PRAGUE (BLOOMBERG) – The European Union is at risk of losing out to Russia and China in its own backyard, with its trademark slow decision making creating an opening for the rival powers and increasing tensions in the continent’s most volatile region.
Efforts to safeguard stability in the Balkans are being derailed by the stalling membership talks with North Macedonia.
Over the past 16 years, the former Yugoslav republic jumped through hoops to prove itself worthy of starting negotiations, but it is in limbo again.
Along with North Macedonia, five other Balkan nations are candidates to join: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia.
But with the EU stumbling from crisis to crisis, the pace of expansion has slowed since Croatia joined in 2013.
That has created an opportunity for rival forces, including Russia, China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to build their influence.
The turbulent peninsula that has long been a geopolitical battleground is again rife with tension.
Territorial claims are becoming louder, ethnic divisions are deepening and some politicians are openly discussing the need to change borders.
As in the rest of eastern Europe, the EU’s plan has been to bolster stability in the region by holding out the prospects of membership for countries building democratic institutions, tackling corruption and opening economies.
“The EU has lost a lot of credibility” over North Macedonia, said Mr Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat who just concluded his 12-year term as the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, a post responsible for monitoring implementation of a 1995 peace agreement.
“Above all, allowing a vacuum is the worst, as others will move to fill it.”
Another delay would send ripples across the Balkans, where the rise of nationalist leaders has ratcheted tensions to the highest since the end of the bloody wars that ended less than a generation ago.
With fellow ex-Yugoslav partner Slovenia taking over the EU’s rotating presidency next month, European diplomats may have a chance to make progress.
“The Macedonian case is a serious test for the credibility of the EU, not only for our country, but for the whole region,” said Mr Dusko Arsovski, a spokesman for Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government in North Macedonia.
Problems are mounting.
With tacit support from Russia, there is a growing movement for Bosnian Serbs to secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Montenegro endured a failed coup attempt in 2016 that tried to prevent it from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).
In North Macedonia the agreement to change the country’s name faced fierce opposition, which the United States has pinned on Russia.
“There are a lot of things to be worried about,” said Mr Peter Galbraith, the first US ambassador to then newly independent Croatia, who played a key role in ending wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In the 1990s, when the region quickly descended to war, the US stepped in.
But now, “this is a European problem, and it requires European leadership”, Mr Galbraith said.
Russia’s biggest ally in the region, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, is casting himself as the unifier of all Serbs, bringing echoes of the rhetoric of his former boss Slobodan Milosevic.
While Mr Vucic has vowed to respect borders, one of his top lieutenants just last month struck called the vision of all Serbs living in one state “is now unstoppable”.
In its negotiations with Belgrade, the EU’s main goal has been to get Serbia to recognise Kosovo, its former province that unilaterally declared independence a decade after Nato intervention ended fighting on its soil.
That has been a step too far for Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, who last month decried as hypocrisy the insistence on the sanctity of borders by those who recognised Kosovo as a state.
They “have opened a Pandora’s box that is very difficult to close”, she said.
The EU’s approach has proved short-sighted, according to Dr Aidan Hehir, a professor at the University of Westminster.
“The impression is that Serbia can destabilise the Balkans,” he said. “But if you ignore other countries and just focus on Serbia, you are making a big mistake, because all these countries can generate instabilities.”
In a sign of the volatile undercurrents, the region was shaken by a rumour about an unofficial EU document on redrawing borders along ethnic lines, primarily in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
A “non-paper” in the bloc’s parlance, it also mentioned a possible unification of Albania and Kosovo.
Brussels declined to comment on the matter.
North Macedonia’s progress towards membership has been held up by its EU-member neighbour, Bulgaria, over the name and origin of the country’s language and the two nations’ shared history.
At an impasse, Brussels recently suggested starting negotiations just with Albania.
The Bulgarian objection is emblematic of the EU’s convoluted decision-making process and the multitude of rules that govern expansion, giving existing members veto powers over the proceedings.
Some, especially in the bloc’s western core, are reluctant to rush ahead with admitting new countries after the headaches of the last few rounds of enlargement – from corruption concerns to money laundering scandals and challenges to the rule of law.
Aspirant countries have made little progress in quelling those worries. Although North Macedonia was the only republic that escaped bloody fighting during the collapse of Yugoslavia, it had its share of ethnic tensions.
Clashes between Albanians, who make up more than a quarter in the population of two million, and the majority Macedonians culminated in a nine-month insurgency in 2001.
The country has since forged a power-sharing agreement and resolved a long-standing dispute with Greece over its name in 2019, gaining Nato membership.
“Remaining outside of the European family would lead to isolation and the rise of ethnic intolerance,” said video editor Majda Bosnjak Atanasovska from Skopje.
But the ingredients for instability remain and the EU’s delays are threatening to hurt the government that has staked its credibility on progress towards membership.
The next inflection point may come when Slovenia takes over the EU’s rotating presidency next month.
The government in Ljubljana has set accelerating expansion high on the agenda.
“If you are not doing anything to prevent fighting, you are asking for trouble,” Mr Galbraith said. “Fighting on the EU’s borders will make the EU look futile and weak. It will plague the EU in dealing with their own threats to democracy and countering populism.”