Perspectives | EU

The EU continues the tradition of Other-izing the Balkans

Elements of Balkanism still present in communications with candidate states.

By - 02.11.2017

In 1994, in her landmark text “Balkanism”, historian Maria Todorova wrote: “Geographically inextricable from Europe, yet culturally constructed as ‘Other,’ the Balkans became, in time, the object of a number of externalized political, ideological and cultural frustrations and have served as a repository of negative characteristics against which a positive and self-congratulatory image of the ‘European’ and ‘the west’ has been constructed.”

It is a quote that can also summarize the complex and fragile relations between the EU and the Balkans, a relationship, which at its roots, has the involvement of the EU in the balkanisation process.

According to Todorova, ‘balkanisation’ originally signified fragmentation, referring to the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the breakup of Yugoslavia. These events had a serious impact on the European vision of the Balkans, as balkanisation would no longer only serve as a synonym for fragmentation, but became a signifier for features like backwardness and violence.

In short, the concept received a negative connotation that reproduced itself onto the Balkans. ‘Dysfunctional,’ ‘uncivilized’ and ‘barbarian’ became general characteristics that popped up when describing the Balkans. By “othering” the Balkans, they were portrayed as the margin of civilized Europe.

In my master’s thesis, I analyzed the EU’s discourse to see if the othering element is still present in the EU-Balkan relationship in modern-day society. I did so by looking at press releases, speeches, remarks and statements by Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and her precursor Catherine Ashton.

I analyzed the gathered discourse through the critical lenses of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” (1978) and Todorova’s “Balkanism” (1994). Both are works that seek to analyse discourse, and critique how meaning develops around certain terms. I worked with the same logic, and looked at how hierarchies and dichotomies are constructed around concepts of superiority, authority, power and knowledge in the EU’s discourse.

Europe established a sense of their own identity by creating a hostile image of the Balkans, which embodies all the characteristics and features that Europeans dislike and fear the most.

The analysis has shown that the othering element is still present in the EU, and this othering takes place through two main forms.The first form includes presenting the European path as the only way out of ‘Balkan backwardness.’

The original dichotomies of Orientalism and Balkanism are constructed around concepts of good versus bad (read: the West versus the Orient/Balkans). These dichotomies were formed by othering the Balkans, meaning that Europe established a sense of their own identity by creating a hostile image of the Balkans, which embodies all the characteristics and features that Europeans dislike and fear the most. In stark contrast to the image of an enlightened Europe rose the image of the tribal, backward, primitive and barbarian Balkans.

Today this vision might not be as outspoken as it used to be, but it is definitely still present in the EU’s discourse. Although the Balkans are usually not portrayed as barbarian anymore, they are still considered a lagging civilization. Where the EU stands for civilized, the Balkans stand for under-developed. Authority and superiority are therefore the two main concepts on which the EU-Balkan relationship rests.

As the EU sees itself in the superior position, it is able to define the Balkans as not European, or not yet European enough. Because of its superior position, the EU also has authority over the Balkans.

The EU has the authority to Europeanize the Balkans by implementing the European path, and portraying it as the only way out of their Balkan backwardness.

Firstly, the EU has the authority to implement reforms and regulations, through, for example, the Stabilisation and Association Agreements or the Reform Agenda. Secondly, it has the authority to spread EU rules and modes of governance by linking financial aid to the efforts to achieve reorganisations according to EU-guidelines.

In other words, the EU has the authority to Europeanize the Balkans by implementing the European path, and portraying it as the only way out of their Balkan backwardness. It seems that the Balkans need the EU to move forward.

The second form through which the othering is still present in the EU’s relationship with the Balkans is through the discourse of domination, such as in the phrase “We are partners and we are friends.” The asymmetric element in power relations is crucial here. This implies that it is the EU that sets the rules, and the Balkans that are obliged to follow, creating a commanding supply side versus a weaker demanding side.

The EU puts a strong emphasis on the rhetoric of equal partners and is often open to negotiation during accession talks. In previous enlargement rounds, there was room for compromise and deviation. A recent example which proves the EU’s position is its ‘a la carte’ approach concerning the membership of the UK, which received several opt-outs in different policy fields.

With the Balkans, on the other hand, the EU seems to implement an ‘all or nothing’ approach. Thus, despite the EU’s ‘we are partner and we are friends’ rhetoric, the relationship between the EU and the Balkans is top-down, putting Europe above the Balkans.

In summary, my research has indicated that the EU does indeed still other-ize the Balkan countries who have not yet become a member. However, it is important to note that they do this in a way that makes sure that the Balkans can one day become European.

While trying to make the Balkans become European, the EU has to de-balkanize them. Therefore, for the remaining Balkan countries aspiring to join the EU, Europeanization is essentially their de-balkanization process. This statement entails that the Balkan countries will eventually stop being ‘Balkan,’ and become European.

Nevertheless, given the current critical attitude towards further enlargement of the European Union, and the EU’s lack of emphasis on when the other Balkan countries will ever become European (i.e. receive EU membership), a never-ending de-balkanization process might be occurring. It therefore remains unclear whether the Balkans will ever be completely de-balkanized and become truly European, or whether they are stuck in their current position as Europe’s Other.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

  • 14 Nov 2017 - 14:19 | Carl H:

    No question that the good people of northern/western Europe "otherize" various Balkan countries, just as they do to, perhaps, Asian, Latin American, and Eastern European states. Working in Poland in the early '90s, I heard many a sad story from Poles who'd been in Germany, Ireland, the UK, etc, and who felt the sting of prejudice. And I heard the standard chorus from friends and relatives in Germany: They are lazy. They are dirty. They steal. etc. A few years later, however, the Poles seemed to have gained some measure of acceptance if not grudging respect. But then it was the Romanians and Bulgarians who were unwanted and the victim of this same prejudice. But now, that too has begun to subside, giving way to a new "whipping boy"... the Albanians and Kosovars. It is not news that the wealthy inhabitants of the EU express prejudice towards the poorer, less well-traveled people of Europe's south, or Eastern Europe, or the Balkans. Prejudice is alive and well in virtually every country on earth... but it's also shrinking at the hands of more travel, more openness, social networks, and ubiquitous information. As to the author's complaint that the EU wants to make the rules for the poorer countries who wish to join, how is that a surprise? Perhaps new members will feel more equal once they are admitted to this elite club. Until then, they will have to pay a price - in every dimension of their state and society - in order to get in. That's a natural quid pro quo. Better to do what Europe asks as expeditiously as possible than to complain about the unfairness of the bargain... particularly given the unlikelihood of the Balkan states forging a community of their own that will bring the security, economic, educational, and other advantages that the EU offers.