Can Austria help bring Southeastern Europe into the EU’s fold? After all, as State Chancellor Klemens von Metternich knew, “the Balkans begin at Rennweg”

In July 2018, Austria will again assume the European Union presidency, just as enlargement comes back on the agenda. Many in Europe still think expansion matters, as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent State of the Union made clear. “If we want more stability in our neighborhood, we must also maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans.” Austria’s Foreign Minister (and probable next chancellor) Sebastian Kurz agrees. “The EU must not allow a vacuum to form in the Balkan countries, something which others would be quick to fill,” he recently argued.

For the European Union, providing the Balkan states with this “credible EU perspective” has been central to its strategy for stability after the ethnic wars of the 1990s. “The future of the Balkans is within the European Union,” its leaders have often repeated, investing in institution building (with mixed results) and major infrastructure projects. Its interest is both ideological and strategic: Investing economic and political capital helps keep the Balkans within its sphere of influence – and Russia, Turkey, and China on the sidelines.

Rhetoric is one thing of course, but action is quite another. Even before Croatia joined in 2013, EU enlargement in the Western Balkans was spluttering. Burnt by the hasty admission of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 – before corruption and organized crime had been brought under control – the EU now finds democracy deteriorating in Poland and Hungary. While it has an array of mechanisms to shape governance before new members enter, the EU has very few levies once countries are part of the club.

The 2008 financial crisis in the eurozone – with capital flowing from north to south and migration the other way – also lessened demand for new members, especially ones with high unemployment and low per capita GDP. The rise of far-right populism, triggered by both the economic and refugee crises, has coarsened attitudes to immigration across the continent, leaving governments weary of expanding either the single market or the Schengen visa-free zone.

In all this, old prejudices against the Balkans are resurfacing. “The whole Balkan region is pretty unattractive for Europe,” says Eric Gordy, professor at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies. “There hasn’t been strong will for Europe to expand for 10 years.” With the dispute unresolved between Serbia and Kosovo, dilapidated democratic institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and concerns over judicial independence and freedom of the press in Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia, “there is a sense that expansion will bring disadvantages and not very many benefits.”

Still, things may not be as bad as they seem, says James Ker-Lindsay, professor of politics and policy at St. Mary’s University, London. For one thing, the enlargement process is still very much going ahead. Serbia and Montenegro are at the negotiating stage, and Albania and Macedonia have candidate status.

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Albania’s beaches are remote but beautiful. // © Egzon Bytyqi / Unsplash

But matters are advancing at a snail’s pace, and the longer the process drags on, the weaker public support for EU membership in the Western Balkans becomes. In Serbia, for example, support for joining the EU has declined from around 70 percent in the mid-2000s to below 50 percent today. The appeal of the single market remains – both for the EU and the Balkan countries – as does the promise of freedom of movement. However, the accession process has also bolstered some discordant voices, so that “it is no longer clear what the EU represents,” Gordy said.

Once seen as a bulwark against regression on human, civil, and minority rights, today, with no clear EU response to democratic crises in Poland and Hungary, the message is blurred. Often, “it feels like the EU is stringing the Balkans along,” Gordy said.

Arrested Development

The fault, however, is not the EU’s alone. Serbia and Montenegro remain the most likely candidates, though the earliest that could happen is 2025 – and even then, both countries would face major hurdles. Freedom of the press remains a problem in Montenegro, where investigative journalist Jovo Martinović, accused of drug trafficking, spent more than 14 months in prison from 2015 to January 2017 and is still facing his trial. Parliamentary elections have been blighted by irregularities, while a political system dominated by the Democratic Party of Socialists is riddled with corruption.balkansTo say nothing of Serbia, whose biggest obstacle to EU membership is the refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence. This is obviously also a problem for Kosovo itself, as several current EU member states have withheld recognition. While Austria was one of the first to recognize it in 2008, Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece, and Cyprus have yet to follow suit. The current crisis in Catalonia means Spain is unlikely to change its mind. While more than half of UN member states now recognize Kosovo, the process has slowed dramatically, with only Bangladesh recognizing Kosovo in 2017.

As to the EU itself, while it was the mediator in the Brussels Process for the normalization of relations, its own divided membership leaves it in no position to make official demands. Rather, it may be left to individual countries like Austria to use the threat of veto to make recognition of Kosovo a condition of Serbian EU membership. Unfortunately, says Gordy, “Serbia is probably unwilling to do what it would take to remove that obstacle.”

From the Danube to the Drina

After the collapse of communism in 1989, Vienna once again became the gateway to Central and Eastern Europe. Kurz today speaks of Austria as “solidly anchored in Western Europe” while offering “a good bridge” to the East. Today, this is a role it shares with Berlin, but still, the Western Balkans very much remain within Austria’s sphere of influence. Aside from longstanding banking and commercial interests in the region – Austria is the single biggest investor in Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina – the country continues to support the full integration of former Yugoslavia and Albania into the EU.One mechanism for doing this is the multinational Berlin Process, begun in 2014 and hosted in Vienna in 2015, which helps to resolve bilateral disputes, migration issues and challenges to the rule of law. Austria’s Defense Ministry also has its own cooperative process, offering Bosnian cadets officer training, including language and cultural education in Austria.

But Austria’s involvement in the region has not been without controversy. As foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz has came under fire for his perceived closeness to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić – who has led a Trump-like campaign against critical and independent media – and former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. Even after it was revealed that Gruevski’s regime had conducted a broad-based illegal wiretapping and surveillance program of its own citizens, Kurz appeared at an election rally in December 2016 in support of Gruevski’s currently ruling VMRO-DPMNE party.

Since 2015, Kurz has “invested considerable political energy in closing the Western Balkans route” for refugees traveling to Central Europe, according to Florian Bieber, director of the Center for South East European Studies at the University of Graz. This, he says, was Kurz’s “primary motivation” in Austrian foreign policy in the region. While successful, critics say the price was high. The effort “weaponized illiberal regimes as the border guards of Europe,” argues Jasmin Mujanović, author of the forthcoming book, Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans. Regarding Vučić and Gruevski, Mujanović doubts that “a series of strongmen can stabilize the Balkans. In practice, this never works. It is only a matter of time before it blows up.”

Courting the Yugosphere

Closing the Western Balkans route was as much about regional stability as Austrian domestic politics. In a different sense, so was Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache’s recent endorsement of Republika Srpska’s independence. “Serbs and Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina should have the right to self-determination and this right should not be denied to anyone,” Strache told Republika Srpska’s public broadcaster, the RTRS.

Interviewed two weeks prior to the October 15 election, Strache was, perhaps in vain, reaching out to immigrant voters from former Yugoslavia. Although 2013 election polling showed that ex-Yugoslav voters were more likely to back the Social Democrats, in recent years the Freedom Party has actively courted eligible Serbs, especially in Vienna. Deputy Mayor Johann Gudenus married his Serbian wife in an Orthodox church in Banja Luka, attended by Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik and many Austrian Freedom Party officials.

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The Stari Most is a landmark of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Destroyed during the war in 1993, was rebuilt until 2004. // © Faruk Kaymak / Unsplash

There is, too, a kind of political and ideological nexus among Strache’s Freedom Party, Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, and Vladimir Putin’s United Russia. Dodik is Putin’s main proxy in former Yugoslavia, and as ultranationalists, Dodik, Putin, and Strache are primarily interested in challenging the existing European order, including its borders. The Freedom Party has moderated its position on the EU, now openly supporting Austria’s membership in the Union, as well as withdrawing objections to the euro. Still, Strache opposes EU sanctions on Moscow, and joins Dodik in his hostility toward Islam. He told RTRS that radical Islamic groups pose a danger to the European character of Muslim Bosnia.

The futures of the Western Balkans and of Austria are therefore, to a real degree, intertwined. If, as seems likely after last month’s election, the ÖVP moves to form a coalition with the FPÖ, Strache could be in a position to exert some influence on foreign policy, for example by appointing former presidential candidate Norbert Hofer to a strategic post. There would likely be pushback within the ÖVP and the EU. But in general, Bieber believes, with Kurz and Strache, we would see “a more selfish, internally oriented foreign policy,” one that will seriously undermine Austria’s position in the Western Balkans.

To his credit, Kurz himself has consistently stressed the importance of “Euro-Atlantic” (i.e. EU and NATO) integration of the Balkans and, as foreign minister, of actively strengthening regional ties. Even as the EU deals with its own enormous challenges – including Brexit, terrorism, and youth unemployment – it must not neglect the Balkans, he has argued.

To do this, as foreign minister or as chancellor, Kurz will need to represent the centrist political culture of Austria – managing complex relations with authoritarian regimes while balancing interests in the shifting politics at home.