So who is the most unpopular fan on the terraces of a football match involving two Western Balkan states? The supporter from Bosnia and Herzegovina who shouts: “Give me a ‘B’.
This old joke dates back 20 years when Yugoslavia violently collapsed, and among the most notable impacts for people watching from afar has been the emergence of new international football teams. Nowadays, we hear less about the region comprising the five states that once made up Yugoslavia and which Josip Broz, aka Marshal Tito, kept together until his death in 1980. Add neighboring Albania to make even a half a dozen.
The lack of news from this corner of Europe is partly a good thing, telling us that the painful years of murder and mutilation have ended. We should know from our own experience that latent conflicts not only end, but it is a great help when neighbors stop killing each other.
But those Western Balkan states briefly returned to the spotlight this week when the leaders of the six nations met with the 27 EU heads of government at a special informal summit in Brdo pri Kranju, Slovenia. Summit host Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa was keen to rekindle neighbors’ hopes for membership, but it was a hopeless race.
Mr Jansa said promises of EU membership date back almost 20 years to a leaders’ summit in Thessaloniki in 2003. The EU has admitted the former Yugoslav state of Croatia, the birthplace of Marshal Tito , in 2013, but none since. It’s a long way from 2004 when Bertie Ahern hosted a special welcoming ceremony in Dublin for 10 new Member States, eight from the former Eastern Communist bloc, as well as Cyprus and Malta.
Various reasons are cited for the cessation of new EU membership, which is now hitting Serbia with seven million people; Bosnia and Herzegovina, with nearly four million; North Macedonia, with over two million; Kosovo, with nearly two million; Montenegro, with 600,000; and Albania, with nearly three million.
There is a “new limb fatigue”, which persists after the economic crash of 2008, which has since been amplified by the exit of the pro-enlargement UK in 2016. Covid-19 has not been of any help whatsoever more.
But there are also specific problems for these candidates, which means that the unanimous support required from existing members would be difficult to obtain. Five EU states do not recognize Kosovo, which split from Serbia in 2008.
North Macedonia only resolved a name dispute with neighboring Greece in 2019. Its earlier efforts to call the territory simply Macedonia have clashed with Athens, which has a province of the same name and also challenges the legacy of the iconic Alexander the Great.
Attempts to group applications in pairs did not add much to the pace of the process. Serbia and Montenegro have started talks, but no one has much faith in the 2025 deadline that former European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker once brashed about.
Albania and North Macedonia are further in the queue, and Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are often referred to as “candidate countries”. But these potential member rankings vary depending on who you’re talking to and when.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel has always talked about the need to allow these Western Balkan states to join the EU, but French President Emmanuel Macron is very lukewarm and cites the need for clearer membership criteria.
Reports of corruption and the need for all six to implement economic reforms does not help matters. The experience of clashes with Hungary and Poland over the rule of law has also influenced the thinking of established member states like Denmark. For the record, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has been enthusiastic this week in supporting potential members.
There is also an element of chicken and egg. In the past, the EU has hosted the former dictatorships of Greece, Spain and Portugal, with a view to consolidating and supporting democracy and the rule of law. In principle, this has been successful, but there are doubts whether it is possible to take the same path and many Member States are demanding that reforms, democracy and a market economy take priority. For now, the EU wrestling match with Tito’s legacy continues without much hope for a quick result.