Oscillating between trying to conform to EU norms and nativist backlash, countries in southeastern Europe are often caught in a love-hate relationship.
Though not failed states, the countries of southeastern Europe have long been afflicted with bad government. Massive, often flagrant, corruption in the administration, media and judiciary are not uncommon. Governments are often comically erratic and arbitrary. As a consequence, individuals struggle with state bureaucracies or even with something as simple as the quality of roads, which are often very poor throughout the Balkans.
Southeastern Europeans, like many on the European periphery, then look longingly to “Europe,” and especially northwestern Europe, to improve their lot. Huge numbers of people, especially the young, emigrate to the West in search of better education and higher wages. European integration has long been a lodestar for almost all the countries of the region. The European Union (EU) offers the prospect of pacification, the rule of law and, despite the ongoing economic crisis, relative prosperity.
Unfortunately, almost none of the countries of the region have a particularly harmonious relationship with the rest of Europe. In each of these nations, there is a real culture shock between their local politics and the norms of western Europe. In recent years, there has also been little improvement in the quality of government in southeastern Europe, whether in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria or Turkey. According to the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI), in almost all countries, performance in areas such as quality of democracy and of executive capacity has tended to either stagnate or decline.
Despite great diversity among these nations, all are caught in a kind of love-hate relationship with Europe, and all of them oscillate between trying to conform to EU norms to join the club, and nativist backlash whereby politicians reject EU disciplines and appeal to local sensibilities. In each case, there is a kind of mutual suspicion between southeastern and northwestern Europeans.
Both bad government and their participation in the EU have tended to fuel nativism and populism. In general, corruption and inequity will tend to galvanize a portion of the public toward radical politics. Paradoxically, the very disciplines meant to raise standards to EU levels tend to also fuel resentment, whether due to austerity measures or the painful purging of corrupt local politicians. The backlash itself usually makes conforming to EU standards all the more difficult.
Greece is a typical example. Though a member of the European Communities since 1981, and a deeply integrated part of the core European project that is the eurozone, Greece has become a byword for economic failure and bad government. Participation in the eurozone has almost proven impossible given Greece’s level of corruption and lack of competitiveness.
To be sure, EU pressure has led to changes. Greece’s SGI report notes that the country has “made progress with regard to fiscal consolidation and structural reforms, including the liberalization of labor relations and formerly closed occupations, and the privatizations of a few state-owned enterprises.”
This was after an EU technocratic government was imposed in the country, saving its participation in the eurozone. This, austerity and a weak economic recovery led Greeks to react by electing the far-left populists of Syriza, who by bluffing with a threat to leave the eurozone only caused more economic chaos.
Yet both the Greek government and most eurozone countries have opted for Greece to remain, at least for now, in the currency union. Despite the tensions, the ties that bind remain—the eurozone still fearing the hit to financial stability and political credibility through losing a member of a purportedly “irreversible” project, and the Greeks fearing the uncertainty of having to make it on their own.
Neighboring Turkey is quite different—being much larger, majority-Muslim and not even a member of the EU. Yet here too, the dynamics are similar. Turkey has grown increasingly frustrated at being kept out of the EU club for decades and has felt increasingly free to go its own way under an Islamist government.
The SGI report notes that corruption revelations have led to a crackdown by the government with “bans on social media and internet restrictions,” the creation of a “‘media pool’ of uncritical government support,” and pressure on “the major media outlets … by means of financial threats, self-censorship or increased job insecurity.” But Turkey has yet to officially give up on its European dream.
The EU, for its part, particularly politicians in France, Germany and Austria, fear voter backlash if such a large Muslim country were to join the union, giving all Turks an unlimited right of residence as EU citizens. Yet member states also fear the geopolitical consequences of giving Turkey a frank “no,” most recently seen in the need to cultivate the Turks so they cooperate in managing the migrant crisis. EU-Turkish relations thus remain in a strange limbo, dissatisfying to both, yet clung to for lack of a better alternative.
Bulgaria and Romania
Bulgaria and Romania are also torn between attraction to the EU and conforming to its disciplines. The two Balkan nations, though succeeding to the surprise of many in joining the union in 2007, have submitted to unprecedented EU intrusion to monitor corruption. They have both been kept out of the borderless Schengen Area of free movement of people on grounds of corruption.
In Bulgaria, there is a strange situation of an EU member being governed by a coalition of nepotistic and/or anti-European parties, namely the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Turkish minority party, along with the nationalist Ataka party.
In Romania, there have been remarkable political developments, partly as a result of EU pressure. The National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) has purged enormous amounts of national and local politicians for corruption. There was the surprise election of President Klaus Iohannis, a center-right politician from the German and Protestant minorities. Finally, there was the appointment of Dacian Cioloș, a former European commissioner, as prime minister in response to discontent and protests following a deadly nightclub fire in Bucharest. The tragedy, which claimed 63 lives, mostly young people, showcased how the country’s corrupt and negligent administration could in the field of health and safety prove deadly. Never before has Romania had a government so dedicated to “Europeanizing” the country.
The ultimate political consequences, however, remain uncertain, as the risk of backlash in case of disappointment remains. Time will tell if President Iohannis and Prime Minister Cioloș—the latter leading a one-year technocratic government—will succeed in aligning Romania with EU norms.
The countries of southeastern Europe are then likely to continue to oscillate between a preference for self-assertion and a calculated move back to stick to the EU. Despite the culture shock and problems, the governments have tended to come back to Europe, to not abandon their ties, and to continue their sometimes Quixotic European quest. Ultimately, however, a more enduring and harmonious relationship will only be possible if these countries improve their own quality of life and government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.