Redefining the Balkans: how the European Union offers a prospect for lasting peace in South-East Europe

Bal’kan (bawl- k' n), a. Of the peninsula bounded by the Adriatic, Aegean, & Black Seas, or of its peoples & countries. ~ize v.t., divide (an area) into small antagonistic states.

Antag’on/ism (antagg' niz’m), n. Active opposition (the ~ism between them; come into, be in, ~ism with; his ~ism to). ~ist n., opponent, adversary; ~istic a.(-ically). ~ize v.t. (-zable), oppose actively; counteract; set in opposition.[1]

A dictionary is certainly a very helpful tool for every person who seeks an explanation of an unfamiliar term. And indeed, since we live in a world where new concepts are constantly introduced, there are many such terms. However, there are a number of expressions that have barely changed their meaning over time - expressions whose definitions have become so well known that there is simply no need to look them up. The word “Balkan” belongs to this category. The word describes a part of the world that has retained at least one characteristic throughout its history that persists in defining it, even in the present: “antagonism.” South-East Europe (which, for the purpose of clarification, is considered to consist of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia andSlovenia) has come to be synonymous with “antagonism” among most, although certainly not all, of the countries which it includes under its umbrella. [2]

Every one of the many versions of the history of the Balkans is filled with recollections of the numerous conflicts to which the region has played host. For nearly half of the previous millennium, most of South-East Europe was part of the Ottoman Empire. For nearly five hundred years, the peoples of the region were not separated into Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Romanians or Yugoslavs, but were simply Christians or Muslims. As such, they not only survived, but formed cultural ties with one another, ties that I believe can never be erased.

However, this period of coexistence, not as turbulent as is often assumed today, did not last forever. Nationalism, through the two Balkan Wars, gave birth to independent states that seemed to forget their communal past and to think only of a future in which they would dominate over their new, equally hostile neighbours. The two World Wars followed, as did the Cold War, and during this time the different Balkan countries chose different paths that each one thought would certainly bring prosperity to its peoples. Greece was the only country to escape communism, the political system that came to dominate the region, and instead embarked on a path that eventually led to the European Community, or what is today known as the European Union. As for the rest of the Balkan countries, eventually they were subject to another destructive round of turbulence and conflicts, some of which still persist today, as they saw their chosen political system disintegrate throughout the decade of the 1990s and until the present day.

As a citizen of a country which is considered to be part of the Balkans, I would say that we have certainly had our share of hard times: many wars, new borders, exchanges of territory, exchanges of people, interethnic conflicts, the deaths of some states, and the births of others…a list which can go on and on. Are we then to consider ourselves as a unique case, as ill-fated people who should be pitied because they are destined never to see the light of day? Or are we to look for a solution to our problems, a solution which is certainly there if we only overcome our own stubbornness, which has locked us in a state of isolation where there is only room for our own limited version of the truth, a “truth” which always points the finger of blame for our present condition toward others, and never toward ourselves? Can we not follow the example of the rest of Europe, a Europe that, like the Balkans, has been torn by conflict throughout its history? A Europe that, unlike the Balkans, has finally found peace and prosperity today? If we choose to be truthful to ourselves, we will easily find the right answers to these questions, or rather the predominating answer: the European Union is indeed the long-awaited phenomenon which offers the Balkan region a unique chance to finally redefine itself.

Many might be rather reluctant to accept this vague solution, which seems too simple for a problem of such complexity. How can an organization such as the European Union, a conglomerate of different nations, which, although it has managed to establish unbreakable economic ties, is far from reaching political as well as full cultural integration, serve as a factor that could establish peace in a region with such persistent instability as South-East Europe? It is this question that I will try to answer in the remaining pages of this essay.

If one looks at the political agenda of the majority of existing political parties of every South-East European state, one would certainly find a common feature: The ultimate prospect of becoming a Member State of the European Union.

The Balkans, with the exception of Greece, which has been a member of the European Union since 1981, and Slovenia, which became a member on the 1st of May 2004, is finally united in a common struggle, a struggle to overcome the barriers which stand between the cruel reality of the present and the dream of the future, a dream of becoming a part of the growing European Family. It is my hope that through this struggle, the Balkan people will finally discover that they can indeed live and cooperate with one another. In the common drive to reach political stability and economic prosperity, we will rediscover the innumerable cultural ties that united us in the distant past, and that will do so again in the future. The existing differences, misrepresented in our more recent history and in our present to portray us as “antagonistic states,” will in the future serve only to show that we are simply different, unique parts of a whole that function best when in a harmonious union.

However, some may still be reluctant and claim that even though the goal of eventual EU membership is a common aspiration for every Balkan country, it might not necessarily lead to reconciliation, simply because it is a goal which some may choose to pursue on their own, all the while evading inter-Balkan mingling. We will eventually enter the EU as independent states, not as a region. Yet, even if this is so, the European Union has nonetheless found a way to make regional interaction and cooperation--and thus eventual reconciliation--an inescapable necessity. Every country of South-East Europe, or the Western Balkans as the region is referred to by the European Union itself, must satisfy a number of conditions so as to be eligible for EU membership; the most important of which are the shift to a market economy, and the establishment of a functioning democracy with the rule of law. This difficult process of economic as well as political transition in the Western Balkans has been and will continue to be constantly accompanied by EU economic assistance and political guidance. There are a number of changes that the process of transition entails that can only be brought about by internal reform initiated independently by each Balkan country. However, not all the problems this period of transformation has produced can be overcome independently. Thus, to show how the European Union can serve as a means of reconciliation even before the Balkan countries become its members, I will continue by offering a short explanation of how the establishment of a functioning market economy entails regional cooperation that will eventually lead, at the very least, to partial political integration and thus cultural reunion amongst the Balkan countries.

Among the many requirements that must be satisfied for the establishment of a functioning market economy is the provision of allowing unrestricted trade. Currently the European Union is the main trading partner of the Western Balkans. [3] However, this is not a situation that is entirely satisfactory for the European Union. The EU cannot remain the largest trading partner for each Balkan country while the countries themselves remain partially isolated from one another despite being immediate neighbours. Stronger trade relations must be established between the countries of the Western Balkans. Thus, the European Union has made the signing of bilateral agreements for free movement of persons, goods, services and capital between the Balkan countries an absolute requirement that must be satisfied for the process of accession to continue. [4] As the significance of the borders drawn between the countries of the Balkans diminish, the peoples of the region will time and again come into contact with one another. Both material and cultural exchanges will ensue. The countries will rediscover their many cultural similarities, creating a feeling of belonging to a unique part of the greater world. As the process of mutual economic integration progresses, the cost of its reversal would become untenable for the Western Balkans. Thus, the remaining differences among the Balkan nations, which until very recently might have instantly caused violent confrontation, will be put aside through the process of interaction for the sake of mutual benefit.

When looking into the field of international relations today, there is at least one statement that can be made with certainty: the ever-present reality that economics and politics go hand-in-hand. Once the process of economic integration in the Balkan region has been initiated, interaction in the field of politics is bound to follow. Indeed, for the process of democratization to be complete, political cooperation on the regional level, cooperation that would ensure stability, is crucial. It was surely with that idea in mind that the Stability Pact of South-Eastern Europe was created in June 1999, its purpose being the development of a long-term strategy for stability and growth in the area through regional cooperation. [5]

Once each country successfully completes the process of economic as well as political transition, and thus satisfies the acquis comunautaire, the requirements for entrance into theUnion, they will finally become a Member of this supranational organization. Countries that are members of the European Union are part of a greater family that cannot afford domestic feuds. The Community has thus far achieved a high level of economic integration. With the prospect of adopting a common Constitution, it embarks on the path of federalization, a state of being where not only economic but also political issues will be dealt with at the supranational level. Such a highly integrated entity will surely present a barrier to conflict among its Members, who will become highly interdependent. Thus, any disputes that arise among its Member States will be peacefully resolved through the intervention of the Unionitself, always, of course, with the participation of all and in the interest of all.

Thus, with the arguments above in mind, I can say with certainty that the prospect of membership in the European Union does offer, to every country in the Balkans, the possibility of lasting peace. EU membership has already become the common dream of every South-East European country. Accession imposes numerous conditions, which have put the Balkan region on the road to economic and political transition. Interaction and cooperation among the countries of South-East Europe is crucial to completing the process of transition successfully. Continual contact amongst the people of the region will ease reconciliation with a painful past. Final entrance into the Union will make permanent the recently initiated redefinition of this repeatedly war-torn part of the world.

So as not to leave the analysis offered above as only a piece of theoretical speculation and wishful thinking about the future prospects of the region, I will mention the Thessaloniki Summit held on the 21st of June 2003 as an occasion at which strong proof was offered that the European Union may indeed eventually bring reconciliation and lasting peace to the Balkans. [6] Greece, as the host of the Summit, at the time holding the Presidency of the Union, showed that it could temporarily put aside the political differences with some of its neighbours, and support the accession to the Union of the entire region, a development which would benefit all Balkan countries, the host included. Isolation from one’s neighbors will hopefully become only a memory of a distant past. Economic and political interaction for the sake of our own well-being, will lead to cultural exchange and a renewal of old bonds. We will finally appreciate how much stronger we can be together as opposed to apart. Our dream for permanent peace in the Balkans will become a reality. In the words of the Commissioner for External Relations of the European Commission, Chris Patten, referring to the countries of our region: “The Prospect of membership in the EU is real, and we will not regard the map of the Union as complete until you have joined us.” [7]

Some might say that the analysis offered above, which more or less outlines the meaning of the European Union for South-East Europe, is overly optimistic, or even idealistic. A couple of remarks can be made as a response.

Primarily, it is important to stress that any type of change, especially the change entailed throughout the difficult process of transition, needs time. We are a people who for decades have lived in an economic as well as a political system that was fundamentally different from the one we are attempting to apply today. Days, weeks, months or years are not enough to finally feel at home in the new and unfamiliar world that we are trying to create for ourselves. However, that does not mean that we will not, eventually, reach our goal. We simply have to accept the reality that every type of change begins small and a takes long time. That small beginning may simply be a hopeful idea, an aspiration that is thereafter translated into reality. Looking at the many hopeful ideas voiced by some of our people today, I would say that we have already embarked on our small beginning.

My own personal hope is that soon Oxford University Press will issue a new and revised edition of its Dictionary. I expect that there we will find the word “Balkan” redefined, for its redefinition in reality has already been initiated.


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- Crampton R.J. The Balkans since the Second World War. London: Longman, 2002.

- Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs. “The Western Balkans in Transition (European Economy European Commission Occasional Papers, January 2004).” Europa. January 2004. European Union. 26 April 2004. <>

- Patten Chris, “The EU’s relations with South Eastern Europe (Western Balkans) Thessaloniki Summit-21 June 2003.”Europa, 21 June. 2003. European Union. 26 April 2004.

<> -The Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969.



Michael Mahoney, Clarity International


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[1] The Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 1969 ed., s.v., “Balkan, Antagonism.”

[2] R.J. Crampton, preface, The Balkans Since the Second World War (London: Pearson Education, 2002), xiv

[3] Chris Patten, “The EU’s relations with South Eastern Europe (Western Balkans)-Thessaloniki Summit-21 June 2003,” Europa, June 21, 2003, available at <>

[4] Chris Patten, “The EU’s relations with South Eastern Europe (Western Balkans)-Thessaloniki Summit-21 June 2003,” Europa, June 21, 2003, available at <>

[5] Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs, “The Western Balkans in Transition” (European Economy European Commission Occasional Papers, January 2004), 7, available at <>

[6] Chris Patten, “The EU’s relations with South Eastern Europe (Western Balkans)-Thessaloniki Summit-21 June 2003,” Europa, June 21, 2003, available at <>

[7] Chris Patten, “The EU’s relations with South Eastern Europe (Western Balkans)-Thessaloniki Summit-21 June 2003,” Europa, June 21, 2003, available at <>