The Balkans Specter of Brexit


To the snowballing list of Brexit commentaries concerned with the rise of nationalism in the EU, Pope Francis has recently added his own warning about “the “Balkanisation” of Europe in the wake of Britain’s shock vote to quit the EU”. His Holiness was not, however, referring to the alarming post-Brexit rise of racist and xenophobic violence and intimidations, nor the anti-immigration and Islamophobic hysteria simmering since the Schengen Crisis earlier this year. The Pontifex was, more precisely, worried about something else, and it deserves to be quoted in full:

“There is already a war going on in Europe. There is also a sense of division, not just in Europe. Think of Catalonia, Scotland last year… I’m not saying these divisions are dangerous but they need to be carefully examined before any steps are taken towards a split, there needs to be discussion and feasible solutions found. I have not looked into the reasons why Great Britain took this decision. Some decisions are made in order to gain emancipation. For example, all our Latin American and African countries freed themselves from colonial rule. This is more understandable because there is a culture and a way of thinking behind this. However, the secession of a country, think of Scotland for example, is something politicians refer to as “balkanisation”, no offense intended towards the Balkans. For me, unity is always superior to conflict but unity comes in different shapes and forms. Fraternity is better than distance. Bridges are better than walls. All this should make us reflect: can a country say: ’I am in the European Union, I want to keep certain elements that are in my culture’? The step the EU needs to take to rediscover the strength of its roots is a step towards creativity as well as towards healthy ’disunion’, in other words give more independence and freedom to countries in the Union, think of a different kind of union. Creativity is needed in terms of jobs and the economy: in Italy, 40% of under 25s is jobless. There’s something wrong in this massive Union, but let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater and let us try to recreate. Creativity and fertility are the two keywords for the European Union.”

Calling for freedom, emancipation, creativity, fraternity – not to forget fertility – is certainly wiser and better than succumbing to the irrational nationalist drives, even though his argument for “a different kind of union” conspicuously resembles that of Jarosław Kaczyński and the V4 Visegrad Group. And yet strangely, this fraternal wisdom and warning against irrational divisiveness in Europe needs to be underpinned by – wait for it – another kind of the regional-cultural stereotyping. No offense intended towards the Pope, discourse analysis is just something social scientists are trained to do.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary tells us that “to balkanize” means “to break up (as a region or group) into smaller and often hostile units”, and further informs us of the historical origin of the expression:

“The decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century led to a series of revolts that accelerated the fracturing of the region into a number of smaller states whose unstable coexistence led to violence that came to a head in World War I. Since 1919, balkanize and its related noun, balkanization have come to refer to the kind of divisive action that can weaken countries or groups, as well as other things.”

Indeed, reading various post-Brexit commentaries, I was fascinated by how many of those ‘things’ can become ‘balkanized’ in the aftermath of an event that had nothing to do with ‘the Balkans’. The Financial Times, for example, writes about the challenges that Brexit poses to the IT sector, through “the Balkanisation of the European tech infrastructure”. Even more exotically, by the same media outlet, it is the ‘cyberbalkanization’ of the social media that lead up to the Brexit confrontations. The possibility of the ‘Internet balkanization’ is even keeping some IT CEOs awake at night. Here, on the other hand, is a piece arguing that Brexit can stop the ‘balkanization’ of the Middle East (sic!). The Economic Times takes the ‘balkanizing’ step even further, re-writing the opening sentence of The Communist Manifesto: “With a spectre of balkanisation haunting Europe and new conservatism sweeping the Continent, the world is in a new realm of uncertainty.”

But isn’t this how we got into the present trouble with Europe in the first place? By re-writing catastrophic global impacts of socio-economic disparities and injustices with regional-cultural and racist stereotypes? And is there a better, clearer, a more disturbing illustration of it than the incendiary “Breaking Point” poster? Refugees from the ‘balkanized’ Middle East marching through ‘the Balkans’ to ‘balkanize’ Europe?

In the introduction to her outstanding analysis of the discursive production of ‘the Balkans’ as the turbulent, primitive and volatile ‘Other’ to the Enlightenment and rationalism of the European civilization, the historian and philosopher Maria Todorova re-writes the famous Marx’s sentence in a way far more fitting to use as a lens on the present post-Brexit bewilderment: “A specter is haunting Western culture – the specter of the Balkans.” That is to say, a haunting, unbearable notion of an ambiguity and contradiction in one’s own taken-for-granted civilizational normativity; an ambiguity that needs to be ‘Othered’ so that the own self- or group image can remain intact. Post-Brexit ‘balkanization’ in that sense serves the purpose of uttering concern about an unfolding phenomenon in the EU without having to talk about its actual context and inherent contradictions. As Todorova puts it: “Where is the adversarial group that has not been decried as “Balkan” and “balkanizing” by its opponents? Where the accused have not hurled back the branding reproach of “balkanism”?”

It has been 25 years since the geographical region to which the more respected journalists nowadays refer to as the “Western Balkans” took, to paraphrase His Holiness, the emancipatory steps towards creatively re-thinking different kinds of a previously existing union. ‘Rediscovering’ the strength of their homogeneous religious, ethnic and civilizational roots, the people of that region then proceeded towards becoming less “Balkan” and more “European”, by, to paraphrase Todorova, assuming and emulating the homogeneous European nation-state as the normative form of social organization. The somewhat ‘unhealthy’ aspects of their ‘disunion’ in the first half of the 1990s, which today are the subject of debates within the realm of international criminal justice, were in that sense the part and parcel of their ‘Europeanization’ process.

Societies of that region are still stuck in this civilizing process, called ‘the transition’, despite twenty years of the international and the EU protectorate ushering in squaring the circle of regional ethnic-cultural identity and internationally understood civil citizenship equality. Last year’s report on human rights worldwide highlights political corruption and discrimination as one of the biggest issues in the Balkans: “Government corruption “remained among the most serious problems” in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well, the report reads, noting that “some political leaders manipulated deep-seated ethnic divisions, weakening democracy and governance.”” Add to that the poverty, unemployment, and an estimated one million people who are still not able to return to their pre-1990s homes – i.e. refugees, migrants, internally displaced persons, does any of this sound familiar yet? – and you might get an idea of the realm of uncertainty in which these people live for already the past two decades.

But that’s ‘the Balkans’, right? The place where progress and democracy are impossible because of the “deep-seated ethnic divisions” and the “long history of violence”. Their uncertainty is surely not the same as the uncertainty creeping up through the EU in the aftermath of Brexit. Here is why the essentializing stereotype of ‘balkanization’ comes handy, to keep convincing ourselves that what goes on out there in the messy world would never be possible to happen in the civilized here. ‘Balkanism’ provides the comfort of dealing with the messy world out there with the same certainty that never needs to be critically re-examined, as others have already pointed out in the case of Syria.

What goes on entirely ignored under this normative and essentializing blanket of ‘balkanization’ are the struggles and efforts of citizens in that part of the world to cope with the challenges of peripherality and to find new, creative and emancipatory ways to respond to privatisation, discrimination and corruption, as well as to relate to and practice ‘Europe’ in their immediate surroundings. Two years ago, I wrote elsewhere about this international failure to recognize and support local struggles as indicative of a much larger scope of the socio-economic injustices dynamics. And since then, there has been much more of the painstaking re-thinking and re-creating of ‘Europe’ in ‘the Balkans’, despite all odds, than meets the mass media eye.

Therefore, it is just perhaps possible that the ghost haunting the post-Brexit EU today is not that of ‘balkanization’, but that of privileged ignorance and the failure to re-think and learn from the Balkans.