment either. Jean-Claude Junker has said he favours no new accessions to the EU for another seven years (until 2025).
Further, there are reservations about the kind of EU the former Yugoslav states want to join. Regional leaders are not blind to the changing mood towards Brussels in the Visegrad countries, and in Poland in particular most recently. Obstacles of all kinds seem to stand in the way.
A different kind of looser and more flexible EU is clearly what would suit these insistently nationalistic, small and still fragile states better. The irony is that this is just what pre-referendum Britain wanted, and failed to push for. It is what David Cameron originally believed in, with his call for a “full on new treaty” in a reformed EU, before his timid advisers pushed him back into a limited list of British demands, most of which failed.
Could Britain, even from outside the EU, help to bring about this more welcoming kind of European family for these troubled areas? It is not impossible. Theresa May’s hoped-for “special and deep relationship” with the rest of Europe could open the way for new kinds of pan-European co-operation. There is talk now of a new European security treaty of just the kind that would help progress in the West Balkan states, especially the still fractured Bosnia-Herzogovina, and allow them to fit in more comfortably.
But in the meantime, membership of NATO (already held by Albania and Montenegro) seems a possibly more helpful path towards both security and closer alignment with the European family, and here Britain is a major player and can assist positively. It is true that Serbia is currently less keen on NATO membership, not least because of Kosovo differences, but the Serbian military does collaborate successfully with other NATO forces.
There is also the point that the NATO aspiration is a good antibiotic against Russian influence, which continues to permeate the region in a variety of forms, mostly negative and unconstructive, as of course it always did, although now more strongly in Vladimir Putin’s current phase of aggression and stirring things up wherever possible.
The report confirms that the divisive trends and ethnic hatreds which led to the violent conflicts of two decades ago are still being perpetuated, for instance in the practice of totally segregated schooling between different communities. The complex constitutional structure imposed in Bosnia-Herzogovina by the 1995 Dayton Agreement ended the wars but has not produced the conditions for cohesion and lasting peace.
Yet there is also hope that with the right kind of outside support, social and economic, and with the right kind of European embrace, better healing patterns could emerge. The costs of neglecting the Balkans, so vivid in history, are too obvious to be ignored. That is the case for strong and continued British focus on the region, and for the report which may help in that direction.