The Ghost of Yugoslavia in the EU Crisis

March 23, 2012, 11:44 AM GMT+0

The crisis currently gripping the European Union appears to be historically unique, but there is a palpable sense of déjà vu among some social scientists and historians – namely, those of us studying the last decade of the life of former Yugoslavia.

Drawing comparisons between the EU and the late federation of the South Slavs is bound to raise eyebrows, and that is perfectly understandable. Yugoslavia was a communist federation of republics with a host of unresolved issues – social, political, and economic. The European Union is a supranational organisation of democratic states which have all voluntarily ceded certain elements of their sovereignty for their own and the common good. Nevertheless, there are some striking similarities between what is happening in the EU today and what was happening in Yugoslavia during the 1980s – similarities which may make the current generation of EU leaders think very carefully about their next steps.

While the narratives of the current EU crisis have understandably concentrated on the economic side of the story, the mess we are in has deep roots in the growing lack of legitimacy and vision of the political leaderships running Europe’s polities. The democratic deficit is ingrained in the genetic code of the EU’s institutions and the current crisis has exposed the changes made over the course of the past decade to address that problem as merely cosmetic.

As the recent Eurobarometer figures show, the level of public trust in the European Union is at a historic low. Only 34% of those polled stated they tended to trust the EU, with figures ranging from 17% in the UK and 59% in Bulgaria. The Union officials can take solace from the fact that national institutions fare even worse with the trust in the national parliaments at 27% and governments at 24%. The trend since 2009 is, however, far more negative for the EU which fell from 48%, whereas the national parliaments and governments were already in the cellar with 30% and 29% respectively. Such low levels of trust are indeed a worrying signal of the larger problem of legitimacy of the EU institutions. Perhaps it would be unfair to compare the growing lack of popular confidence in the European Union across virtually all of its member states with the dire crisis of legitimacy of Yugoslavia’s federal communist leadership in the 1980s, but the lessons of such a comparison are certainly there for those who wish to see them.

If a serious economic crisis hits a united, but economically disparate group of nations/republics (and Yugoslavia entered a decade-long period of stagnation and eventually austerity in 1979), political leaderships will seek legitimacy on the level of those nations/republics. The levels of trust in the national institutions of the EU member states may be low, but to retrench along national/republican lines only makes sense because that is where real political constituencies are – no matter whether one operates in a communist or democratic environment. For example, the YouGov figures on the public view of David Cameron’s decision making at the December EU summit are highly indicative in this regard. Cameron’s decision to keep the UK out of the deal on EU fiscal cooperation most likely made little economic sense – but his move was highly popular at home, certainly also due to his government’s efforts at marketing it to the public as the defence of Britain’s national interests. Unsurprisingly, the support of UK voters for their country’s continued EU membership stands at only 43%.

Some may argue, however, that the rise of technocratic governments in a number of EU states suggests that Europe has thus far in fact managed to avoid the perils of particularism. To some extent this may be correct. On the other hand, the same could have been said of Yugoslavia of the early to mid-1980s when a string of technocrats was installed by the ruling League of Communists into federal government to duly implement the IMF’s austerity programme. With every new low in the crisis, however, the danger of a rapid descent into national exclusivity and the resulting, seemingly irreconcilable, quarrels is bound to rise.

This political retrenchment along national lines does not only take the form of popular or populist appeals centred on the economic (and eventually political) agendas of national constituencies. It also takes the form of gradual, but certain, withdrawal of commitment to the common purpose of the union, whether by using “innovative” accounting practices in order to essentially cheat the other member states, or by insisting on staffing the federal/supranational institutions with second-rate politicians, or by eventually circumventing those institutions altogether.

In the 1980s the Yugoslav republics did not have the derivative deals of Goldman Sachs to help mask their debt, but their practice of using falsified accounting procedures to present illusory economic growth was widespread. What is more, toward the end of the 1980s, as it became ever more obvious that power clearly rested with the republics, Yugoslavia’s federal institutions were progressively being staffed by less and less influential politicians. Serbia’s leader Slobodan Milošević, for example, rejected the post of the federal prime minister in late 1988 exactly because he knew who held real power. And once Yugoslavia’s federal government fully lost control in the spring of 1991, the presidents of the republics began to negotiate directly in a series of ultimately futile bilateral meetings and summits – the most notorious of those gatherings being the two meetings of Slobodan Milošević and Croatia’s president Franjo Tuđman where they allegedly discussed the partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

When it comes to the EU, many rightfully saw the appointments of Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton not only as uninspired, but also as signs of a lack of commitment in the EU’s largest states to strengthen the Union’s new structures. And while the summits of the heads of EU states are, obviously, standard practice, recent almost exclusive reliance on the Merkel-Sarkozy axis for real decision making has taken things in an alarming direction. The motivation of the German chancellor and the French president to provide a speedy impetus for positive change may be understandable, but the form (as well as the content) of their actions is sowing the seeds of much greater trouble and discord in the future.

Such systemic political failures, together with the very nature of the economic crisis, are fuelling the narratives of exploitation by the “others” within the EU in a pattern extraordinarily similar to the one dominant in Yugoslavia of the late 1980s. The southerners are again seen as financing their lack of productivity through debt, whereas the northerners are perceived as prospering on account of exploitation of the southern markets. The euro is “too strong” and does not allow the southern firms to be competitive just like the Yugoslav dinar pegged to the German mark by Yugoslavia’s last prime minister Ante Marković in 1990 was “destroying Serbia’s economy”. Recent Greek claims for World War II reparations from Germany also have a clear Yugoslav parallel. In the fall of 1989 – half a year before the “nationalists” came to power in Slovenia and Croatia and two years before Yugoslavia officially fell apart – deputies in the National Assembly of Serbia started a campaign to claim reparations from Croatia for the WWII crimes committed against the Serbs by the Croatian collaborationist regime.

Even some solutions for the EU crisis being put forward eerily resemble the proposals for Yugoslavia debated during the last two years of its existence. Would the EU be better off with two monetary unions – one with a weaker currency for the south and one with a stronger currency for the north? Such a “solution” was debated in Yugoslavia during 1990. Perhaps the way forward is President Sarkozy’s call for a two-speed Europe, with a federal core and a confederal periphery? That idea was not only discussed in Yugoslavia during 1991, but was actually the foundation of Lord Carrington’s proposal for “Yugoslavia à la carte” at the European Community’s peace conference for Yugoslavia in the fall of 1991. The idea was to reform Yugoslavia into a federal state of Serbia and its satellites with which the rest of the country would be connected through confederal ties.

Although the list of Yugoslav parallels to the EU crisis could go on, there are limitations to this – as well as any other – historical comparison. Most obviously, no single EU member state (and this is particularly true of its largest states) has been caught up in a nationalist and irredentist frenzy of the sort that engulfed Serbia in the late 1980s. Principal borders between EU states appear to be settled. Moreover, no single EU state has a monopoly on physical force which would convince it – just as Serbia was convinced – to pursue its agenda through violence. We must also never underestimate the effect of democracy on any possible escalation of conflicts. It is far easier to choose the path of aggression in a semi-authoritarian than in a democratic environment. Finally, the economic crisis which hit Yugoslavia in the 1980s was far harsher and much longer than the one the EU is currently going through and it crucially hit all Yugoslav republics pretty hard.

This is where the critical challenge for the EU leaders lies. If the European Union, as Chancellor Merkel claims, is at the very beginning of a decade-long period of economic stagnation which is already spilling over throughout all member states (recent figures showing a drastic slowdown of the German economy are highly indicative), the example of Yugoslavia will progressively become more relevant. The EU’s leaders may be lacking a positive vision of Europe’s future, but perhaps this negative vision helps them understand what is truly at stake.