Carving up the Balkans won’t fix the region’s problems, writes Oliver Andonov.
Skopje (Brussels Morning) Some people tickle our sense of humour by taking themselves slightly more seriously than they should. For instance, Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Janša, who reportedly floated a non-paper to the European Council, which envisaged redrawing the Balkan borders in a manner that echoes the Churchill-Stalin Percentages Agreement.
The proposal entails the carving up of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Republic of Srpska handed over to Serbia, Croatian cantons in Herzegovina handed to Croatia and a rump Muslim state left in the middle. The European Commission denied ever having received such a proposal. People have denied the existence of the non-paper, then questioned its contents, and inquired into who knew, shared and sponsored the non-paper. It sounds like the authors of the document are not particularly proud of their work, quite unlike Churchill or Stalin.
That the Balkans is a ‘hopeless’ place in need of redrawing for lack of reformation is not an uncommon perception, but it is nonetheless wrong. If one wants to reform the Balkans, one must allow the people of the region a sense of ownership over the ‘Europe project’, which reaches beyond institutional assimilation to the EU. The project at hand is forging a community of values and norms. In that sense, those living in the region feel estranged and aghast when their part of the world is referred to as the ‘Western Balkans’. It sounds like a dystopian sci-fi vision rather than a corner of Europe.
We in the region cannot fathom the idea that our journey to Europe begins with a Yalta-like carving out of sovereign states and an exchange of paper towels with different percentages of Bosnia-Herzegovina.That’s an encore of an old Europe that the EU, as it was designed, is supposed to relegate to the past.
Ghosts of Yalta
Having waived the spectre of communism in Europe, the idea has been that we will pursue a non-hegemonic project, which will not entail the domination of one sovereign state by another. The idea is not to once again succumb to the spectre of Stalinist utopias but to create a space of economic and political interdependence, on the foundation of citizens’ rights guaranteed across a union of values and norms — that is not abstract or idealist thinking.
A Europe that is merely a sum of sovereign entities is not a union in any shape or form. To quote Denis de Rougemont, “… a holy alliance of the sovereignties that we are dying of would not restore us to life”. The idea has always been to allow goods and people to circulate, so that it is goods, people and capital rather than armies that cross our borders.
This discussion cannot start with a Percentages Agreement and the treatment of the region as a clean slate to write on. The discussion about “Europeanisation” requires concrete and realistic steps of solidarity. “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan”, Robert Schuman proclaimed in 1950, but “will be built through concrete achievements, which first create a de facto solidarity”.
The issue at hand is to address concrete challenges with de facto solidarity. That conversation cannot begin with people who were embroiled in the Yugoslav wars and whose hypocrisy may be expected but not forgiven. Schuman saw the beginning of Europe in a Franco-German rapprochement. To think that this project is now finished and all other polarities can be addressed through the exchange of paper towels and a Percentage Agreement is naïve, offensive, and certainly un-European.
EU and former Yugoslavia
People of the former Yugoslavia were promised a place in a community of solidarity extending beyond their former Federation and across Europe. That promise was taken seriously, as it echoed the experience of building a Franco-German peace on the ruins of Europe, beginning with the meeting of Schuman and Konrad Adenauer in Koblenz in 1947. Their discussions entailed pooling together coal and steel to make war impracticable. Their discussion did not revolve around yet another redistribution of land, of the kind tried in 1871, 1914 and 1941.
There are, of course, those who believe that they can rectify what their predecessors got wrong. The definition of being mad is to do the same thing in the hope it will yield a different result. And some people still liken themselves to mini Otto von Bismarcks, who will resolve the issues of our time through “blood and iron”, to quote the former prime minister of Prussia. Well, an idiot can learn from his mistakes but wise people learn from other people’s mistakes to paraphrase him.
Some, however, still dream of historical shortcuts.
For Schuman, European integration was “extensive and painstaking work” based on “a completely equal footing of mutual respect and trust”. But a Percentages Agreement that will once again divide Europe between winners and losers, status quo and revisionist powers is clearly not what he had in mind.
“The Balkans have been the subject of numerous European conferences … from one disappointment to another, because one failed to give to these pseudo-agreements, in addition to their more or less artificial legal status, a common task and a new hope, capable of erasing the quarrels of the past”, Schuman argued. That observation is as fresh today as it were seven decades ago.
Clashing with common sense
Huntington’s discredited “clash of civilizations” thesis was an ode to ignorance. Had we taken it seriously, we could not take the project of European integration in earnest, nor indeed the possibility to carve out a better future for the Balkans. The region is not more or less capable of transcending historical differences than Germany and France, becoming something more than the sum of its history of conflict.
The region is not a frontier but a bridge.
When Europe and Asia pull apart, there are tectonic reactions. But make no mistake, the region is and has been significant for commerce, culture and political stability for centuries. That is a reality to which a number of powers are waking up to. In this context, Europe is not a power or contestant among others, but an alternative proposal: the vision of ending hegemonic politics and building interdependence, one sector and treaty at a time. If it’s not that, then what Europe is, amounts to very little.
Engaging the Balkans does not require tolerance towards local mafias, clientelism, smuggling and trafficking, and all colours of transnational crime. It requires quite the opposite, namely practical solidarity that creates functional, viable and irreversible bonds between the region and the rest of Europe.
There is no “quick fix” that can be encapsulated in a single “non-paper” that can resolve things at once: to believe in quick fixes is delusional, ahistorical and runs contrary to what Europe knows to be true. Final solutions are rarely final and are never solutions to anything. In the end, everything will end. As General Joffre says about the battle of Marna: “I do not know who won, but I know well the one who lost.”