The EU and Britain in the Western Balkans: Sustaining Cooperation after Brexit

On 10 July 2018, the UK hosted the leaders of the six Western Balkan countries. It was the fifth summit of the so-called “Berlin Process”, an annual gathering aimed at advancing the EU’s policy in the region. Having Britain in charge – after Germany, France, Austria and Italy had all taken turns – gave the event an odd flair. British Prime Minister Theresa May telling the Balkans that their future lay in Europe while the UK was on its way out. To be fair, the hosts did not skirt the subject. May herself framed the summit as a clear message that Britain would remain committed to the Balkans even after its departure from the European Union.

Of course, the London summit proceeded from the assumption that there would be an orderly Brexit. In mid-2018, the default scenario involved a divorce deal setting the terms for a friendly future relationship which, following a short transition period, would lead up to a new EU-UK treaty working out not just the nature and scope of economic ties, but also the modes of cooperation across political and security issue-areas. The very real prospect of a “No Deal” Brexit, as of early 2019, calls this assumption into question. The question how the EU interacts with the UK in relations to other third countries remains an open issue. Will the EU and London be able to coordinate their policies and work in partnership towards common objectives, from the advancement of the rule of law to counterterrorism? Or will they rather pursue separate and parallel tracks, and if so, how significant is the risk of friction or discord?

Leaving the Balkans?

It is reasonable to expect that after Brexit, Britain’s role in the Western Balkans will be downgraded. It is not as invested in the region as Germany, Austria or even Italy or France in terms of trade and investment. Nor has it attracted large migrant populations from the region, in comparison to continental Europe or North America.  Without such strong ties, the Balkans might appear less and less on the radar to London. The recent passing of British politician Paddy Ashdown, who left his mark as High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 2002 and 2006, stands as a reminder that the time when the UK spearheaded Western policy in the region is now history. The inward turn which is both a cause and a consequence of Brexit sits oddly with the memory of an era only a decade ago when the British lobbied hard for EU enlargement and open borders.

Yet the UK does not need to disengage from the region after being a leading actor for more than two decades. A host of security challenges, to be detailed in the sections that follow, are likely to draw Britain back to the Balkans. Being able to project influence in Europe’s “soft underbelly” will be key to the UK retaining its status of a top-tier security and defence player. A solid contribution to Balkan stability would also give London leverage in the negotiations on its future relationship with Europe where cooperation in foreign and security policy will be one of the foremost issues, beyond trade and economic ties.

The challenge faced by the EU and the UK therefore, is how to forge a new partnership serving their overlapping interests. At the minimum, the EU should keep Britain in the so-called Berlin Process, the annual summits including the leaders of the six Western Balkan countries. Another option would be a three-way forum in which the UK attends as a co-equal party to the EU. However, to be accorded such a position Britain would most likely need to scale up its contribution to the region, not least in terms of financial assistance. Right now it is chipping in into the EU budget and therefore is also contributing to the Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA). Of course, Brexit will end the UK contribution to the EU. Yet Britain could ramp up bilateral assistance via the Department for International Development.

In addition, the EU should devise a mechanism allowing the UK to take part in the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), in both Brussels and on the ground. That could certainly involve having a seat at the working group on the Western Balkans and possibly in the Political and Security Committee. The UK oould play a role at the implementation stage as well. Still, the exact arrangement heavily depends on how the UK and EU choose to structure their relationship in the area of foreign policy after Brexit takes place. An update of the Berlin Plus arrangement allowing CSDP missions to draw on NATO assets could offer a way forward.

Britain, NATO and the Russia Challenge

NATO will continue to anchor Britain in the Western Balkans as well as Eastern Europe more broadly. Russia’s standoff with the West has given the Atlantic Alliance a fresh lease on life. Britain, as one of Europe’s leading military powers alongside France, is key to NATO’s policy of containing Russia. It has contributed troops to the deployment in Estonia, where it is the lead nation for NATO’s mission, and in Poland. With the Skirpals’ poisoning and the Litvinenko affair before that, UK has itself been the target of offensive action by Moscow for years. It will continue to pursue a tough line on Russia and therefore focus on Eastern Europe.

The Balkans have emerged as an arena in the geopolitical contest between Moscow and the West. The accession of Montenegro to NATO in 2017, followed by North Macedonia later this year have been major milestones in the region. Next on the line is Bosnia, where the implementation of the Membership Action Plan (MAP) is a political issue of top importance. Bringing Bosnia closer to NATO, at a time when centrifugal forces are picking up, will be a shared task for Britain as well as for big EU players such as France and Germany. The UK is a member of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) overseeing the Dayton Peace Agreement as well as its steering board where France, Germany, Italy, the European Commission and the Presidency of the EU Council hold places too. In short, Bosnia could provide a robust link between the EU and Britain in the Balkans.

The same applies to Kosovo. NATO’s peacekeeping operation KFOR continues to provide security on the ground even if has drawn down its numbers. The UK’s contribution has gone from 7,000 in the early days to now just 30. But the UK can certainly recommit. That would be a clear signal of support both to Kosovo and to the EU which is mediating the normalization talks between Belgrade and Prishtina. The 2013 Brussels Agreement is, among other things, a principal piece of legacy left behind by Catherine Ashton when she served as the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy.

Countering hostile actions in the region could provide basis for cooperation as well. In late 2016, Montenegrin authorities revealed a coup plot that they later linked to the Russian military intelligence (GRU). GRU has been the same outfit British authorities blame for the novichok nerve agent attack in Salisbury. UK security services, which many believe passed information to Montenegro, will therefore have a reason to maintain close ties with their Balkan counterparts. And there is much scope for working together with the EU in strengthening what the European External Action Service (EEAS) terms “resilience”, that is local governments and societies being able to withstand disinformation, propaganda and political interference.

There is already a EU-NATO cooperation template out there. The European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki is an example of an initiative where both EU members and Britain have joined forces to achieve shared goals. The centre is a platform enabling participating governments to share best practices on how to counteract hostile action targeting their institutions, domestic political life, information space etc. The Western Balkans is one of the regions of interest, on account of Russia’s growingly assertive policy there.

The rise of transnational threats

The British perspective on the Western Balkans will continue to be shaped by transnational threats emanating from the region.

First of all, locally based organized crime presents a lasting concern. Albanian organised crime for instance is said to be in control of the wholesale trade in crack cocaine in Britain and instrumental to the rising level of crime-related violence in metropolitan areas.  As smuggling routes pass through EU territory, the UK agencies share an interest in working with their counterparts from the EU in combating the drug trade. More than that, Britain is invested in the judicial reform underway in Albania which is intended to help tackle corruption and organized crime in the country. Progress in the rule of law has been put forward as a condition by the EU for opening accession talks with Albania. In other words, the UK will benefit from the European Commission and member states’ success.

Secondly, there is the challenge of foreign fighters who have gone from Western Europe to fight in Syria and Iraq. Their ranks, according to estimates from 2015, include around 750 British citizens and up to 650  from Western Balkan countries such as Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and North Macedonia. Southeast Europe and Turkey has been a route for Western jihadis bound for the Middle East. The region is also awash with small arms. The attacks in Paris back in November 2015 were carried out with automatic assault rifles originating from Balkan stockpiles. Organized crime and smuggler networks partner with extremists as they make profit out of trafficking weapons and people. The return of foreign fighters is therefore a shared concern of Britain, the EU and the countries in the region. It is also an opportunity for post-Brexit Britain to stay engaged and cooperate with its European partners both on intelligence sharing and policy development.

Each party would be in a position to help the other, in that recruitment, radicalization, funding, the procurement of arms and explosives etc. would continue to operate as in the past. Since the UK never joined Schengen and kept border controls, Brexit won’t disrupt established channels nor significantly alter transnational flows. It is perfectly plausible, for instance, to imagine a scenario in which weapons originating from the Balkans are transferred to the EU while the actual payment for the consignment goes through UK banking structures. There is a great deal of need to join efforts and devise institutional mechanisms to address these issue. For instance, by gathering and sharing intelligence and police information, joint databases, coordinating investigations and arrests, monitoring and surveillance.

The EU and the UK should therefore think strategically how they institutionalize cooperation in justice and home affairs in third countries in general and the Western Balkans, in particular. After Brexit, Britain would have to leave Europol, the EU’s police cooperation platform too. However, Europol has a network of agreements with non-EU countries allowing for the exchange of information and intelligence for strategic agreements, and personal data for operational agreements. Denmark, which has opted out from Europol, has such an agreement too, which could serve as a model for Britain. There is a menu of options on other aspects of cooperation in criminal matters such as mutual legal assistance, or extradition.

Once the EU and the UK put their relationship in the area of Justice and Home Affairs on a firm institutional and legal footing, it will be easier to engage the Western Balkans. The bottom line however is that the EU acquis is likely to form the basis of cooperation. Aspiring members in the region would sign up for joint initiatives for fighting organized crime and countering radicalism so long as it advances their bid to join the EU.

What Comes Next

The worst-case scenario would entail the UK turning away from the Western Balkans rather than working at cross purposes with the EU. Any meaningful discussion by EU member states and Brussels institutions on how to develop cooperation with post-Brexit Britain in foreign affairs should include a special chapter on Southeast Europe. In terms of substance, the chapter should list the following priorities:

(1)  Support for reforms in the area of justice and the rule of law;

(2)  Countering the disruptive tactics pursued by the adversaries of the West;

(3)  Fighting organized crime rooted in Southeast Europe;

(4)  Joint action on counterterrorism and deradicalization.

The EU should show flexibility and keep the UK in cooperation mechanisms. London should remain part of the Berlin Process, whether as a full-fledged participant, which is arguably the best option, or as an ad hoc attendee. It should furthermore establish the closest possible relationship with Europol and other relevant institutions operating at the EU level. Denmark’s example might provide a precedent for the UK. To be relevant to the Western Balkans, any future agreements between Britain and the EU-27 in the area of justice and home affairs needs to have a robust external dimension.

The Western Balkans, might be right in the European Union’s backyard, however the region is geographically remote from the UK, and could become a testing ground for continued cooperation in foreign and security policy as a result. Since their interests are fundamentally aligned the EU-27 and the UK should be able to speak with one voice.

Dimitar Bechev is Research Fellow at the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. He is also a Senior Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Dimitar Bechev’s latest book is Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe (Yale University Press, 2017).


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