by William Nattrass
Monday, 4
July 2022
Analysis
07:00

EU expansion is stoking conflict in the Balkans

Is the bloc pushing out too far, too fast?
by William Nattrass
North Macedonians protest the French EU proposal for ending the dispute with Bulgaria. Credit: Getty

The juggernaut of EU expansion is picking up steam in the Western Balkans. The path to EU accession for North Macedonia and Albania was potentially cleared after the former agreed to a proposal to defuse tensions with EU member Bulgaria. But could the dangled carrot of EU membership actually be the cause, rather than the remedy, of instability?  

Bulgaria has obstructed North Macedonia’s accession negotiations for years because Sofia is sceptical about its smaller neighbour’s claims to a separate history and culture. Official policy says the North Macedonian language doesn’t exist (that it is merely a dialect of Bulgarian), and that North Macedonians are Bulgarians brainwashed into believing in a separate identity by “ethnic and linguistic engineering” under Tito’s Communist regime.  

It’s impossible to miss the similarities with Russian arguments against Ukrainian statehood. But the EU is green-lighting Bulgaria’s claims, proposing a deal which will force North Macedonia to enshrine reference to Bulgarians in its constitution, which also leaves Bulgaria free to keep rejecting the existence of the Macedonian language. North Macedonia’s former deputy prime minister said the proposal gives Bulgaria “control over our destiny,” while the leader of the opposition said the deal means “we will assimilate, Bulgarianise, or will never be part of the EU.” 

Narrow approval from the Bulgarian parliament and the North Macedonian government can’t hide the deal’s potential to blow up regional tensions. Bulgaria’s stance is so strong that the country’s pro-EU prime minister Kiril Petkov was last month forced to resign for being willing to countenance North Macedonian EU accession at all. Petkov acknowledges the “big risk” of the Macedonian government also imploding because of the deal, with a two-third parliamentary majority needed to pass the required constitutional amendment.   

Surveying the wreckage, European Council President Charles Michel buoyantly remarked that “we are the closest we have ever been: now is the time to say yes”. The bloc’s attitude has changed markedly since French President Emmanuel Macron led a group of countries in blocking North Macedonia’s accession in 2019, citing a failure to implement necessary reforms while suggesting fundamental problems with the “vision” of EU enlargement.

The provocative nature of membership negotiations is clearer still in Serbia, where the EU has begun insisting on recognition for Kosovo as a prerequisite for accession in light of Russia’s revanchist ambitions against Ukraine. On a visit to Belgrade last month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said “an agreement must ultimately clear up the question of the recognition of Kosovo, because it is not conceivable that two countries that don’t recognise each other become members of the EU.” 

But whatever the EU funding at stake, many Serbs will simply never accept that Kosovo — which they consider a region vital to Serbia’s cultural history — is a separate country. Brussels’ tougher stance has coincided with a sharp increase in Serbian euroscepticism, with a clear majority of Serbs now against joining the EU

The swing in public opinion has panicked strongman president Aleksandar Vučić, who has geared Serbia towards the EU economically while maintaining cordial relations with Moscow. “We have to view things rationally,” he entreated. “Can we do without Europe and its investments? We have to be reasonable enough so that our emotions don’t prevail.” But to please the home crowd, he has also escalated rhetoric against Kosovo, saying Kosovo is trying to displace ethnic Serbs.  

Even Vučić, the man with an iron grip on Serbia, has therefore become trapped in an untenable political situation by EU accession talks. Rather than creating new stability, EU expansion is currently rubbing salt into wounds and stoking political chaos.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
8 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago

EU expansion needs instability and weakness. It always has done. The original founding members of the Coal and Steel Community had been destroyed by war and shorn of national purpose. The UK and others joined the EEC after they too found themselves lost and wracked by economic instability. The Eastern countries joined after 50 years of Soviet government had hollowed out governing capability and its collapse had left them economically isolated.

The Balkans are unstable but definitely not weak. The strength is the cause of the instability: strength in character, history and destiny. This is the critical impediment to joining the EU. The EU’s approach is working like a charm. It is hosing with cash all the political elites on all sides and the whole political system, weakening the link between all political groups, at all levels, and their electorates. With no representation, whatever the public think will be irrelevant.

Mike cazaly
Mike cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

As A J P Taylor said, joining the EEC was not a policy, but showed the absence of a policy.

Paul O
Paul O
1 month ago

The EU is just one of an elite group of organisations that are in expansionist mode. Others such as NATO, WHO, UN, DAVOS, WEF and the IMF are all jostling for global control. These organisations are no longer acting on our behalf (if they ever did), but are doing everything in their power to increase their own importance and control of the global stage.

Eamonn Von Holt
Eamonn Von Holt
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul O

Totally agree – all unelected bodies looking to take control by stealth.
DAVOS, WEF are probably the most sinister of the bunch, aiming to undertake “state capture” of major western democracies.

gg G
gg G
1 month ago

Great analysis. The majority of Macedonians are against joining EU. We have endured thirty years of humiliation in the name of joining EU. EU has shown nothing but arrogance, disrespect, and willingness to sacrifice the Macedonians and Macedonia in the name of their social engineering experiments. For them Macedonia and the Macedonians are just lab mice with which they can play and on which they can test various ways of obtaining a complete control over nations and their people by supporting coups, installing corrupt governments, changing constitutions, oppressing the population and supporting genocide. When it comes to Macedonia, EU has shown no boundaries, no morals, no compassion and no principles.

Last edited 1 month ago by gg G
Ormond Otvos
Ormond Otvos
1 month ago

Balkanization has a meaning, and the foolish resistance to the idea of cooperation and centralized structure merely repeats the conditions for a third world war.
Don’t trust someone so dedicated to his ideology that he would parallel the EU to Putin’s empire-building.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
1 month ago
Reply to  Ormond Otvos

…the current iteration of the EU is not an adequate cooperation/cenralisation structure however. If it abandoned its mission of creating a single political entity, (and a democratically unaccountable one at that) then it might have a long term future. Otherwise, technologically driven market forces, will eventually redress the downsides of ‘balkanization’.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 month ago
Reply to  Ormond Otvos

“Don’t trust someone so dedicated to his ideology”
I don’t, Ormond, which is why I so distrust those people who think that the EU is the solution to any problem.