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Column: Current Crisis Could Be Causing the Balkanization of Europe

Instead of the Europeanization of the Balkans, are we now witnessing the start of the Balkanization of Europe?

On Sunday, Catalans voted for a new regional parliament, and regardless of how the vote split among parties, one thing is immediately clear from the result: A majority of the electorate wants a referendum on whether to declare independence from Spain. Whether and how Catalonia secedes will now unfold. But it is no longer in the realm of fiction that we may in a few years find ourselves talking about “rump-Spain,” “the former Belgium” and “the former United Kingdom.”

All this should sound familiar to anyone who followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. The similarities, with the collapse of Josip Broz Tito’s multinational state and the current stirrings of separatism around Europe, are evident on two levels.

First, there is the north-south split of the European Union; and second, there is the north-south split within countries. At both the European level and in the three country cases, the northerners are fed up with subsidizing, as they see it, the lazy and spendthrift southerners. That animus is all too clear when Germans talk about Greeks, Catalans about the rest of the Spain, the Flemish about the Walloons and, in the case of Britain, the Scots about London taking Scotland’s oil.

Olaf Tempelman, the former Eastern Europe correspondent of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, recently summed up the parallel between the Balkans of the 1990s and the current rift between southern and northern Europe. He argued that Croatia and Slovenia put up with contributing toward the development of the poorer parts of Yugoslavia, such as Kosovo and Bosnia, “as long as prosperity continued, and as long as the inhabitants failed to notice much of their further entwinement with the other regions.”

When the money ran out, however, heavily indebted Yugoslavia began to lurch from one economic crisis to another and things began to change. “The current northern European slogan ‘Not one more cent to the garlic nations’ is eerily similar to the Slovenian one of that time: ‘No more funds for the biftek (beefsteak) zone,’ ” Tempelman wrote.

The Dutchman went further, pointing to similarities between the nationalist and far-right leaders who are making headlines in the economically stricken Europe of today, and the men who came to power in Yugoslavia in the late 1980s, such Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia.

Such comparisons have seemed evident to people in the Balkans for some time. In Serbia, they are even discussed with a touch of schadenfreude.

As Yugoslavia broke up, many Serbs said the drive for secession that began as a cancer in their country would spread elsewhere in Europe, if not checked. Now some Serbs feel vindicated, even if this particular argument is false — Milosevic aimed to carve out a Greater Serbia and Tudjman wanted a Greater Croatia, but Catalonia and Flanders have no such ambitions.

Almost a year ago, the Serbian journalist Momcilo Pantelic described these similarities in Politika, the leading Belgrade-based daily. Talking about the travails of the EU, he noted that ongoing discussions of a multispeed Europe resembled doomed proposals from the late 1980s and early ’90s to turn Yugoslavia into an “asymmetric confederation.” In the same way, he said, “the slogan ‘Brotherhood and unity of Yugoslav peoples’ is similar to the position currently defended by Brussels: namely, that common interests should prevail over national enmity and differences.”

Pantelic also drew a comparison between Yugoslavia’s unelected communist bureaucratic leadership and those at the top of the EU today. And it’s hard not to compare the EU’s system of rotating the presidency between the current 27 members, and Yugoslavia’s rotating federal presidency, which moved between its six republics and two autonomous provinces. “In both cases, the fear that the more populous states would have too much influence has prevented the introduction of the principle of one citizen, one vote,” Pantelic said. Europeans vote for representatives to the European Parliament, but its powers are heavily circumscribed.

One argument often raised against some, if not all, of these comparisons is that modern European countries are democracies and Yugoslavia wasn’t. But, as much as some people might like it to have been otherwise, Serbs elected Milosevic freely, and the Croats chose Tudjman.

Since the Balkan wars ended in 1999, the Europeanization of ex-Yugoslavia has been taken almost for granted. The idea is that peace, stability and security will come to the successor states as they move toward joining the EU. The ex-Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia joined the EU in 2004, Croatia will enter next year and the others are following at different speeds. The Balkanization of Europe, by contrast, would probably lead to a group of relatively small countries that struggle to make it in the world, along with a fragmented Europe lacking the clout to defend their interests.

None of this is to predict that Spain, Britain and Belgium are going to turn violent. Nor is dissolution — in the sense of new states being born or the EU falling apart — inevitable. Still, it would be foolish to dismiss these possibilities entirely. In the late 1980s, physical conflict seemed unthinkable in Yugoslavia, too. Ethnic and nationalist populism is attractive to politicians struggling to retain support. How else but through an appeal to Serbian nationalism would Milosevic, a communist-era leader, have bucked the trend in Eastern Europe and clung to power for more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall? This kind of populism can give people a brief sense of respite from their very real economic problems, including by promising the chance to shrug off the expensive “others.”

If we bring the Yugoslav parallel up to date, Europe’s separatist movements are unlikely to deliver what people expect.

In its time, Yugoslavia was a significant European country, just as Spain and Britain are today, and the EU is a global force. Yugoslavia’s seven small successor states are now social and cultural backwaters with falling populations. They have little say in the world and must therefore fall into line with rules and norms that are set by others, in particular the EU.

The EU and the states within it that are now threatened by secession need to find new and workable models of cooperation. If wise heads prevail, these can be found. If not, the alternative is the Balkanization of Europe. That would be a true tragedy.

Tim Judah is an author and journalist. He writes about foreign affairs and covers the Balkans for the Economist magazine.