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EU - Balkans Summit: Old Promises, New Lies

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On 6 December, the Albanian capital Tirana hosted the latest conference of the “Western Balkan” states and the European Union. Attended by representatives from Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro; alongside those from Brussels and other European capitals. The conference touched on several issues relating to the participating states’ future relations, including the process towards eventual accession into the Union. The discussions, however, were all to varying extents guided by a shared concern: how the current conflict between NATO and Russia would affect the peoples and states of the region.
The fate of the Balkans, being a region of conflicting local and external interests throughout history, has repeatedly been shaped by the various crises of the great powers, most famously that which triggered the “Great War” in 1914. This is still the case today, with the region not only being destabilised by the recent Russian invasion and NATO response, but also the more long-term crisis of the conference’s main protagonist, the European Union.
Attempts in Paris and Berlin to use the E.U. to forge an independent challenge to United States hegemony have been evident for at least 20 years. On the one hand, both refused to participate directly in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, not because of the evident lies of Bush and Blair that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction”, but because it did not fit their own imperialist agenda. Another aspect of their policy was to develop economic relations with Russia, by exporting products from high-tech machinery to food, and importing cheap oil and gas. Hence the Nordstream pipeline project agreed in 2001 and coming into service in 2011.
Crisis of E.U. Imperialism
The E.U.’s goal to rival U.S. Imperialism failed for three reasons. Its development plan failed after the great recession hit in 2008, when Germany saved itself at the expense of other E.U. members, ruining their industries of countries like Spain and Italy in the process, while plundering others like Greece to an extent only usually seen during war. Indeed, they profited from the greater economic weakness of the rest by undercutting their domestic industries with German exports, made possible by a weak Euro (compared to the pre-1990 Deutschmark). Secondly, the E.U. was overtaken by China as the second largest world economy. Last, but not least, the American empire struck back, seeing its future world dominance threatened by China, by the E.U. and even by Russia. Under Obama and Trump, it began to demand the European members of NATO shoulder their “fair share” of contributions to the alliance. It also used the new Eastern member states, especially Poland and Hungary, to obstruct EU plans and vigorously opposed the Nordstream 2 pipeline.
The U.S. and Britain’s interventions in Ukraine were aimed just as much at the E.U. as they were against Russia. The E.U. had been trying to draw Ukraine into its economic orbit with its proposed association agreement, albeit until recently without rupturing its economic relations with Russia. The U.S., meanwhile, took the leading role in supporting the Maidan protests, turning them from a popular revolt into a putsch, as well as arming the Ukrainian state and militias like the Azov Battalion in their revanchist campaigns the Donbas. At the height of the conflict, a call was intercepted in which U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland declared “fuck the E.U.”, revealing the differences between Brussels and Washington.
The invasion in February 2022, an attempt by Russian imperialism to make Ukraine a direct colony, allowed U.S. imperialism to completely overturn the E.U.’s strategic plans. The U.S. and U.K. were the most forceful in their calls for the G7 to sanction Russia, whilst those in the E.U. were affected the most. Nordstream 2 was cancelled, and Nordstream 1 destroyed, contributing to an influx of expensive U.S. energy into European markets, whilst the E.U. countries had to spend yet more of their finances on military aid for Ukraine and on their own rearmament.
Germany and France, accepting their defeat, began to look for new options to exert their influence, and offered E.U. membership to Ukraine and Moldova. Accession would, primarily, mean fewer boundaries for European capital in these states, allowing them to take a lead in their (re) development and to further marginalise their ruling classes’ pro-Russian elements. This apparent “fast-track” towards European integration, however, was an affront to a number of states in the Balkans, who have been trying in vein for decades to reach the stage of “candidate membership”.
West Balkan Candidates
20 years ago, the E.U. Council Summit in Thessaloniki declared it a priority to have the countries of the former Yugoslavia join the Union. Indeed, Slovenia joined in 2004, followed by Croatia in 2013. But Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo have not been admitted, nor has Albania. It took Bosnia, for example, six years to be granted candidate membership, whilst it took Ukraine and Moldova four and three months respectively.
All these states share a great degree of dependency on the main imperialist countries of the E.U. Germany is the largest exporter to the region, and their companies own large parts of infrastructure like telecoms and energy in all the countries. Austria has a leading role in the sphere of finance, whilst Greece does in retail. Italy is particularly involved in Albania, whilst Russia, China and Turkey have major investments as well.
The governments of these small countries compete in offering land, infrastructure, low taxes, and extremely low wages, often for labour which is particularly exploited in the region’s various “Free Trade Zones”. A deal between China and Serbia established Chinese labour laws for a company it purchased. Monthly wages for women in the textile industry in Albania and Macedonia are less than 200 euros, far below any living wage.
The region also produces labour for the E.U. domestically. With between 60 and 90 per cent of young people in each country failing to see a future in their country, many are leaving in large numbers. Those who come to Germany, the most popular destination, have their rights dictated by the “West Balkan Agreement”, which binds workers to the specific employer that sponsored their work permit. The E.U.’s Visa scheme for the region, finally extended to Kosovo, allows for the entrance into the Schengen Zone for 90 days within a 180 day period. This legal route is often combined with illegal work.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, many in the Balkans see E.U. membership as a more easy and legal way to access work. But the experience of Bulgaria and Romania, the latter the largest exporter of labour in the E.U., shows that migration policy is determined by the imperialist states, who continue to refuse the two states membership of the Schengen Zone, not to mention the many conditions and loopholes that exist within the free movement area.
More generally, there is little reason to believe that the general economic situation in the Balkan countries would improve by joining the E.U. This has certainly not happened in Croatia, Bulgaria or Romania. It is equally doubtful, that the states will have a better standing with regards to the political dominance of the imperialist powers, given the narrow room for manoeuvre between the E.U., the U.S. and Britain, or even a bit of flirting with China, Russia or Turkey. The nationalist conflicts between the states or between their ethnicities will not lessen either. It is the reality of a global capitalist system, that exploitation, growing conflicts between imperialist powers and their technique of using semi-colonies as pawns in their games. The US and Russia are demonstrating this since the beginning of this century in Ukraine and the price the country and its people pay is getting higher all the time.
These doubts and questions that are so obvious in their connection to the question of E.U. membership is absent from Brussels leaders’ pronouncements. Characteristically, they announced in their final “Tirana Declaration”, that everything will be fine, providing the applicants do their homework and become as democratic, lawful, and non-discriminating as their masters.
“The EU reconfirms its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans and calls for the acceleration of the accession process, based upon credible reforms by Partners, fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of own merits, which is in our mutual interest.” and “The EU welcomes the Western Balkans Partners' resolve to uphold core European values and principles, in line with international law.”
Rank Hypocrisy
This mantra of the E.U. leaders that the applicants have to fulfil their duties, adjust their legislation to E.U. standards, cut back public spending, fight corruption and nationalism and become better democrats positively stinks of hypocrisy.
The corruption that is, indeed, rife in such states is a direct result of its exploitation at the hands of imperialist corporations, banks, and states, in which a mass of value produced in the region is drained abroad whilst their own markets are flooded with consumer goods sold by foreign companies. Every bourgeois political party or government is corrupted by multinational companies or imperialist powers. It is precisely the lack of resources to benefit the larger section of the masses, whether working class or petty bourgeois, that all but force them to deliver public sector jobs to their own supporters.
But the E.U. bureaucracy is not at all in position to point an accusing finger towards its south-eastern neighbours. Just one week after the Tirana summit, the vice-president of the E.U. parliament, Eva Kaili, and others went to jail after taking money from the government of Qatar. Brussels is full of lobbyists “influencing” political decisions for the sake of the companies which pay them. If we look at the Balkans itself, we can see that corruption is most advanced in countries like Bosnia and Kosovo, precisely those whose political systems are most directly controlled by European and American imperialism.
The most powerful institution in the former is the post of High Representative (HR) for Bosnia and Herzegovina, implemented by the 1995 Dayton Agreement. The HR is always drawn from an E.U. country and their deputy from U.S. They have the power to dismiss elected representatives, promulgate new laws or abolish others, and to dissolve institutions. Even bourgeois democrats criticise the practical unaccountability of this institution. Just this year the acting HR, Christian Schmidt decided, in the middle of the election process for the national parliament, to change the weighting the votes in favour of giving more mandates to the nationalist Croatian party HDZ-BiH. They also averted their eyes serious electioral fraud in the Republika Srbska, which benefitted the Serb nationalist party the SDS.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is also the striking example of how the national and ethnical conflicts on the Balkans are fuelled and abused by the imperialists. The state-construction of entities and Cantons as established by the Dayton agreement has incorporated and preserved the ethnic conflicts of 30 years ago. That, during the last decade, this system and the dominance of the nationalist parties, has been challenged from below by democratic political and social movements, is not because of but rather despite, and against the E.U. fettered bureaucracy.
Tirana Declaration
That the general economic perspectives for the region, the crises of low development and high emigration, increasing nationalist tensions, and the ever-present discrimination against people from the Balkans were not issues at the conference at all appears to be frankly bizarre. An observer might reasonably ask what the point of the conference was at all.
As always, the final outcome of the conference addresses only interests and needs of the masters of the E.U. Only one new hypocritical slogan in the frame of the new global conjuncture was added to the tired Brussels repertoire: All united against Russia!
“As we deepen our cooperation with Partners, we urge them to make swift and sustained progress towards full alignment with the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and to act accordingly, including on EU restrictive measures. We commend those Western Balkans Partners that are already demonstrating their strategic commitment in this regard by fully aligning with the EU CFSP and encourage those that have not done so to follow suit.”
The “Partners” should also join in the propaganda battle and tell their people:
“The EU remains the region's closest partner, main investor and trading partner and principal donor […] The exceptional scale and range of this support should be made more visible and reflected proactively by the Partners in their public debate and communication, so that citizens can appreciate the concrete benefits of the partnership with the EU.”
The great doner-exploiter then also promises the Balkans a share of the E.U.’s energy package, itself a mechanism for mitigating the devastating effects of the actions of relentless price gouging by the region’s suppliers, and of the equally devastating E.U. sanctions programme.
Roads to Nowhere
The declaration then promises that the
“Continued implementation of the Economic and Investment Plan (EIP) and the Green and Digital Agendas for the Western Balkans will help strengthen the region’s economy and resilience, including through further support for connectivity, energy transition and diversification of energy supplies.”
The question of the region’s connectivity, including railways and motorways, is rarely as much about the practical use to its citizens as it is their potential profitability to foreign investors, and therefore where and why they will be built, and with whose funds. In the Balkans, transport infrastructure is generally out of proportion to the existing network they connect with, and in stark contrast to its capacity and natural environment. The profits accrued through tickets, tolls, and of course, state funding, rarely stays in the countries where they are generated, but directly to the companies awarded the rights to build and operate them. So the “ambitious investment package, mobilising close to EUR 30 billion for the region”, is a coordinated plan for E.U. multinationals to increase their share in the national economies and extract yet more profit from the people and land of the area.
“Illegal Migration”
The great democrats of the E.U. want to keep out refugees and immigrants from Asia and Africa. So they declare:
”The Western Balkans migratory route has seen a significant upsurge since the beginning of 2022. Migration management remains a joint challenge and responsibility, which the EU and the Western Balkans will address together, in close partnership. To this end, the EU has substantially increased its financial support for the region with over EUR 170 million in bilateral and regional assistance already provided under IPA III.””
They prefer to let others get their hands dirty with excluding those to whom they should under international law give asylum:
“In this regard, the EU stands ready to support the Western Balkans to increase voluntary and non-voluntary returns, including directly from the region to the countries of origin. Cooperation should also be intensified with Frontex, including through the rapid conclusion and implementation of updated Status Agreements, as well as with the European Union Agency for Asylum and with Europol.”
And they call paying the West Balkan Countries for doing this dirty job “giving financial support”. Just 2 days after the Tirana Conference A new study from the Border Violence Monitoring Network, published documents 25,000 violent pushbacks at EU borders, saying the real number of pushbacks is likely even higher. These borders include those of the Balkan states, whether E.U. members or not.
Blocking Alternatives
The agenda pushed through in Tirana was one that the E.U. leadership had to modify in the year leading up to the conference. In this time, their focus had shifted from the West to the East, i.e. to Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and other states of the region with greater strategic value in their fight against their former partner, Russia. To this end, they had to struggle in an intensified competition over influence in the region with Britain and the U.S. The remainder of the region, the states of the former Yugoslavia and Albania, at the drop of a hat were required to adapt to the new orientation of the E.U.
The E.U. used the occasion of the conference to remind its “partners” of this, attacking the newly created zone of free-trade and free-movement between Albania, Serbia, and Macedonia, known as Open Balkan. The E.U. Special Envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue Miroslav Lajcak described the initiative, described as a “mini-Schengen”, as “unhealthy competition” with the European integration process. Furthermore, the E.U. reaffirmed its opposition to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo ever joining Open Balkan, and have enforced their de facto veto power over the political systems of both countries to prevent this from happening.
This egregious interference with the sovereignty of the states involved is a further reminder of the domination of the Balkans by the imperialist powers that first fomented the divisions and, eventually, wars of the region resulting in the creation of new states totally subservient to their hegemonic power. The Open Balkan Initiative, itself a modest bourgeois attempt to advance the E.U. integration process on less oppressive terms for the states involved, is therefore an unacceptable threat the imperialists’ ambitions, who require a politically fragmented territory full of national hostilities in order to fully control and exploit the region.
A Socialist Federation of the Balkans
Only the federal unity of the Balkan states could have prevented the centuries old game of Balkan states trying assert themselves against one another by bidding for support from one or other of the other great imperialist powers – a game which led repeatedly to destructive wars in the Balkans in the twentieth century. All great powers in history have used these people and pitted them against each other to play their power games. All “support” from the E.U., U.S., Russia, and China to the Balkan peoples will also have this purpose in the future.
But neither the ruling classes of the countries nor their bourgeois political caste will be able to resolve this dilemma. They will sell such agreements for small privileges, and they need to play the nationalist and chauvinist card to stay in power. So the only force that has the objective interest and potential strength to overcome the region’s miserable economic and political situation is the working classes of the Balkan countries. They don’t have ties that bind them to imperialist forces, they can overcome the national and ethnic divisions, they even have the potential to win the support of the working classes of the imperialist countries.
It is true, that in recent decades the working class has suffered major defeats, especially in the former bureaucratic workers states. It is true that it is badly organised internationally and revolutionary socialist class consciousness is low. It is the task of socialists and revolutionaries from the Balkans and from Europe at large, to work on a programme, to raise vital workers and democratic demands and initiate struggles for them. Such a program will be fundamentally opposed to the entire E.U. agenda as well as Russia and Nato’s wars.