Albania has for decades been notorious as a centre for drug trafficking. Numerous reports in the press last year commented on how the country has become “the Colombia of Europe” and “Europe’s first narco-state.” Yet, when the commission presented its plan to accelerate accession procedures, promising to make enlargement “a top priority,” not a single member of the European Parliament referred to the prevalence of the drugs trade in Albania, nor to the penetration of drug money into the very structures of the state itself.
North Macedonia has a less sultry reputation, but 30% of its population is Albanian. Moreover, when the EU holds its Western Balkan summit in Zagreb in May, Kosovo is to be invited. A territory of Serbia which declared independence in 2008, it is over 90% Albanian and effectively operates as an adjunct to Albania proper. Indeed, in 2018, the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said he wanted to see Kosovo and Albania united by 2025, i.e. within the time frame envisaged for EU accession.
Expansion driven by geopolitics
This first wave of new member states is only part of a long-discussed plan of integrating the whole of the Balkans (see map below, left), including Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, into the EU.
The EU continues to maintain a military presence in Bosnia 25 years after the end of the civil war there, just as it pretends to govern Kosovo, and it has just voted to continue doing so indefinitely. In other words, the attention being focused on Albania and North Macedonia is only part of a bigger project which aims to bring the whole peninsula under EU and NATO control. North Macedonia is expected to join NATO next month.
It is impossible to understand what benefit the EU imagines it will draw from “compensating” for Brexit by expanding into the poorest and most unstable part of Europe, unless one pays close attention to what the decision makers themselves say.
The president of the commission, Ursula von der Leyen (pictured), announced the new policy in a tweet with the hashtag #geopoliticalcommission. In other words, the expansion into the Balkans is driven not by economic rationale but instead by geopolitics.
Geopolitics is a theme dear to Mrs von der Leyen’s heart. In November, in her first speech to the European Parliament as president-elect of the Commission, she said she wanted “a geopolitical commission” which is “not be afraid to speak the language of confidence and assertiveness.”
Assertiveness and geopolitics used to be dirty words in the corridors of Brussels, which for decades pretended that it did not engage in power politics because it had instead ascended to a higher level of civilisation. In countless speeches, European leaders have contrasted Russia’s alleged “power politics” with their attachment to “a rules-based international system.” That, it seems, is all over now, and the EU evidently intends to openly pursue geopolitics (which also used to be a dirty word, especially in Germany).
The first way that the EU intends to do this is by increasing its defence spending by a factor of 22 in the next financial period. Yes, you read that correctly, multiplied by 22, from €590 million to €13 billion in 2021-2027. As German defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen similarly campaigned for the German Army’s budget to be increased to nearly €50 billion a year, which would bring it very close to Russia’s, and for €130 billion to be spent on equipment over 15 years on new weapons. As president of the European Commission, she is now proposing to do under a European banner what for years she tried to do under a German banner.
EU continues to see Balkans as zone of zero-sum East-West conflict
It is by no means anodyne that this geopolitical and military muscle-flexing will be taking place primarily in the Balkans. EU leaders have convinced themselves of a number of fantasies about Russia’s role there, “interference” in North Macedonia, and even an “attempted coup” in Montenegro. The EU’s program of expansion is designed to counter this imaginary threat.
To this extent, the EU resembles the moribund Austro-Hungarian Empire, which saw political advantage, and a means to bolster its vanishing internal cohesion, in ratcheting up tensions with Russia. The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 was just the most serious of many crises between Vienna and St Petersburg, as Austria chose to ignore Otto von Bismarck’s wise advice that the Balkans are not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.
Of course, it would be foolish to predict that the EU’s expansionism will have the same effect as Austria’s did in 1914. Although the recognition of Kosovo in 2008 most certainly did enable Russia to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia later the same year, beginning a downward spiral in East-West relations from which Europe has still not recovered.
But if the EU continues to see the Balkans (and Ukraine) as zones of an inevitably zero-sum geopolitical conflict between East and West, instead of a bridge between Europe’s two halves, as it seems determined to do, then the outlook is definitely gloomy.
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