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How migration crisis has damaged the EU integration of the Western Balkans

Migrants in Germany; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It might sound as a too sharp title, but we should start paying attention, as the article suggests, to the critical but overlooked topic of what the impact of the politically closed so-called Balkan route is and how “the others” benefit on the crisis. Looking on the migration crisis in the Western Balkans from a bit broader perspective, one finds two very interesting elements.

Firstly, there is very little media attention to movers of migration crisis in the Western Balkans. Secondly, how other countries that execute its influence over the Western Balkans are surprisingly quiet when it comes to migration.

Looking on the EU role in the migration crisis, it would be very naïve to think that EU institutions as well as EU countries are not aware of the situation in which all involved parties takes short term financial and political benefits connected to (miss) management of the migrant crisis.

Since the Balkan route is “closed”, the EU and EU countries pay only very little attention to the situation on the ground and local actors take benefits from the situation. This is not only the case of the EU represented by the European Commission that relies largely on decisions made by member states but also of other EU bodies including Frontex and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, under which the protection of the EU external border is coordinated.

When we put political distrust into the EU system (such as non-functioning of Schengen system and questionable substance of information shared between EU Member States, Frontex agency and cooperating Western Balkan countries), what can we expect from the Western Balkan countries? Under the term distrust is meant limited ability to determine the key political challenges such as to acknowledge that the organized crime is the biggest problem of migration crisis and it is not coped with appropriate policies.

A lot is spoken about the political cooperation, but very little about its substance and impact term of sharing information and cooperation when it comes to organized crime in connection to smuggling and human trafficking. In exchange for keeping the facade of stability when it comes to migration, the EU has allowed to develop a space in which rule of law is just a claim with an empty meaning. There seems to be no political will to solve this problem neither/both from the EU side, nor from Western Balkan side.

The migrant crisis in the Western Balkans is used as a justification of different political goals such as politicization of islamisation and influence of foreign cultures on societies in domestic context like in Hungary or Austria. Furthermore, it would be extremely naïve to think that Western Balkan leaders are not very well informed about the substance of the EU and EU countries response to the migrant crisis.

This can be demonstrated on the issue of reform of Schengen system where EU member states seek rather short-term political goals instead of focusing on substance, among others effective sharing of information about asylum applicants. Going further, they have very well accommodated into the framework in which the political narrative of the EU integration is developed upon a totally different meaning. In this context the question should be asked, if the progress of EU integration can be materialized in exchange for keeping stability when it comes to the migration crisis.

This would require significant change of substance of EU integration when shifting emphasis from rule of law towards security. This would make Western Balkans countries sort of guardians of the EU. In exchange, the EU would have to offer tangible gains and benefits. In this sense, it would mean that the EU integration should be perceived without transformative aims.

Yet another very interesting point should be discussed – what it the role of other actors of international politics when it comes to the migration crisis in the Western Balkans? There is interestingly relatively little knowledge regarding the way how China, Russia, or even Turkey approach the migration crisis. One could even say that these countries do not pay significant attention to the issue, that either they do not want to be involved in often value based debates, or they perceive the migration crisis as a relatively non-significant element of mutual relations with Western Balkan countries.

In this logic the current substance of migration crisis shows that organized crime networks often overlap with well-established networks that pass the Balkans towards EU for decades. Therefore, the migrant crisis is not significantly new element that they should pay attention to. From their perspective, the migration crisis is not an issue that would threaten their interests and that would rewrite power set up among Western Balkan countries and towards the EU.

From a different perspective, their relative silence can be understood as being a non-issue in comparison to the EU priorities. In their perspective, following patterns of organized crime shows strong connection with the EU as being a final destination and therefore the migration crisis has been pretty much an EU issue and not a global one as they perceive their thinking.

In any case, the migration crisis has proven to the current political leadership of the Western Balkan countries that the EU is willing to exchange ideas for stability very quickly and as a consequence, they do not have to feel obliged to be Europeanized by EU structures. It has to be said that it is not a failure of the EU as an institution. As the recent French and Dutch veto on opening negotiations with Albania and Macedonia showed, it is a responsibility of the member states what kind of political relevance they give to the enlargement process.

Looking at the recent developments, everyone can make a picture for her/himself that the narrative of EU as value based community is weakening. Said that, the migration crisis thus opened space to perceive relationship with the Western Balkans and vice versa as a zero-sum game as countries like China, Russia, or Turkey do for long time. It shifts the EU integration from value-based negotiations towards very rational bargaining on financial and power benefits as the substance of international politics.

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