_ Chris Devonshire-Ellis, Founding Partner and Chairman, Dezan Shira & Associates. Hong Kong, 3 October 2018.
With Macedonia’s recent decision not to adopt a name change that would have paved the way for potential EU accession, the European Union’s policy towards Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Caucasus nations needs readjusting.
In a referendum last Sunday, the Macedonians voted on whether or not to change the country name from “The Republic of Macedonia” to “North Macedonia”. A voter turnout of 50 percent was required to have the change made legal, as it turned out only 37 percent did. For now at least, Macedonia will continue its arguments with Greece, whose own province of Macedonia adjoins the sovereign nation, and will bid au revoir to thoughts of joining up with Brussels.
What has happened to make even the promise of joining the EU so toxic? The West is in denial of course, and is by now on standard operating procedure, blaming the outcome on Russian interference, although quite how offering the Macedonians EU membership isn’t also interference in their sovereignty remains unexplained.
In fact, what is occurring is an anti-EU push back from adjacent countries whose history, religion, and race are fundamentally different from that of the EU. Brussels either doesn’t understand this, or is instead engaged upon an alternative strategy – expansion, which means the EU has abandoned its previous role as a trade bloc and is now behaving as a federal state. That is indeed an issue with several EU members as it means ceding further sovereignty to Brussels. It is the fundamental reason for Brexit, EU unhappiness among the Poles and Hungarians, and a very large part of why the Maedonians voted against their name change.
In fact, the Macedonian issue knocks back parts of the EU Commission’s recent paper “EU-Asia Connectivity”, which I examined in some detail here. That report, which the EU Commission want ratified by the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, the European Investment Bank and “relevant stakeholders” (whatever that means) specifically mentions the West Balkans as part of the EU’s Trans-European Network for Transport (TEN-T) This initiative has recently been extended to include the ex-Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and the Ukraine. The Western Balkans meanwhile are generally considered to include Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovenia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, and Montenegro & Serbia. None of these countries are EU members.
The EU report also goes on to state “doing things the European way” which is “sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based connectivity” , even though the first two items are undefined. Sustainable what? How comprehensive? On these matters the paper is silent except to note “Connectivity has to be economically, fiscally, environmentally and socially sustainable in the long term.”
The EU has mentioned several times in other comments that the Balkans and Caucasus are “essentially part of Europe” and are considered by Brussels to be “within the EU sphere of influence”. Again, that is a somewhat interesting claim to make. What does it mean?
While the EU from Brussels is essentially a Western European institution, the Balkans and Caucasus are decidedly not.
|Region||Dominant religions||Language group||Racial profiles|
|Balkans||Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Islam||Indo-European**, Turkic||Slavic, Turkic, European|
|Caucasus||Eastern Orthodox, Islam||Indo-European/Cyrillic, Kartvelian, Turkic||Turkic, Slavic, European|
|*Europe is generally considered to include 54 minorities
** Includes Cyrillic (Bosnian, Greek, Macedonian, Russian, Serbo-Croat); however Cyrillic is regionally dominant as opposed to the Roman language groups
This is not a matter of racism, it is a matter of history. The main, but far from only influential regional powers with a considerable footprint in the Balkans and the Caucasus are Russia and Turkey. It is telling that the EU has extremely poor relations with Russia and has seen Turkey evolve into a Muslim rather than secular state in the past ten years, with Ankara increasingly angry at moves to deny it EU membership. This means that within the region, the EU is rubbing up against history, politics, and traditions from two other major regional powers – it is not the only game in town.
Brussels weakness has been to portray that it is essentially a Christian, white club, whereas the Balkans and Caucasus are mainly Orthodox, part Muslim, and possess large Slavic (Russian) and Turkic roots. The traditions, history, and mindsets are different.
Christian Europe and Christian Orthodoxy do not get along, a schism dating back to 1054. It is also hardly likely the EU will fix that when it cannot deal with Brexit. These faultlines, together with the prospect of adhering to rules made a long way away in Brussels, means local populations are wary of the EU. These are different worlds with different dynamics.
Brussels – Skojpe (Macedonia) 2,158km
Brussels – Tbilisi (Georgia) 3,901km
There are also the regional conflicts. The collapse of the ruling Soviet Union in 1991 directly led to long buried regional conflicts bursting open; conflicts in both 1991 and 1999 being the result of ethnic land and racial grabs by local warlords, and especially so in Serbia. The region was, after a long struggle, settled down again; however, the EU’s proposals for the Western Balkans also include Kosovo, which remains unrecognized by the Serbs. At present, there is peace; however, the danger of another change of power shift towards Brussels could both upset the current status quo and lead Brussels into having to take direct responsibility for a regional civil war. Chillingly, the EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, recognizes this and has called for the formation of a European army.
Another question as yet unresolved is the automatic EU/NATO pact: join the EU and become a NATO member. While that has worked well in the Baltics and Poland, having a NATO presence in the Caucasus especially is seen as a provocation by Moscow, and it is not hard to understand why – Russia was invaded twice by European powers, France in the Napoleonic era and by Germany in World War Two. The country lost million in battle and wiped out two generations of Russian men who fought in those campaigns. Do the Balkans and Caucasus countries have to follow the exact same NATO model? It seems the EU is silent on this too.
Apart from the EU, however, the regions do have other options when it comes to infrastructure rebuild and trade.
China has been pushing its Belt and Road plans throughout the Balkans and Caucasus. They see these areas as access points into Europe. The Chinese have instigated the 16+1 grouping of China (being the one) and sixteen Eastern European nations, including some EU members. China is offering to finance and build much needed infrastructure between non-EU and EU nations; however, there remains friction as the EU insists its rules are to be followed, even when part of the project is outside EU territory. This EU insistence has gotten in the way of some developments, not least the Budapest-Belgrade rail link. It has also upset Budapest, who complain that the EU is exerting too much interference in its sovereignty. In short, if the Hungarians want to build a railway with their neighboring, non-EU member, they wish to be free to do so. Brussels is insisting it has say and overview.
China, meanwhile, although it made its frustrations clear, will not be giving up so easily. Beijing needs supply lines in place to allow China, which is energy and agriculturally poor, to service its future needs. It also needs new markets to access. The 16+1 in the event of Macedonia’s vote against EU wishes is going to become more pro-China as regards Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Russia: The Eurasian Economic Union
The EAEU is a Moscow-backed trade initiative, essentially the Eastern version of the European Union as a trade bloc. It sits right between the EU, with whom it shares borders with Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland and China. Members include Armenia, Belarus, Kazkahstan, Krygyzstan, and Russia itself. However, the EAEU is also expanding its reach in the form of Free Trade Agreements; China signed off on a deal earlier this year, which while currently non-preferential (it doesn’t yet specify any products) but could easily be changed at a later date. Turkey is also negotiating an FTA with the EAEU. Should Moscow agree to make these FTAs product-specific, and with Turkey and China both onboard, the trade attractiveness of the EAEU as opposed to the EU may start to sway the Balkans and Caucasus back towards Moscow’s “sphere of influence” as opposed to that of the EU’s.
The Macedonia result has shown that Brussels has underestimated the region and has not understood the regional history, diversity, or the options. The EU is not the only regional player capable of offering “Sustainability and Connectivity” and especially when the EU has shown to both Russia and Turkey, key regional powers, it is not especially interested in either. The question in hand is this: Is the EU acting as a federal power or not? Because if that is the hidden agenda, Russia, China, and Turkey will pick up the loose reins of infrastructure build, financing, and trade within the Balkans, Caucasus, and Eastern Europe.