Brexit and Western Balkans – bussines as usual or a change that changes everything

Long awaited referendum on whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union after 43 years of membership will be held on June 23rd. The outcome is highly uncertain. The public polls show polarisation of British society with many still undecided voters and therefore unpredictable results.  Interestingly enough, the main division does not go across familiar government and opposition line, but it rather deeply divides the Conservative party itself. The current Prime Minister David Cameron and the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn are on the same side, advocating remaining in the EU, whilst many senior Government ministers belong to the Leave camp, including one of the most popular politicians and now a former mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

The arguments of both sides are evolving around economic issues, foreign policy questions and security concerns. Whilst “In” campaigners say that Britain is better off in the reformed EU (ahead of the referendum David Cameron secured an agreement with other European Union leaders to change the terms of Britain’s membership), the Brexiters are pointing out that the membership is too costly and that leaving the block is crucial for the future prosperity of the country.

In 1973 the UK joined what at that time was called European Economic Community together with Denmark and Ireland. A very few could have imagined that one day EEC will become something called the European Union consisting of 28 member states with wide competencies in areas such as employment, social policy and immigration and with immensely complex political and economic structure. However, although the UK was always a little bit of a troublemaker, its membership was never put into question, until now. Even though it is difficult to make any predictions, one can still say with certainty that leaving the EU after forty years would produce a political earthquake on both sides of the channel. The transition process may take several years. It would greatly increase legal and economic uncertainty, not only in the UK but also the wider EU.

Thus, what happens in the UK next month will have a huge impact on countries that are not members of the EU, including the Western Balkan states. Particularly since Great Britain has always been a strong voice that supports enlargement and in recent years played a rather constructive role in dealing with regional issues. At the same time, the future position of Western Balkan countries and the entire process of enlargement heavily depends on how the EU will respond to Brexit.

According to James Ker-Lindsay, the Senior Researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSEE), the question of EU enlargement has played a far larger part in the Brexit debate that he ever expected. “Clearly, this is tied up with the degree to which immigration has emerged as a key issue. While the Western Balkans is also an issue, it doesn’t come close to the fears of Turkish membership. Also, as we have seen, the main focus of attention has been on Albania.”

To be precise, Albania was literally dragged into the debate when Brexit campaign leader and Justice Minister Gove said that after leaving the EU, the UK should follow an “Albanian model” to trade with EU/Single market, a comment that was ridiculed by the Remain camp. This absurdity surprised even the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama who responded with an op-ed indicating his country’s aim to join the EU and not to create a free trade area with Great Britain.

However, what can be said with certainty is that, if the Leave camp wins, we will witness a decline of British influence and presence in the Balkans. After the referendum, the (new eurosceptic) government in London will probably spend years consolidating its position outside of the block and re-negotiating agreements with individual states. As a traditionally trading nation, the focus will be on trade deals which not only will have to be re-negotiated with non-EU members, but the UK will have to invest years trying to preserve parts of the existing relationship with EU as a whole and with each member state. The position of Western Balkan countries will not be particularly strong nor significant. With economies small in size and underdeveloped market mechanisms, they are not particularly attractive for UK companies whose presence is already minuscule and almost non-existent.

Or as a British Belgrade-based journalist Andrew MacDowall states, “UK investors have a tiny presence in the WB – if we leave the EU, what is our relevance? I doubt a eurosceptic British government would care much about the Balkans”

On the other hand, the Western Balkans is one of the regions in which the UK has most influence as an EU member and whose significance is closely tied to the membership of the EU. Particularly in recent years the country showed willingness to invest time and effort to deal which much needed reforms in the region and to try to resolve some of its disputes. The best example is an engagement in Bosnia from late 2014 when British and German foreign ministers launched a joint initiative aiming to accelerate country’s EU integration process. According to MacDowall, the UK was a driving force behind it and it eventually led to SAA entering into force rekindling Bosnia’s long-stalled integration hopes.

Yet, Ker-Lindsay argues that “…even if Britain wanted to maintain an active role in the Balkans after Brexit, I think that its ability to influence events will be severely reduced. Countries in the Western Balkans have wanted to work with Britain as it has been a strong voice within the EU that supports their strategic goal. Once we leave, what real significance will the UK have? I would say very little. (…) I would expect Britain’s proactive role in the region, and its ability to shape decisions, would decline enormously after a vote to leave the EU. And in the case of the Western Balkans, there will also be the sense that this is really an issue for the EU to handle.“

However, Brexit will also put survival of the EU into question. If leave camp wins on 23 June, the EU will become smaller and weaker both in economic and geopolitical terms. As a result, capacities of the EU to take initiatives in the Balkans will be significantly reduced. Moreover, in recent years we already witnessed the fragility of the EU architecture and frequent inability to deal with challenges.

Thus, according to Ker-Lindsay, the main question is how the EU as a whole responds to the shock of Brexit, stating that whilst some might see it as posing a major threat to the long term survival of the EU, others already argue that it would be a shock that would spur greater cooperation and integration amongst the remaining members. Therefore, the EU’s ability to shape events in the Western Balkans will largely depend on which of those two scenarios comes to pass.

However, regardless of the outcome, we have to bear in mind that UK referendum is only the most extreme indicator of the growing Euroscepticism in Europe that will not disappear whether the UK decides to remain or to leave the EU. Distrustful towards Brussel’s institutions, member states now aim to have a greater say and to influence EU policies in many areas, including the enlargement.  As a result, it make the process far more unpredictable and dependent on politics in EU member states than on progress in the candidate country.

Therefore, the future EU integration of Western Balkan countries will not only depend on the progress in transforming the states of the region into consolidated democracies, but it will rather be influenced by the developments in member states and capacities of the EU institutions to respond to challenges.

Author: Katarina Tadić, researcher in European Policy Centre, based in Belgrade, who has lived,worked and studied in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Italy. Find her on twitter @KatarinaTadic_.