A central premise of the European Union is that economic integration will soothe the rivalries between nations that for centuries have sparked the Continent’s bloody wars. In the Balkans, that approach faces what may be its toughest test. Serbia applied for EU membership in 2009, the year after Kosovo declared its independence. In 2012 the EU officially designated it a candidate. But now Kosovo has become a stumbling block.
The European Parliament approved a report on July 6 demanding that Belgrade recognize Kosovo as a “precondition of EU accession,” never mind that five members—Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia and Spain, which all have their own territorial disputes—also refuse to do so. A subsequent
poll found only 35% of Serbians supported EU membership, which previously had solid majority backing.
Asked whether his country would consent to the demand, President
gave a response dripping in sarcasm. “Nicely, decently, politely: We won’t,” he said. “To be even more polite: We won’t consider it.” The president said he has “exhausted the reservoir of decent answers” on Kosovo’s independence, still an open wound after its secession from Serbia in 2008.
Yet having geared Serbia so heavily toward the EU in recent years, Mr. Vučić would cause a huge economic shock if he backed out now. He admitted as much when he pleaded with his fellow Serbs to “view things rationally” over the EU’s new Kosovo demands. “Can we do without Europe and its investments?” he asked. “We have to be reasonable enough so that our emotions don’t prevail.”
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s bombing campaign during the Kosovo War in 1999 left the Kosovo question indelibly linked with Serbian resentment against the West. Russia, for its part, has always refused to recognize the breakaway state—as have EU states with territorial disputes of their own. But in light of
invasion of Ukraine in February, the bloc’s leaders feel a responsibility to settle the dispute once and for all.
They believe they can achieve this through sheer economic persuasion. The EU is far and away Belgrade’s biggest investor and most important trading partner. Since becoming an EU candidate country, Serbia has been the beneficiary of billions in euro-backed loans and grants. Russia’s political and cultural sway over the country remains strong, but when it comes to economic influence, there is simply no contest.
Mr. Vučić’s comments make one thing clear. For Serbia, EU accession would mean sacrificing identity for money. Centuries of national myth-building lie beneath modern resentment of Kosovo, which is at the heart of a Christian folklore surrounded by themes of Serbian martyrdom and oppression. Indeed, many Serbians would see their country’s embrace of EU membership as a craven betrayal.
Backed into a corner by EU demands, Mr. Vučić has lashed out at Kosovo, claiming the country is planning to expel Serbs from its northern region. Serbia’s defense minister prompted a nationalist backlash recently by advocating the creation of a “Serbian world” involving “the unification of all Serbs” into one state.
Serbia isn’t the only country in which EU accession is stoking old conflicts. Violent protests have erupted in North Macedonia over the bloc’s proposal to defuse ethnocultural tensions with neighboring EU member Bulgaria. For years Bulgaria has blocked membership negotiations over its refusal to accept the existence of a separate Macedonian history and language.
The EU’s proposal to break the logjam caters to Bulgarian wishes, obliging North Macedonia to rewrite its constitution to include a mention of the country’s Bulgarian minority. The proposal, initially described as “unacceptable” by North Macedonia’s prime minister, was subsequently accepted by the government and approved by Parliament on Saturday—although passing the required constitutional change may prove a major hurdle.
One former Macedonian foreign minister described the country’s road to the EU as “completely dependent on satisfying Bulgarian demands,” while the leader of the opposition laments that “the Bulgarization of our society has become the main condition for entry.”
Some Balkan political experts claim that politicians should leave these ostensibly arcane disputes to academics and instead focus on the “more practical concerns” of EU membership and its benefits. But such arguments miss the crucial point. As demonstrations against the proposed deal with Bulgaria prove, many North Macedonians would happily forgo EU money if it’s conditioned on bartering away their sense of national legitimacy.
In both Serbia and North Macedonia, EU expansion is predicated on the belief that economic arguments must ultimately outweigh nationalist fervor. The EU believes it has a duty to resolve these long-running conflicts, but solutions must ultimately be found in the Balkans, not in Brussels.
Mr. Nattrass is a British journalist and commentator based in Prague.
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