Demonstrators hold a banner reading 'Kosovo' and wave flags during a protest against the accord on the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo in Belgrade. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The western Balkans are in danger of sliding backwards

The EU cannot afford a wait and see approach that creates the risk of economic divergence and renewed instability.

Fifteen years after the wars that devastated and divided the former Yugoslavia, the countries of the western Balkans are facing a different kind of challenge: the risk of permanent marginalisation as part of Europe’s “super-periphery”, a zone of stagnation beyond EU’s troubled southern rim. That has been one of the under-reported consequences of an economic crisis that has simultaneously derailed the region’s efforts to catch up with the rest of Europe while sapping the EU’s enthusiasm to admit new member states. It is the reason why all seven Prime Ministers from the region are gathering in London today for an economic development conference hosted by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

A defining feature of transition economies is their ability to achieve growth rates that put them on a convergence path with the highest income countries. That is what the countries of Central and Eastern Europe managed to achieve in the years before and after EU accession. Judged by this measure the economic transition of the western Balkans has stalled with a double-dip recession, inadequate investment flows and unemployment running at around a quarter of the adult population. Growth is just beginning to return, but at levels that effectively amount to stagnation. Without a return to a higher growth path, the countries of the region will remain stuck at less than a third of the EU’s average wealth per capita.

It should be acknowledged that the nations of the western Balkans face significant economic difficulties that are not of their own making. Their relative distance from the EU’s largest and wealthiest markets and their proximity to Greece mean that they have felt the impact of Europe’s economic crisis more than most. But as a paper published by the London School of Economics last year found, there is a specific “western Balkans effect” that inhibits inward investment and retards economic development. This is the result of serious deficiencies in politics and governance that the leaders meeting in London need to address.

The first aim should be to reduce the political risk factors involved in doing business in the region. The Balkan wars are a fading memory, but there has been little in the way of real reconciliation. The different ethnic communities of Bosnia-Herzegovina continue to live separate lives. Serbia has normalised relations with Kosovo, but refuses to recognise it. Even Greece’s unresolved objection to the description of FYROM as Macedonia disfigures the politics of the region. As long these dividing lines and enmities remain frozen, investment will look like a risk.

One legacy of this political division has been to limit the scope of regional economic integration, raising costs and reducing opportunities for potential investors. Despite laudable initiatives like the Regional Co-operation Council and the Central European Free Trade Agreement, good intentions are not always matched by delivery and trade between countries in the region is far lower than it should be. Efforts to promote reconciliation and deeper economic linkages should go hand in hand, helping to convince investors that renewed conflict is unlikely.

The second issue that needs to be addressed is the absence of strong, market supporting institutions, like clean government and independent courts, needed to uphold the rule of law and protect property rights. Problems like corruption and the lack of judicial independence are responsible for a business climate that, according to international indices, falls far short of European standards. The political elites are viewed as predatory, using legal and administrative tools to intimidate businesses and secure financial and political favours.

Some efforts have been made to address these problems. But too often reform is superficial, introducing new laws and procedures without any change of underlying behaviour. For example, the European Parliament expressed concern about provisions in Serbia’s criminal code that give the authorities broad scope to criminalise commercial activities that are considered perfectly normal in any functioning market economy. Serbia revised its code and then reopened all of its existing cases under the new Article 234. An estimated 1,500 business people are currently under investigation (including Serbia’s second wealthiest entrepreneur, Miroslav Miskovic) often for doing little more than making a profit.

This creates real policy problems for the EU. Faced with its own internal pressures and economic difficulties, it needs to export the European model of governance, rather than import more problems from the western Balkans. Further enlargement will not therefore happen quickly or easily to a region with mass unemployment and limited economic prospects. But the EU cannot afford a wait and see approach that creates the risk of economic divergence and renewed instability across the western Balkans. It needs to redouble efforts to promote lasting change and real economic convergence

The traditional legalistic process in which the terms of accession are laid out and the member states are expected to demonstrate compliance on their own initiative won’t work any more. Getting countries of the region up to European standards will require a much more intensive form of supervision and a willingness by the EU to be firmer and more interventionist in dealing with the most serious deficiencies. But the political will to do that unless the region’s leaders first show that they mean business. That should be the message coming out of today’s meeting.

David Clark is the founder and editor of Shifting Grounds, and served as special adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.

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“It feels like a betrayal”: EU citizens react to Jeremy Corbyn’s migration stance

How do Labour-supporting European migrants in the UK feel about their leader wanting to control EU migration?

“This feels a bit different from the man I had campaigned for,” says Eva Blum-Dumontet. “It felt like he was on the side of the group that matters, regardless of whether they were actually going to make him gain voters or not. He was on the side of what seemed right.”

Blum-Dumontet is a 26-year-old EU citizen who has been in the UK for five years. She works as a researcher for a charity and lives in north-east London’s Walthamstow, where she is the local Labour party’s women’s officer.

She joined Labour just before the 2015 general election, and campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership bid that year. She spent one and a half months that summer involved in his campaign, either phone banking at its headquarters at the Unite union building, or at campaign events, every other evening.

“When he suddenly rose out of nowhere, that was a really inspiring moment,” she recalls. “They were really keen on involving people who had recently arrived, which was good.”

“Aside from the EU, I share all of his views”

Blum-Dumontet voted for Corbyn in both of Labour’s leadership elections, and she joined Momentum as soon as it was set up following Corbyn winning the first one in 2015. But she left the group two months ago.

She is one of the roughly three million EU citizens living in the UK today whose fate is precarious following the EU referendum result. And she doesn’t feel Corbyn is sticking up for her interests.

Over the weekend, the Labour leader gave an interview that has upset some Labour-supporting EU migrants like her.

Corbyn reiterated his opposition to staying in the single market – a longstanding left-wing stance against free market dominance. He added that his immigration policy “would be a managed thing on the basis of the work required” rather than free movement, and, in condemning agencies exploiting migrant workers, he said:

“What there wouldn’t be is wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry. You prevent agencies recruiting wholescale workforces like that; you advertise for jobs in the locality first.”

Corbyn also emphasised that Labour would guarantee the rights of EU nationals to stay in Britain – including the right of family reunion – and that there would still be Europeans working here and vice versa. But, for some in his party who hail from Europe, the damage was done.

“I feel like he’s now trying to signal more and more that he’s not on all sides, he’s on the side of people who are just scared of migrants,” says Blum-Dumantet, who will nevertheless stay in the party to try and change the policy. “The idea that he is willing to engage in this whole dog-whistling immigration fear feeling is a bit disturbing.”

She stresses that, “aside from the EU, I share all of his views”, but adds:

“I feel like he’s chosen his socialist utopia – and I don’t mean that as a bad thing; I’m a socialist as well – over the reality of the concrete lives of three million people. For us, this is not about some abstract ideal, it’s about our lives, whether we can get jobs here, whether we can stay here. And for the sake of his ideal, he’s sacrificing that. That does feel like a betrayal.”

***

Other EU migrants who initially supported Corbyn also feel let down. Sabrina Huck, the London representative of Labour’s youth wing Young Labour, moved here from Germany in February 2014.

Having joined the party that year, she voted for Corbyn in the first leadership election, “particularly because of things like being an internationalist, talking about migrant solidarity”.

Huck, 26, who lives in south London and works in public affairs, began to change her mind about him she discovered his Eurosceptic views. “It’s kind of my fault because I didn’t really do the research properly on him, I guess!” she laughs.

“I understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some jobs”

Now, she feels “disappointed” in Corbyn’s comments about “wholesale importation” of workers. “The way he articulates himself – it doesn’t sound like what I wanted to hear from a Labour leader, particularly somebody who’s been a proud internationalist, proud migrant rights campaigner,” she tells me.

“I think the way he was making his point about wages was laying the blame way too much with workers and not with the bosses, basically.”

Huck notes that Corbyn is against the single market because of his socialist view of the EU as a “capitalist club”, rather than concern about borders. But she feels he’s using “the immigration argument” to sound mainstream:

“I feel like he’s using it as an opportunity to further his own ideological goal of leaving the single market by tying that to an argument that goes down well with the Leave-voting public.”

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However, other Labour-leaning EU migrants I speak to do not feel Corbyn’s genuine motive is to bring immigration down – and are more understanding of his comments.

“I appreciate and understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some – particularly blue collar or poorer paid – jobs, that is the nature of mass migration,” says a 29-year-old Czech who works for the government (so wishes not to be named), and has lived here since 2014. She believes his comments were made to “appeal to the hard left and Ukip types”, and has left the Labour party. But she adds:

“I can understand how communities suffering through a decade of stagnant wage growth and austerity are looking for a scapegoat, easily found in the form of migrants – particularly in a country where minimum wage and labour protections are so weak legislatively, and so poorly enforced.”

She also is sceptical that a “mass deportation” of EU migrants from Britain is likely to happen. “The optics are too bad, at a minimum,” she says. “It would look too much like the 1930s. What would the government do? Put us all on boats back to Europe?”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively”

“I think they [Labour] are feeling their way around the issue [of Brexit] and are listening for public sentiment,” says Agnes Pinteaux, a Hungarian-born 48-year-old who moved to Britain in 1998. “But reconciling their hardcore Brexit support, those who just hate immigrants, those who want ‘sovereignty’, and those who want Brexit ditched altogether is going to be impossible.”

“I think the debate about the ethics of free movement of labour is a legitimate one, but it has to be rooted in human rights and dignity,” says Anna Chowrow, a 29-year-old third sector financial manager who moved from Poland to Scotland in 2007, adding:

“I was thrilled when Jeremy Corbyn was first elected Labour leader, and I have admiration for his principled approach. [But] I am in disbelief that these comments – akin to ‘British jobs for British workers’ – were made by him. The dehumanising language of ‘importation’ and ‘destruction’ is beyond disappointing.”

***

Finding EU citizens in Britain who are entirely sympathetic to Corbyn’s comments is difficult. Forthcoming defenders of his stance are hard to come by, suggesting that it’s a minority view among Europeans living in Britain. But there are some who continue to back him.

“I like Jeremy Corbyn’s authenticity. He comes across as genuine and honest, and I agree with most of his ideas. Contrary to the majority of politicians, he’s actually not afraid of coming across as a human being,” says Teresa Ellhotka, 24, who moved to the UK from Austria in 2016 and works in PR.

“His ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively,” she says of Corbyn’s stance on EU migrants. “My mind about Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t changed drastically as his ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive and I admire that he is dedicated to change but in a human way, and doesn’t suggest fighting fire with fire – as many other politicians, and people, seem to do.”

Ellhotka admits to being “a little surprised, as I did not expect this stance from him at all”, but feels there has been “so much back-and-forth” on the issue that she’s stopped worrying about what politicians say.

“Nobody seems to know what exactly is going to happen anyway.” The only thing, perhaps, that all politicians – and their voters – can agree on.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.