April 2018

By Sally A. Painter and Jeremiah J. Baronberg

This article was published by Balkan Insider.

“A Europe, whole free and at peace.”

These words, so often repeated, have served as a guiding beacon and vision for a stable and united Europe after centuries of violent conflict and the devastation of World War II. They provide a common understanding of a troubled past that informs the present and, by extension, points to a shared future.

Today, with the continent in flux, it is worth remembering that this vision of unity and integration did not emerge out of thin air. Common interests and shared culture helped secure the peace, while formalized Euro-Atlantic structures based on standards and values—most notably NATO, the European Union, and the OECD—served as the guarantors of this new norm and as the “connective tissue” among allies.

These organizations elevated and coordinated collective defense and security measures, underpinned economic and business transparency standards, and enshrined human rights and free expression protections. Without these institutions to maintain order and hold Europe together, it is anyone’s guess what the alternative might have been.

For the first 50 years after World War II, this vision achieved reality in Western Europe. Then, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the ensuing collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly independent countries of Central and Eastern Europe breathed new life into the European project by declaring their national objectives to join Europe and the West. Incentivized to institute difficult political, economic, and military reforms, each became full, contributing members of NATO and the EU.

However today, the European project is not complete. The Balkan region—which emerged from the 1990s after a decade of war, including in the former states of Yugoslavia—represents the last remaining frontier to achieving a Europe, ‘whole and free.’ Slovenia and Croatia (NATO and the EU) and Albania and Montenegro (NATO only) have been able to move forward on their European paths. Others, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia have seen their path to join Europe stalled or thwarted by regional dynamics and internal turmoil.

Macedonia, despite challenges and setbacks, has embraced radical economic and political reforms. Most important, it has served as an active contributor to NATO peacekeeping missions and has participated in NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP), closing its 17th NATO MAP cycle in 2017. Yet its path to NATO accession has been repeatedly blocked by Greece over the name of the country. Outsiders not fluent in Balkan politics are aghast at this rationale for an alliance based on values. Serbia, whose official stated goal of joining the EU has been reaffirmed consistently by successive leaders, is being held back by its relations with Kosovo. Bosnia and Herzegovina, currently facing an internal political crisis, has contributed to NATO missions in Afghanistan and the U.S. coalition against ISIS. While it has been invited to join the MAP, it faces internal ethnic divisions and concerns over the sustainability and application of the Dayton Peace Accords.

In each case, public faith in a future rooted in Europe and its institutions is faltering. This trend, together with waning attention and commitment from the West, is fraught with danger and risk. The prospect of joining NATO and the EU has been a primary pillar for the relative stability in the region and an incentive for reforms. But without a clear path to joining these institutions, Balkan countries have undergone periods of illiberal tendencies—highlighted by democratic backsliding, setbacks to the rule of law, state capture, corruption and political patronage, economic malaise, and exacerbated inter-ethnic divisions both within and between countries.

Without a common, European vision to unite the region, alternatives—nationalism, ethnic polarization, zero sum strategies—become easy substitutes. Even worse, the absence of sustained attention and focus by the West has allowed other actors, primarily Russia and its proxies, to opportunistically exert a destabilizing influence and promote anti-EU sentiment across southeast Europe. Moreover, an assertive China and Turkey are each building their own soft power inroads.

What can be done?

The West should recognize that each Balkan country is unique and deserves support for its Euro-Atlantic accession. It should provide a tangible, incremental roadmap together with a clearly defined timeline for their reform agendas. Brussels and Washington need to be much more engaged and take a stake in continued progress on substantive democratic and economic reforms. As the Balkans’ biggest trading partner, Europe can also leverage its financial support and investment as carrots to further encourage—and help build the strong foundations necessary for—reform as well as peaceful coexistence.

Finally, we should not let the ‘perfect be the enemy of the good.’ That means that we must recognize and applaud the tremendous progress already made by these aspirant countries—as we did in previous rounds of NATO and EU enlargement—and that the criteria for accession must be flexible and, ultimately, based on the overriding concept that inclusion in these alliances is far better than the alternative.

The EU’s newly released strategy presents a helpful roadmap forward for the Balkans. Yet without the promise—and actual delivery—of Euro-Atlantic integration, the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace will not be complete. A new generation of citizens, leaders, and business entrepreneurs across the Balkans stands ready to tie its future to the West.

What message does our current ambivalence and perceived foot-dragging send to them? The time is now to make good on this vision.