Britain out, Balkans in? The view from EU candidate states

Article published on June 22, 2016
Article published on June 22, 2016

In the Balkans many countries are still trying to become members of the European Union, yet the United Kingdom could be on the verge of slamming the EU door. How is Brexit perceived by countries that have been asking to join for years? Even if, in the meantime, they continue to shop around.

"I can tell you right away that nobody here is talking about it." Nedim Hadrovic is quick to interrupt me as soon as we broach the subject of Brexit. Seen from Sarajevo, European issues have been at the heart of economic and political reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina for more than a decade, but they don't attract much public debate.

Even as the date of tomorrow's referendum on the UK's possible exit from the EU approaches, there are countries who are still asking to enter the Union. Bosnia Herzegovina is one of them. In February 2016, the country submitted its formal application with the objective of obtaining the status of candidate country before the end of 2017.

The mood in the Balkans

Nedim Hadrovic, a 25-year-old freelance journalist, returned to Sarajevo after growing up in Germany, the Middle East and Asia. He explains that a large part of his country's prioritised reforms derive from the intention of becoming a EU member. "Economically, there are great differences between the states that are aspiring to enter the European Union," explains Nedim. "But parliamentarian debate is mostly favourable to changing national legislation in order to meet community rules."

Counterbalancing these European winds of change, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a country paralysed by an intricate and stratified administrative structure – a system based on nationalism and ethnic quotas, sanctioned in the Dayton agreement of 1995.

"Bosnian foreign policy is neutral for reasons of internal conflicts of interest, and the political caste rarely discusses Brexit – above all with local elections just around the corner," explains Rašid Krupalija, editor at Bosnia Daily. Even the 2013 census has been transformed into an obstacles course. It turns out the results haven't been published yet because of "methodological divergences" with Eurostat.

Around 500 kilometres south of Sarajevo, at the crossroads of the Balkan Route travelled by incoming refugees, Macedonian people are a little more interested in a potential UK walkout. "The Macedonian mass media discusses Brexit, but they don't pay great attention to it," argues Dragi Pavlovski (27) from Bistola, a financial coordinator for an NGO. "Perhaps online and on TV it's discussed a bit more."

Macedonia also wants to become an EU member, and it already obtained the status of candidate country in 2005. But its entry was blocked by Greece’s veto over a dispute about the official name of the former Yugoslavian republic. "The more time passes, the more Euroscepticism grows here, since negotiations with the EU have been going on for more than 10 years and there's still no progress," Dragi complains.

Political instability, recent protests against the government, and corruption, only fuel feelings of distrust "towards the West in general", in Dragi's words. "Perception seems to be changing and we seem to be becoming closer and closer to Russia."

This was witnessed last year when the country adhered to the Russian pipeline project, named Turkish Stream (then blocked because of the tensions between Moscow and Ankara). Even if, after a more detailed analysis, this can be put down to realpolitik decision-making on Skopje's part.

Towards alternative models?

"In my view, it would be stupid if the English voted for Brexit, it would be a disaster for the European unit," says a concerned Dragi. "But they are the only ones aware of what's best for them."

Nedim elaborates on this point. "The problem is not Brexit in and of itself, but the threat of a potential EU collapse. The feelings behind Brexit may be noble, even logical, but it stirs up anger and encourages decrying the views of Conservatives and anti-EU supporters. Because of this the Union becomes a 'common enemy', a perception that has emerged from frustration and from the economic decline of the Old Continent. Though also from the refugees crisis."

Bosnian people have always resorted to irony, comments Rašid: "When we finally get in, the EU will already have fallen to pieces." Up to now people referred to a lack of progress in Bosnia, but today we can speak of insufficient progress in the Union as well.

"There's no doubt that Brexit would be a heavy blow to the very idea of European integration," says Nenad Stojanović, a political expert from the University of Lucerna, born in 1976 in Sarajevo. Besides strengthening Eurosceptics in the Balkans, it's feared that Brexit will weaken the European membership prospects of "outsider" candidate countries.

Stojanović moved to Switzerland in 1992 and was made a member of parliament from 2007 to 2013. From here, the professor suggests an unusual hypothesis. "The creation of a group of countries that don't belong to the EU, but that are part of it structurally [and economically, ed.], could be an interesting solution for Great Britain, Switzerland, Turkey or Norway," he argues. "At that point, any European leader could feel tempted to include the non-EU member Balkan countries in such a group." 

But he goes on to say that if the "Swiss model" of bilateral relations with the EU "could be extended to other economically strong countries", for Bosnia, Macedonia and their neighbours, "Such a solution would be less favourable than a genuine adhesion."

So do western Balkan states feel closer or further away from Europe? "By what measure?" Stojanović asks. "Honestly, it's difficult to say. In 1990, the Yugoslav Federation was just one step away from entering the European Economic Community, well in advance of Poland and Hungary. The EEC made a historic mistake by not offering this prospect immediately. Today, the citizens of the countries of the former Yugoslavia don't have other prospects – be they political and economic – if not to join the EU. Provided that the EU wants them."

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We've officially been banned from quoting The Clash, but the question nevertheless invokes the famous song. On the 23rd of June 2016, citizens of the United Kingdom will vote on whether or not they want to remain a member state of the European Union. We've a few Babelians who have a thing or two to say about that...