Croatia’s EU accession on the 1 July 2013 encouraged a new wave of articles on both EU and Croatia. However, very few have commented on the implications this accession had on the Western Balkans as an entity discursively constructed by the EU. Sashenka Lleshaj does just that.
Croatia is the second former Yugoslavian republic to enter the EU after Slovenia, but it is difficult to say whether this is the fourth or the fifth Balkan country to enter the EU, after Bulgaria and Romania joined Slovenia and Greece in the club. On the same logic, is this the first or the second Western Balkan country to enter the EU? Has Slovenia ever been part of the so called “Western Balkans”, except geographically? Finally, is Croatia still part of the Western Balkans after entering the EU?
In trying to answer these questions, it is important to define what the “Balkans” and the “Western Balkans” represent. The Balkans traditionally has been more of a political than geographical term. The term originates from “a range of mountains stretching eastwards across Bulgaria from the Serbian frontier to the Black Sea”. Geographically, this is a peninsula with clear Southern, Eastern and Western borders. However, as it divides Turkey, the political implications are less clear.
Indeed, politically, the term is far more complicated. It is often used with negative connotations by referring to continuous fragmentation and border re-drawings (hence the term Balkanisation), ethnic conflicts and an Orientalist backwardness. Most importantly, it looks like the Balkans are meant to be always bordering and never in the EU.
Once in the EU, a country is “purified” from the Balkan stigma. Greece has not been considered a Balkan country for decades now (it was never part of the other politically constructed communist Eastern Europe and entered the EU in 1981). Romania and Bulgaria are not discursively part of the Balkans (since they entered the EU, these two countries are even sometimes mentioned alongside Central and Eastern Europe countries due to the timing of their accession). Slovenia is a “dissident” of the region, having left the former Yugoslavia before the outbreak of war.
Consequently, today the Balkans ─ and especially the Western Balkans ─ are what is not the EU. In spite of its proximity to the EU’s borders, the Western Balkans now symbolize the “Balkans of the Balkans”. This overlap perfectly represents the political construction of the terms, as the Balkan countries that entered the EU want to differentiate themselves from the countries afflicted by wars in the 90s. At the same time, the EU since 1998 has gradually constructed the new term ─ the Western Balkans ─ to describe the part of the region that was not a part of the union. Consequently, similar to the Balkans before, the Western Balkans today is a geopolitical term.
Now what about Croatia? If this tradition continues, membership of the EU will automatically remove the stigma from Croatia, which is probably going to exit the Western Balkans forever. Meanwhile, the EU will continue to exercise the same country-specific conditionality over the rest of the Western Balkan, assessing the remaining Western Balkan countries’ readiness for accession on an individual rather than regional basis. Consequently, hopes of EU membership will continue to shape these countries’ perceptions of belonging and the region’s flexible imaginative borders.