This week, Ivan Isailovic is a busy man. It’s not as if being mayor of the small Serbian town of Krupanj — population 17,295 and named after the lumps of silver ore, ‘krupa’ — doesn’t keep him going, it’s that he’s eager for new investment. Normally, you’d imagine that Munich or Paris would be the first ports of call for any politician looking for investors, but not Isailovic. Instead, he was off to Istanbul to drum up support for the rural and heavily wooded district in northwest Serbia.
And that’s exactly why the European Union (EU) is becoming increasingly weary of the Balkans and Turkey’s growing influence there. One Turkish company has already created 300 badly needed jobs in a Krupanj textile company, and Isailovic feels there’s more to be had. The statistics from the Serbian Chamber of Commerce would back the mayor up, with 20 factories either built or under construction there in the past year.
But here’s the thing — just like Turkey itself, which has been waiting to join the Brussels-based bloc for the past three decades, six Balkan nations are also being put on the long finger when it comes to joining the EU club. It seems like an old advertisement for American Express, that membership is indeed exclusive — and aspirational now — at least when it comes to for former Yugoslav states of Serbia, Bosnia Montenegro and Macedonia, who broke apart in the early 1990s; Kosovo which was carved out of that conflict and declared its independence a decade ago; and for former reclusive Communist backwater of Albania.
According to Brussels, Turkey has been investing heavily in the six applicant EU states, rising from about €370 million (Dh1.58 billion) in 2002, to more than €2.5 billion in 2016 — and about €800 million of that went going into Serbia alone. Even though Kosovo is only recognised by 113 of the 193 countries at the United Nations and Serbia prohibits the use of its air space for flights to Pristina, Turkey isn’t deterred. Ankara has about €340 million in investments tied up there, building a new airport and in power transmission facilities. In ethnically divided Bosnia, where Muslims make up the majority, Turkey has spent €300 million, a good proportion of it on restoring Ottoman-era monuments and the reconstruction of mosques.
Last week, leaders from across the EU travelled to Sofia and met with the six Balkan states for the first such summit in 15 years. Even then, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took a pass for the meeting: Spain doesn’t recognise Kosovo, and doing so might give those noisy Catalonian separatists reason to bellow even loudly at any perceived hypocrisy from the national government in Madrid that still rules the restive province directly.
And just as is the case with Turkey’s application, the message from the EU leaders was pretty clear: Don’t hold your breath — hang in there — you’re going nowhere fast.
In some ways, the EU attitude is hardly surprising. There’s that small matter of Brexit still to be worked out — and time may or may not be running out, depending upon whether the Brits can figure out what they mean by giving No for an answer to leaving.
Brussels is also trying to come to grips with re-organising the euro, the common currency used by 19 member-states of the EU. For the record, Kosovo adapted it as its currency shortly after its declaration of independence and won’t be covered by of the reforms being discussed about a common EU budget, bond reforms at the European Central Bank or other measures being discussed, with President Emmanuel Macron of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the Eurozone’s main protagonists.
There’s also the reality too that the EU is a little weary of south eastern European states now, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary testing patience with his right-wing agenda that is interfering with a free press and the independence of the judiciary. There’s also democratic backsliding going on in Poland too.
With the new government in Italy taking shape and determined that it wants to ease the strict budgetary and spending rules that apply to all members of the Eurozone, there’s a lot of immediate work that needs to be done. And when it finally does come to expanding the EU to include those six Balkan states, current member Croatia will have a big say in just how and when the former Yugoslav states will be admitted. The Zagreb government is treading lightly with Brussels at the moment, with its deeply Roman Catholic voters upset at EU social policy changes being mandated by the Strasburg-based Council of Europe that promotes human rights and democracy.
And Greece? Despite months of talks, it and Skopje have still to reach some sort of an agreement both sides can live it on what the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is to be called in the future.
As it turns out, President Macron was the leading voice against expansion, noting: “I think we need to look at any new enlargement [of the EU] with a lot of prudence and rigour. The last 15 years have shown a path that has weakened Europe by thinking all the time that it should be enlarged.”
Montenegro and Serbia are the best prepared for membership and a date of 2025 is being considered — and even that’s considered to be optimistic. Then come Albania and Macedonia, and Brussels is supposed to give a decision in June on whether to open talks on eventual accession for the pair. Note the ‘supposed’: Eurocrats in the Belgian capital are experts at non-decision decisions, and delays are normal. Bosnia’s case for accession is even further down the line. And Kosovo? Well, let’s just say that getting Spain to recognise it would be a good days’ work.
Then again, Turkey is waiting in the wings to fill any void in the Balkans, as the mayor of Krupanj knows.