Perspectives | EU

What direction for the Western Balkans in a more right wing EU?

By - 22.05.2019

Post-elections EU does not present an optimistic future for further enlargement.

In anticipation of the upcoming European Parliamentary elections, the Europhobes of the far right have been warming up to launch an attack on the major achievements of the union. Some of these parties have established their electoral bastions almost everywhere.

In the Netherlands it is the Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders, in France the Rassemblement National (formerly National Front), whose candidate Marine Le Pen made it as far as to the second and final round in the presidential elections.

These are parties like the Austrian FPÖ (“Freedom Party of Austria”), which overtly advocates racist and xenophobic points and, until a recent scandal, had been sitting in the government in Vienna as a junior partner. The inclination toward National Socialism of Heinz-Christian Strache, the party leader, was attested by a Viennese court years ago, and he was recently forced to resign after an undercover video dramatically documented his willingness to brutally abuse his position and state institutions for party benefits as well as his desire for an “Orbán-like” media landscape.

In Poland, there is the strongly conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, or PiS) party, which moves into the limelight every now and then by attacking the justice sector and crusading against migration (especially that of Muslim refugees) as well as through its strong opposition to granting further rights to the LGBT community.

Then there is Hungary’s Fidesz party led by Prime Minister Victor Orbán, who speaks decidedly against an alleged Islamization of Europe, intending thus to defend — according to his crude narrative — the “Western Christian civilization” and its values. Like in no other country in the EU, Fidesz, through their brute policy, have secured their position through control of the media landscape and embarked upon destroying democracy from within.

With the Alternative für Deutschland party (Alternative for Germany, AfD), Germany is witness, for the first time in post-WWII history, to a radical right wing party sitting in the Bundestag and changing lastingly the political culture of the country with their hateful rhetoric.

According to recent forecasts, right wing populist forces could reach some 25 percent of the seats in the European Parliament.

According to the latest surveys, in some east German federal states the AfD even leads the polls.

Throughout the European Union, right wing conservative parties, pandering to populists and espousing the supposed will of the people to crusade against the elites, can count on a strong gain in votes in the upcoming elections.

According to recent forecasts, the right wing populist forces could reach some 25 percent of the seats in the European Parliament (meanwhile, it is unclear how the FPÖ-related scandal in Austria will affect the results of the illiberal parties in general).

Despite all the differences in their programs, when it comes to the topic of refugees, they form a common front against the current form of Project Europe. The peace project of the continent that has been growing for decades is being shelled like never before.

Attack on the EU’s very foundations

These forces do not just want to combat the common currency or opt for an exit option for their countries, as in preceding years. Rather, they now want to occupy Europe in its current form — they want the power to weaken the EU and its institutions in the long term, in order to reconstruct it according to their ideas.

Where they already have a majority, we are witnessing, as most recently in Austria, verbal attacks on critics and journalists, or — as in Hungary — on free education.

Democratic standards that were previously taken for granted in Europe are now challenged with brutal rhetoric.

Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini announced that the elections would sweep away the “Euro bureaucrats and nitpickers.” And he wants more: For some time now, the Italian has been working on a strong alliance, he dreams of a real “revolution” in the European Parliament, of a coalition of all those forces that push for the absurd idea to redelegate power back to the nation-state level.

Their instruments are quite simple: Riding a populist wave, they crusade against the ruling elites and promise simple solutions to complex issues. They can all certainly agree on one solution: refugees out!

With the upcoming swing to the right in the European Parliament, the nationalists will be able to spread their propaganda even more efficiently than before, but as of yet, the left-liberal, pro-EU majority has still been able to run rings around the hollering southpaws.

The EU and its hitherto recognizable enlargement efforts, even if pursued with an absence of a clear strategy, would thereby be put into question even more fundamentally than before.

After Orbán’s break with the European People’s Party (EPP) the camp of right wing conservatives and illiberals will thus be further reinforced, as the Hungarian now openly confesses his affiliation to Europe’s most radical actors with their overtly Islamophobic hate rhetoric.

The consolidation of these forces foreshadows devastating consequences for all of the EU: the increasing influence of illiberal forces will build up distrust of democratic institutions, multilateralism, civil society and environmental science as well as distrust of the free press and of the independent judiciary, according to analyses by the Berliner think tank Adelphi. In this way, the coherence of the union will strongly be put to the test from within.

With an EU wrangling with itself in such a manner, the Western Balkans could only be marginalized further.

The EU and its hitherto recognizable enlargement efforts, even if pursued with the absence of a clear strategy, would thereby be put into question even more fundamentally than before. Besides, discussions in the individual member states were in this regard being thwarted purposefully.

In particular, in France with Macron as the head of state, a clear commitment was avoided. The political position was: first internal reforms, then enlargement. With the European elections ahead, Paris wanted to avoid any comments on a new round of enlargement, above all to prevent any strengthening of Marine Le Pen’s position.

This is a kind of anticipatory obedience to the far-right agenda, which shows how effective the powerful populist-authoritarian forces already are in Europe.

Merkel as a corrective

All the more important are currently those voices that clearly oppose the right wing claim to power: The German chancellor has been warning against the dangerous developments for weeks and stated that nothing less than the very future of the EU is at stake.

A collaboration with right wing parties after the elections is out of the question, Chancellor Merkel explained.

Something else has become apparent since the Berlin meeting: Germany continues to see the EU integration of the Western Balkans as a strategic goal.

And there is no question, especially when it comes to the future of the Balkans, that the German chancellor plays a significant role: How important Merkel considers the stability in Europe, how much she keeps the fragile situation in the Southeast, including the existing borders, in view, was proven most recently at the summit in Berlin in late April, hosted by the Macron/Merkel duo.

Although the meeting did not yield any far-reaching results, an important message was sent: Unlike the objectives previously pursued by Commissioner Federica Mogherini (and the U.S. special envoy for foreign policy, John Bolton) such as a territorial exchange between Kosovo and Serbia, Macron and Merkel made it clear that the borders in Europe are not to be altered. Territorial changes would have dangerous repercussions on the entire region.

Moreover, something else has become apparent since the Berlin meeting: Germany continues to see the EU integration of the Western Balkans as a strategic goal, albeit acting somewhat more restrained. France also indicated EU membership as a long-term goal. A follow-up meeting in Paris has already been announced.

The European elections will now reveal whether the Franco-German commitment will bring about further positive effects to the continuation of the EU integration of the Western Balkans in a more dynamic process.

Because despite positive developments, such as the settlement of the name dispute between North Macedonia and Greece and initial frail reform processes in Albania, the situation in the region as a whole is alarming.

Freedom of the media is under fire in many Balkan countries, the scope of engagement of journalists and other civil actors is being limited by use of force. As if they had not learned the lessons of the devastating Balkan wars, nationalist forces continue to advocate ominous great national ideologies (Greater Serbia, Greater Croatia, Greater Albania) — in place of an increase of confidence-building measures, and instead of peaceful cooperation between the countries, the danger of new violent clashes is growing.

Reduced EU-engagement

One of the biggest problems continues to be Bosnia and Herzegovina. While some rudimentary democratic progress is being made in neighboring countries, the country continues to plummet in comparison to regional standards.

Radical ethno-nationalism and the systemic exploitation of the country by corrupt political clans are a disastrous combination that has been smothering any new beginning for almost 25 years after the Dayton Peace Agreement.

In his latest report to the UN Security Council, the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Valentin Inzko referred to the alarming secessionist rhetoric of the Bosnian Serb politicians in Republika Srpska (who entertain a friendly relationship with the Austrian FPÖ) and the disregard of war crimes judgments by the Bosnian Croats (in particular HDZ leader Dragan Čović) regarding the criminal para-state of Herceg-Bosna, which many are eager to revive.

Secessionist appetites and the glorification of war projects are evidence to the fact that the relevant stakeholders continue to adhere to the ideologies of the ’90s — which clashes with the melodious EU rhetoric that the leading Bosnian politicians have wisely trained themselves to present before the international politicians.

In order to be able to counteract these destructive forces, the EU needs to be more assertive in the volatile southeast, rather than less. Strict conditionality is required to convince the democracy-loathing elites of the necessity of modernization, if necessary by means of sanctions.

With a volatile prospect of enlargement, the democratization efforts in the region — however moderate they may be at present — would be further weakened.

The outcome of the European elections will show whether the EU, set up with a new Commission and new forces in parliament, can deal with these challenges in a constructive manner. Because with a volatile prospect of enlargement, the democratization efforts in the region — however moderate they may be at present — would be further weakened.

Without a clear prospect of enlargement, the countries of the Balkans will remain exposed to the destabilizing forces. This would come in handy to those actors who are already seeking influence over the Balkans: apart from Russia, Turkey, the Arab states and China are trying to expand their influence across the Balkans, whether covertly, through soft power or through targeted investments.

A reduced EU engagement would mean a broader possible scope of action that would allow them to pursue their illiberal agendas undisturbed. The democratization prospects of the region would, beyond doubt, further deteriorate in those circumstances.

In the long term, the European Union would run the risk of losing the southeast of the continent as a zone of influence — with lasting negative scenarios that would put the stability of the entirety of Europe at stake.

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.