Albert Hirschman Centre for Democracy
01 November 2022


Frauke Seebass contributes to our commentary series on the Balkans and the challenges of democratic transformation.

Proximity and distance in perceptions of the Western Balkans in Europe


European identity, Europeanisation, the Future of Europe: while these terms are often framed as inclusive concepts empowering transnational alliances and tackling global challenges, they are at least as exclusive in the ways they are defined and operationalised. Nowhere is this more evident than in the countries dubbed the ‘Western Balkans’ which, despite their geographic proximity, continue to serve as the ‘other’ against which Europe (i.e., the European Union) defines itself. When tracing the history of this phenomenon and looking at examples of modern Balkanisms and their functions, we see that domestic contestation, prejudiced narratives and the lack of a coherent foreign policy identity continue to inhibit a meaningful cohesion of narratives.

Enlargement between geostrategic and domestic interests

A statement unremittingly repeated in EU enlargement documents is the bloc’s “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans”. Yet ironically, when a Conference on the Future of Europe is organised, these crucial future members are not invited. This is paradigmatic of the EU’s manner of engaging with the region, which is based on a paternalistic perspective rather than an equal partnership. While the EU undeniably has its own internal problems, excluding the prospective member states runs against the declared goal of increasing cohesion and omits the fact that many of these challenges are in fact shared by both.

Take the role of third actors, for example. Russian disinformation, China’s trade policy, as well as the rising power of the far right in the US, have challenged both the EU and the Western Balkans. Meanwhile, democratic backsliding and deficits in the rule of law are not exclusive to the countries of Southeast Europe either. Yet they are the ones becoming a “geopolitical chessboard” over these contestations as their status continues to be in limbo and the EU, while hard pressed to acknowledge their “geostrategic importance”, continues to exclude them from strategic negotiations.

Another salient issue is migration. While visa liberalisation for all Western Balkan countries – except Kosovo – has given rise to concerns over irregular movements, EU countries continue to benefit from highly skilled young people arriving on work visas and exacerbating the brain drain in the region, and even pay intermediaries large sums to recruit and train medical staff. At the same time, domestic concerns regarding prejudices, especially against Albanian – Muslim – immigration linked to organised crime, has led various EU countries to stall the accession process. The continued denial of visa freedom to Kosovo further exemplifies this. Only when the so-called “Balkan route” posed direct threats to EU migration and security policy were some of the countries invited to the table.

These policy decisions are evidently not based on a neutral assessment of the local situation but are rooted in domestic concerns. An exemplary case is France, where public opinion is very sceptical of EU enlargement, and the extreme right is using the issue to actively push its anti-immigrant agenda. In the same vein, Spain’s vehement and sometimes ridiculedrefusal to accept Kosovo’s nationhood is deeply rooted in its internal controversy regarding Catalan independence. At the same time, this ambiguity opens up spaces for unholy alliances of undemocratic forces across Europe, which pro-democratic parties on either side consequently have little power to oppose. These are just some of the proximities omitted in the one-directional narrative on the EU’s ‘neighbourhood policy’.

To summarise, the focus on domestic issues inhibits the capacity of the EU to meaningfully engage with the Western Balkan countries and advance its self-set enlargement agenda. The region remains at the outside, yet essentially part of Europe. How can this seemingly contradictory narrative be explained?

Imagining the Western Balkans

Clearly, the EU and its member states retain the interpretational sovereignty of what or who is European, leaving aspirants in a liminal state of becoming while shedding the characteristics secluding them from Europe and making them ‘Balkan’. Maria Todorova has perhaps described this best:

Geographically inextricable from Europe, yet culturally constructed as "the other," the Balkans became, in time, the object of a number of externalized political, ideological and cultural frustrations and have served as a repository of negative characteristics against which a positive and self-congratulatory image of the "European" and "the west" has been constructed.

For this mechanism of othering on the basis of prejudices and generalisation of an imagined and only vaguely defined geographical entity, she has coined the term ‘Balkanism’, based on – but distinct from – Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism. While the ‘Orient’ has always been imagined as a distant, exotic place, the Balkans are undeniably part of the European continent and its inhabitants much closer to the other peoples populating it in their cultures, languages and religious beliefs. What is more, rather than having been subjected to colonialism – although such comparisons are frequently evoked – the countries constituting the ‘Balkans’ (mostly read as comprising Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, and sometimes also Moldova, and (parts of) Greece and Turkey) have been subjected to European imperialism and a competition for influence which has left a deep imprint and connection.

And yet, the ‘Balkan’ remains outside Europe in its self-constituent narrative. The term, introduced in the 19th century, continues to carry the connotation of a violent ‘other’ driven by interethnic hatred. Such reductionist and homogenized stereotypes are based on prejudices of backwardness already prevalent under Habsburg rule and consolidated around the Balkan Wars (1912-13), as well as on the role the region played in the First World War. When Yugoslavia’s violent disintegration caused the West to renew its interest towards the region, these images were quick to resurface and have influenced foreign intervention to this day. Thus, by constructing the Balkans on the basis of the predatory images of a racialized other while disregarding Europe’s violent history outside Southeast Europe (with communism adding to the ‘otherness’), the image is used by predominantly Western powers to justify an imperialist discourse prevailing through traditional geographical misreading, supported by the cultural and political images evoked by the term.

This dissociation of a terminology from its subject has real and far-reaching consequences in the countries subject to Western intervention after the Yugoslav wars. A lack of experience, internal cohesion and potent means resulted in the EU playing a secondary role during the wars themselves, while taking on a leading role in the ensuing political reconstruction processes, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. However, by setting external conditions inhibiting changes from within, liberal interventionism hindered meaningful transformation in favour of ‘stabilitocracies’, further allowing national strongmen to frame foreign actors as scapegoats to exert their powers.

While this goes against the Union’s declared policy goals, it serves the purpose of providing external stability, and EU support effectively legitimises non-democratic leadership in light of unenforced conditionality. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, these ‘stabilitocrats’ then proceed to incorporate the very image of the ‘Balkan other’ that can never be ‘Europeanised’. What is more, the impact of foreign intervention is not properly evaluated and lacks accountability. This insufficient reflection affects EU internal cohesion as well, exposing frictions in its normative foreign policy approach and weakening its legitimacy as an external actor.

Apart from the prevalence of distorted images and domestic contestation, another factor closely linked to the emergence of political relations between the EU and the region hence emerges in the form of the bloc’s own political development as a foreign policy actor and ensuing negotiation processes of European identity in the global arena.

European Identity in the Making

When the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia began, the EU was a lot smaller and less integrated than it is today. Not by chance did the laying of the groundwork for EU external security ambitions, combined with deepened cohesion, coincide with the conflicts. Finding itself unable to meaningfully intervene in Yugoslavia, the EU agreed on the need for increased means of coordinated action, leading to the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) which entered into force in 1993. Given its lack of experience and mandate, the EU nevertheless remained on the sidelines as war continued. In response, it launched the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) in 1999 which provided a framework for EU external relations with the countries of former Yugoslavia and Albania. In the lead-up to its greatest enlargement to date in 2004, the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit declaration reaffirmed an accession perspective for all SAP countries. The declared aims were peace, stability and economic development. 

Yet, given its multilateral nature, with national governments remaining the decisionmakers, EU foreign policy tends to be inward-looking. Therefore, in developing its foreign policy approach, the bloc simultaneously tried to find its own identity, resulting in policies that are more concerned with internal than external issues. Crucially, when devising external policies, one must define what is external and where to set the border between Europe and the ‘other’. Article 49 of the TEU states that “[a]ny European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union” - again, a formulation that aims at inclusivity but effectively grants the exclusive right of definition to EU member states. Consequently, Morocco’s application was turned down, while Turkey’s was accepted with the notion that the decision was not based on geography alone. Similarly, a ‘European path’ was laid out for the abovementioned countries who, in consequence, suddenly found themselves to be outside Europe.

Evidently, hegemonic discourses and the EU’s prerogative of determining who is ‘European’ prevail in the relations with the SAP countries that have since been christened the ‘Western Balkans’. Introduced during a Council meeting in 1998, the term has been used for the countries in Southeast Europe that remained outside the EU after Romania and Bulgaria started accession negotiations. A seemingly neutral designation, it bears the same semiotic dissonance Todorova calls ‘Balkanism’ and upholds a power dichotomy between ‘Europe’ and the ‘(Western) Balkans’ in which the former defines the terminology and sets the agenda, preventing the latter’s self-determination. Accordingly, countries lose this attribution once they become member states, sending the message that, to be truly European, one must be part of the EU.

That ‘Balkan’ is understood in contrast to ‘European’, even in the countries thus labelled, was shown in a 2011 survey which also showed how orientalist images added to perceptions of otherness. Cultural and political markers defined the degree to which a country was conceived as ‘Balkan’ or ‘European’, resulting in majority Muslim countries being perceived as more Balkan than Christian ones and NATO membership countries less so. Other identity markers are omitted in this narrative which depicts ethnicity as prevalent and unchanging. 

The Balkan ‘other’ as the European within?

Evidently, the EU still needs the ‘Balkan other’ for creating its own shared meaning both in terms of identity and as a foreign policy actor. By keeping the countries at arm’s length while allocating them a supposedly preferential treatment among the various neighbourhood concepts encompassing (and thereby creating) other artificial regions, the EU upholds its exclusive claim over the region without assuming responsibility and acknowledging the proximities. Yet this begs the question of how to integrate this ‘other’ into a Union that has been made out to be so very different from it.

The answer seems to be ‘Europeanisation’, a term readily evoked but hardly ever defined. As a multi-dimensional concept, its scientific usefulness is highly disputed and often contributes to upholding the stereotypes described by Todorova and others. While its initial definition referred to EU member states adapting to the dynamics of integration, the meaning has shifted towards the countries wishing to associate with the bloc. Indeed, the fuzziness of the term seems to contribute to its appeal for EU foreign policy as it allows for the continuation of the simplified dichotomy of ‘Europe’ versus ‘Balkan’. As the article has shown, locating and deconstructing this logic and its framing within a wider discourse reveals the tensions between national interests and normative standards of ‘Europeanisation’ fostered by these narratives.

To conclude, EU foreign policy towards the countries gathered under the name ‘Western Balkans’ is guided by deep-rooted misconceptions of both the region and the EU’s role in it.  Embracing a vague terminology and focusing on the domestic effects of policy decisions, EU member states find it increasingly difficult to imagine the six (potential) candidates as part of Europe. As they are not very high on most EU capitals’ agenda, the individual countries receive even less attention. Thus, a closer look at the effects the coming of age of the EU’s foreign policy continues to have on individual states makes the frictions outlined this far and their effects in situ even more tangible.


Frauke Seebass is a PhD candidate at Andrássy University Budapest, researching developments of foreign policy narratives in the EU towards Kosovo and their consequences. She is also a non-profit project manager currently working for the German grassroots think tank Polis180 in the German-Georgian youth project #GEONext–Partnerships for Youth Engagement on cross-sector cooperation for societal change. She has been working on EU neighbourhood policy towards the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership countries for several years.



Read more about our commentary series on the Balkans and the challenges of democratic transformation HERE.