Europe is facing a potential crisis in the Balkans. It has to act soon: Ivan Krastev

The promise of EU membership for states in the region is welcome, but Russia, China and Turkey could create instability

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 20.36.41  “But for the EU to succeed in its ambition to transform the region, it has to be aware of the momentous geopolitical changes that have taken place. In 2003, when the EU first promised membership, there seemed little doubt that the region’s future would be European. Russia was looking to the Balkans primarily as a transit area for its energy exports to western European markets. Moscow’s ambition then was to preserve a degree of influence rather than to compete with Brussels.

Fifteen years ago, Turkey was enthusiastic about its chances of joining the EU. As a result, it framed its Balkans policies so as to demonstrate its own strategic value to Europe. Back then, nobody spoke of China in the Balkans.

Today, geopolitical competition is rife. China is set to become the number one foreign investor in Serbia this year. Plans to build a high-speed railway between the Greek port of Piraeus and Budapest, via Belgrade, are of immense value to China as it deploys its “one belt, one road” trade route between Asia and Europe. The Chinese hope the western Balkans will eventually be integrated into the European single market, though China is in no hurry for its infrastructure projects to abide by EU rules.

This raises many questions. Should the EU start pushing western Balkan countries to adopt its procurement rules now, or later? And is the EU ready to offer compensation if those states end up losing Chinese investments as a consequence of EU integration? Russia’s approach has changed too. Brussels doesn’t need to have a spy in the Kremlin to know that Moscow will do everything it can to prevent Macedonia from joining Nato – not because of its strategic significance, but for its symbolic value.

And European policymakers should be aware that if the long-running dispute between Greece and Macedonia (over the latter’s name) is not resolved before the next EU summit on the western Balkans in May, then that will spell a double defeat: Macedonia’s ambitions will have been dashed and Brussels’ efforts to be taken seriously in the region will have fallen flat.”

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