The author is an FT contributing editor and chair of the Centre for Liberal Methods, Sofia, and fellow at IWM Vienna
The English historian John Robert Seeley famously remarked that Britain “conquered and peopled half the world in a match of absence of thoughts”. In contrast, the EU at present is unwittingly dropping its post-cold warfare hegemony in Europe in a match of extreme focus. Brussels has been so preoccupied with the duty of advancing EU integration that it has did not handle the disintegration on its periphery.
We’re bombarded with the oft-repeated bromide that on February 24 we woke as much as a unique world. The reality is that this “totally different world” has been with us for a very long time. The difficulty is that we had been reluctant to see it.
Now Russia’s aggression in Ukraine forces us to query a few of our assumptions about Europe’s future. But it’s clear that this may solely occur by rethinking the previous. One of the best ways to grasp how worldwide politics is being remade is by focusing, with the shock of the invasion absolutely in thoughts, on a few of the main developments over the previous 30 years. Regrettably, the final word significance of many of those occasions eluded us.
Here’s a thought experiment. Think about two observers, who within the chilly warfare’s aftermath had been requested to foretell how the brand new European order would evolve. One was based mostly in central Europe — Prague, say — and was informed that occasions there would outline the continent’s future. For him, that’s represented by the EU’s growth and the transformation of post-communist societies on the western European mannequin.
The opposite observer is within the Balkans. Her imaginative and prescient is formed by the wars in former Yugoslavia and the contortions of postwar reconstruction. In her eyes, the collapse of communist regimes led to the rise of ferocious ethnic nationalism. Democratisation got here with violent conflicts and ethnic cleaning.
This observer would agree with Clifford Geertz, the late US anthropologist, who in 1995 predicted that the new child worldwide order can be outlined not by the wholesale adoption of western fashions however by an obsession with identification and distinction. The political agenda can be set not by the query “When will Serbia or Albania be part of the EU?”, however by “What’s a rustic if it isn’t a nation?” and “What’s a tradition if it isn’t a consensus?”
Am I incorrect to imagine that our Balkan observer will assist us to raised perceive at present’s Europe than the one in Prague? Isn’t our present state of paralysed shock defined by our unwillingness to simply accept that what we noticed within the Balkans was no ghost from the previous?
Merely put, the EU can not successfully take care of the disaster triggered by Russia’s assault on Ukraine if it fails to rethink its “Balkan expertise”. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is just not Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia, and Ukraine is just not Bosnia. However it’s the EU’s failure to remodel and combine the Balkans, reasonably than Brussels’ not less than partial success in integrating central Europe, that should be the place to begin of any viable technique.
Three Balkan classes are in my estimation of vital significance.
First, European integration can remodel states, nevertheless it can not make states. In its essence, the EU undertaking is an try to beat the Nineteenth-century nation-state. However the problem on Europe’s periphery was to construct functioning nation-states. The try to interchange nation-building with EU member state-building has backfired.
It’s indicative that the EU’s engineering of minority rights-centred Balkan constitutions within the Nineteen Nineties turned out to be much less efficient than majority-centred constitutions adopted within the Baltic states. The newest disaster on the Serbia-Kosovo border is a sign that “frozen options” that the EU left within the Balkans can simply turn into new battle spots.
The second lesson is that the dissolution of the previous communist federal states produced lengthy, messy conflicts. One nice peril for the states that emerged from these conflicts is depopulation. The longer the Ukraine warfare continues, the much less possible that many refugees will return. Bosnia has misplaced 40 per cent of its inhabitants because of its warfare and postwar recession.
The third lesson is that the second the warfare stops, Europeans will lose curiosity within the periphery. Reconstruction doesn’t produce heroes or set off sturdy feelings. 5 of the EU’s 27 states nonetheless don’t recognise Kosovo’s independence.
The trick the 1989-91 revolutions performed on Europe was that as a result of one thing great and surprising occurred — the chilly warfare’s finish and the Soviet Union’s collapse — we turned assured that we knew what the longer term had in retailer for us.