With no roadmap to a European future, the people of the Balkans have taken to the streets

For years, EU membership has been the region's driving aspiration. Denied accession, its politics are now paralysed and increasingly volatile

TOPSHOT - Albanian policemen try to avoid the flames from a petrol bomb during an anti-government protest called by the opposition on May 11, 2019 in Tirana. / AFP / Gent SHKULLAKU
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This week's dramatic street protests, in which the Albanian prime minister's office was pelted with petrol bombs, are part of a wider current of popular unrest that has rocked Balkan nations over the past few months.

Activists have gathered in the capitals of Albania, Serbia and Montenegro, as well as other cities in the region, railing against corruption, a lack of press and democratic freedom, and government links with organised crime. Their demands have been serious.

While each national movement has its own specific grievances, they also have a common cause. After years of gradual, but fruitless, progress towards European Union membership, the region is out of ideas.

The beginnings of the protests all took different forms. In Serbia, they were sparked in November by the brutal beating of an opposition party leader by a group of masked men. In Albania, they targeted graft and allegations of government use of illegal drug money. In Montenegro, they were precipitated by the arrest of an opposition politician.

All have since morphed into anti-government protests, with thousands calling for the resignation of leaders and the overthrow of existing power structures. Opposition parties in all three countries have also boycotted their parliaments.

The grievances have little to do with party-political differences and everything to do with the institutions of government itself. Although all three protest movements are led by opposition figures who hope to take power for themselves, none are talking about political ideas.

That is because a key driver – indeed, the key driver – for Balkans politics for more than two decades has been joining the EU. All other politics is technical. Yet the door to Europe is shut.

When the leaders of Germany and France hosted the six Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – in Berlin at the start of May, they focused on the need for political stability, but said nothing about EU accession.

Albania and North Macedonia, are hoping to begin formal negotiations next month. However, Serbia and Montenegro are already in negotiations, which have stalled. The day any of the Balkan countries will join the EU appears to be years away. Viewed from the perspective of those nations, the process of attaining EU membership appears to be one without end.

The key driver for Balkan politics for more than two decades has been joining the EU, but the door to Europe is now shut

The European Union is divided on the matter, too.

The Berlin summit was an attempt by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to forge their own consensus with Balkan leaders, ahead of the sixth annual Western Balkans Summit in Poland in July, which Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron will also be attending. No wonder Balkan countries are confused, pushed and pulled between the imperatives of the European Union and the capitals of Paris and Berlin.

With no obvious route forward for the Balkans, the result is that politics across this region has stagnated.

To take one example, the EU is still trying to defuse a trade row between Serbia and Kosovo that threatens to derail an agreement to normalise the tense relations between these two countries. But if the normalisation does not result in closer ties with Europe, why would either side bother?

The dream of joining the EU motivated politicians to make deep, painful changes to their economies and politics, and it was what allowed them to sell those changes to the public. Now, without a clear roadmap to that future, the situation is drifting.

Instead of addressing this, the EU berates Balkan nations for their political ties, particularly to Russia and China. In doing so, they forget that the turn towards Chinese finance and Russian influence is only because Balkan countries feel abandoned by the EU.

In August, Johannes Hahn, one of the EU's most senior figures, said countries in the Balkans that accepted Chinese aid could become “Trojan horses” within the bloc. This is an astonishing thing to say about European nations seeking to join a European union.

It is illustrative of a particular way of thinking about Balkan countries – one that casts them as “lesser” Europeans, and presents the idea of EU accession as a favour that may or may not be granted, rather than the natural desire of legitimate European nations to join a united Europe. It also reflects a particular historical amnesia in EU political circles, given that the original reason for drawing Balkan countries closer was the security of the continent.

The protesters in Serbia, Montenegro and Albania may be calling for the resignations of their leaders, but the demonstrations are really about the entire future of the Balkans. With nowhere else to go, the people of the region have taken to the streets.