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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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The next Balkan wars

Europe is facing a new, potentially violent crisis as territorial and ethnic tensions reignite in the troubled south-east of the continent.

After some years of peace, the western Balkans are again descending into instability. Across the region, people are taking to the streets, demanding the resignation of governments. Thousands are fleeing abroad in search of jobs and opportunities. A violent strand of Wahhabism is taking hold among the region’s Muslim population. Perhaps most worryingly of all, the threat of disintegration is returning, as malcontent minorities try to divide their states.

Bosnia has long been the most dysfunctional state in the region, wasted by civil war in the 1990s and afflicted by ethnic divisions ever since. The Serbs and Croats have never abandoned their goal of separation. Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska (Bosnia’s Serbian “entity”), is being squeezed by political rivals at home and investigated by police in Sarajevo for alleged money laundering. To shore up his position, he has threatened a referendum on independence for Republika Srpska, scheduled for 2018.

Not far behind is Kosovo, an impoverished plateau in the Šar Mountains. It is unrecognised by half of the world, run by a corrupt elite and saddled with an embittered Serb minority. After years of resistance, Kosovo’s Serbs have recently extracted the right to territorial autonomy from the country’s notional EU supervisors. This has provoked a ferocious backlash from Albanian nationalists, who have attacked the parliament and held a series of violent street demonstrations.

Meanwhile, Macedonia is in chaos following the leaking of tapes that led to accusations that the former prime minister Nikola Gruevski had spied on the population and had been involved in corruption, electoral fraud and outright criminality. This has outraged the unhappy Albanian minority, which blames its leaders for upholding an illegitimate government instead of its community rights. In response, this group is demanding the federalisation of the state, auguring its potential disintegration. In the Balkans, it all eventually comes back to nationalism.

While local factors go some way to explaining the turmoil, however, they don’t tell us why the region as a whole is experiencing such instability, or why events are turning for the worse. The key to understanding the malaise is to recognise the Balkans’ position as a borderland between great powers. Throughout history, when one of these powers has wielded hegemony in the region, or a concert of powers has agreed a settled division, peace has generally prevailed. When no single power has been dominant or, worse, when powers have competed for control, chaos has invariably ensued. The Ottoman era marked the longest period of peace in modern times. But when the empire went into decline in the 19th century, nationalists across the Balkans seized the opportunity for independence – first the Greeks, then the Serbs and finally all the rest, helped by an opportunistic Russia, which sought to destabilise its Ottoman rival. 

Violence continued into the 20th century as the collapse of the European land empires untethered the region. The Balkan wars of the 1910s, in which emerging states such as Albania, Montenegro and Serbia fought to define their borders, were followed by two world wars, in which Austria, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union all invaded the territory.

The western Balkans were finally pacified in the postwar period. Bulgaria and Romania passed to Soviet control and the two superpowers agreed to maintain a unified Yugoslavia as a strategic buffer between their respective spheres of influence. Wedged between Nato and the Warsaw Pact, with no room for manoeuvre, and a strongman, Tito, to maintain order at home, the locals put their enmities to one side.

With the end of the Cold War, the superpowers largely lost interest in the Balkans and released their grip on Yugoslavia. Romania and Bulgaria, free of ethnic entanglements, managed to find their balance. But the western Balkans were set adrift and violence returned as Serbs and others took up arms to forge a new order on the wreckage of the old multinational communist state.

Stability was eventually restored when the United States, which emerged as the undisputed superpower in the 1990s, imposed a new imperial settlement on the region. In Croatia, Washington helped the local army to crush the breakaway Republic of Serbian Krajina. In Bosnia, the US bombed Serbian positions, decisively tipping the balance of power in favour of the central government that had endured three years of military losses. In doing so, Washington was interested in promoting not only peace but also justice. After the brutality of the Serbian military campaign, with its terrorising and expulsion of other ethnic groups, basic morality determined that the Serbs be denied their wartime goal of independence from the rest of Bosnia.  

The result was the Dayton Agreement of 1995, a delicate compromise in which Serbs (and Croats) agreed to remain part of a unified Bosnian state. In return, the Serbs were given a self-governing entity – Republika Srpska – on half of the territory of Bosnia, while Croats gained limited self-government within a new Muslim-Croat federation.

Having dictated the terms of Dayton, the US, in effect, became its guarantor, supported by its European allies. It established a huge civilian presence on the ground, intended to steer Bosnia towards a durable peace. The Office of the High Representative adjudicated in ethnic disputes, clamped down on nationalist rhetoric and focused the locals on questions of social and economic reform rather than borders and territory. If politicians refused to co-operate, they were removed from their positions or presented with criminal charges. Nato troops on the ground did the enforcing.

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When conflict broke out in Kosovo between Albanian separatists and their rulers in Belgrade in 1999, the US similarly imposed itself on the territory, using overwhelming force to expel the Serbian army, before setting up a civilian mission, Unmik, to steer a unified country towards a sustainable peace, as it had done in Bosnia.

With stability in both of these countries still fragile, nationalist conflicts elsewhere in the western Balkans could not be allowed to jeopardise Washington’s unfinished efforts at multi-ethnic state-building. When Macedonia’s unhappy Albanian minority launched a short-lived insurgency in 2001, the US clamped down on it with a settlement that forced Albanians to abandon the goal of separation in return for limited self-government. Macedonia held.

A similar logic applied to other states in the region. Through the 2000s, the US extended its presence in Albania, slowed down the secession of Montenegro and, with the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, implanted itself in Serbia, where it demanded democratic reform and Western integration in place of a discredited nationalism.

In this respect, the late 1990s and early 2000s can be seen as marking a restoration of order in the western Balkans after the chaos of the immediate post-Yugoslav period. With Washington at the helm, buttressed by European manpower and money, nationalists and separatists were disempowered and multi-ethnicity became the watchword. Many locals were frustrated with the American-led settlement, whether they were minorities such as Bosnian Serbs and Macedonian Albanians, who had ended up living in someone else’s state, or Bosniaks and Macedonians, who opposed the territorial concessions granted to violent minorities.

Confronted with overwhelming American power and the absence of any other power to whom they could appeal, there was little that the peoples of the western Balkans could do to change things. Turkey was content, concerned above all with peace on its land route to the markets of Europe. And Russia, while sympathetic to the plight of the Serbs, had no wish to encourage separatism in places such as Chechnya by questioning the new order in the Balkans.

However, this attempt at order was not to last. Matters went into reverse in the second half of the 2000s when the US withdrew its forces from the region to concentrate on more pressing issues elsewhere in the world. Its parting shot was to engineer the independence of Kosovo in 2008. With the last piece in the Balkan jigsaw in place – at least as Washington saw it – the US left it to the EU to finish the job of transforming the region’s turbulent states into prosperous and stable polities.

In tactical terms, the EU adopted a different approach to the US, replacing the hard power of the American military with the soft power of inducement – not least because, without an army, the EU had no real stick to wield. What it offered instead was a compact known as “conditionality”. For its part, Brussels agreed to admit the western Balkans into the EU, with all the benefits that this entailed – money, trade, freedom to travel and the chance for the locals to be reunited with their ethnic kin in a borderless Europe. And, for their part, the locals were expected to meet the conditions for entry to the EU, as the central Europeans had done before them.

Almost from the start, however, things failed to go to plan because the locals wouldn’t knuckle down to reform. By definition, the states of the western Balkans were eastern Europe’s laggards, blighted by the legacies of war as well as nostalgia for Yugoslav-style socialism and the absence of any tradition of democracy, liberalism or free markets.

Sometimes, the EU pushed issues that were important in a Western context, such as prison reform or gender rights, but just not a priority for the locals, who were more concerned with establishing the territory of the state, or changing the state they lived in. At other times, the required reforms cut across the interests of the elites who were making fortunes running a rentier economy.

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The most resistant state was Bosnia, where the conflict never truly ended and where each ethnic group used the integration process to advance its core political goal: centralisation in the case of Bosniaks, separation in the case of the Serbs. Brussels would push an area of policy – the environment, say – and recommend a new agency to oversee compliance. Bosniaks would insist on one agency (at the central level) and Serbs would insist on two (at entity level, including one for Republika Srpska). Invariably, this was where the process got stuck.

So while the policy of conditionality was intended as the mechanism for stabilising the region, its effect was the opposite. In the absence of reform, the region remained stuck in political limbo, beyond the EU’s outer frontier. The EU began to lose control with the onset of the eurozone crisis, which brought the teleological project of building a European superstate to a halt. As firefighting and crisis management became the norm, the EU ceased to enlarge. With so many problems to solve, the last thing Europe needed was to admit a collection of corrupt, impoverished and ethnically divided states, all with potential veto powers and a treaty obligation to adopt the euro.

Indeed, many of the EU’s problems seemed to emanate from the Balkans. Most obviously, there was Greece’s mismanagement of its economy, which posed a mortal threat to the survival of the euro­zone and, by extension, the EU. But as Europe descended into recession, the issue of migration from Bulgaria and Romania also became a crucial political topic – and remains so today, as migrants and refugees from the chaos in the Middle East use the Balkans as a conduit to Europe.

In this context, no one was surprised when, in 2009, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, publicly concluded that the EU needed to pause its policy of enlargement. All of this had an impact on the region, which interpreted it as Europe’s drawbridge closing. To all intents and purposes, the EU had reneged on its bargain with the western Balkans, which traded the prize of membership for good behaviour. All that remained was the prospect that one day, years in the future, after multiple reforms, the states of the region might join the EU, if it was in any position to enlarge and if it even still existed.

This changed the balance of risks and opportunities for those aspiring to join. Why continue with reform, especially when this implied serious economic pain? Was the EU even a desirable place to be? Greece’s example was hardly encouraging, nor that of Croatia, which squeezed its way into the EU in 2013 only to become the new sick man of Europe. Then the UK began to consider exit – hardly a vote of confidence.

Across the region, the reform process slowed even further. States such as Macedonia and Serbia shifted their focus towards the emerging economies of Turkey, Russia and China. Internal stability began to decline, aggravated by the recession that the EU exported to the region. Albania, Macedonia and others experienced mass demonstrations. Separatists began to renew their challenge to the American-imposed order, led by the Bosnian Serbs.

This is not to say there hasn’t been formal progress towards joining the EU. In the past couple of years, almost every country in the western Balkans has taken a step closer. Bosnia and Kosovo have been offered stabilisation and association agreements, the first step on the road to membership. Albania has been recognised as an official EU candidate. Serbia has opened membership negotiations. Montenegro, the most advanced country in the region, has closed several negotiating “chapters”. However, this bureaucratic progress does not necessarily reflect progress on the ground – in some cases, it signifies the opposite.

More precisely, the integration process has become a pretence that suits all sides. The EU can pretend the project of integration continues even as the eurozone and migration crises rage. And regional governments can pretend they are steering their countries towards a better future, for which they are richly rewarded by Brussels.

It is possible that a tiny country such as Montenegro will scrape into the EU on the back of this make-believe and Serbia will make some progress. But for other Balkan states, their journey towards Brussels will be more like that of Turkey, the eternal European aspirant. In reality, the western Balkans is once again losing its mooring.

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The waning influence of the West has created an opening for new external powers, such as Russia, which has adopted a more active policy in the Balkans since the onset of the “new cold war”. Unquestionably, Russia is now a major influence on the region, especially in the Christian Orthodox countries of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece. But its most significant involvement is in Bosnia.

In the past couple of years, Russia has feted Republika Srpska’s President Dodik, shielded Bosnian Serbs from accusations of genocide, called for an end to international supervision and, if media reports are correct, encouraged Bosnian Serbs to press their demands for independence.

Russia is not overtly trying to overturn the regional order. Instead, its aim is to bolster its alliances, deter the expansion of Nato and defend its economic interests in the Balkans. But regional disorder could still be the outcome. If Russia is cornered by the West over Ukraine, Moscow could trigger a serious regional crisis that embroils the EU and Nato, simply by giving a green light to the Bosnian Serbs.

A domino effect would then take hold. The departure of the Republika Srpska would open up the question of Serbia’s borders and encourage Kosovo’s Serbs to separate themselves completely from their country’s Albanian population. This would provoke Serbia’s Albanian minority, who live in an enclave adjacent to Kosovo, to make a similar break from Belgrade. Macedonia’s Albanians would then try to separate from their Slavic compatriots, fuelling the creation of a “Greater Albania”. Bosnian Croats would seek to integrate their territory with Croatia. And many in Montenegro would seek close relations with an expanded Serbian state. The West would undoubtedly refuse to recognise any of this to prevent the onset of violence but the facts on the ground would speak for themselves.

Any new Balkan conflict would draw in a wider cast of players. Russia would not sit by and let others determine the outcome of events; too much is at stake. The plight of Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians would draw in foreign jihadists, as happened in the wars of the 1990s – only in much greater numbers, given the upsurge in Islamism in Europe and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, several EU states would struggle to avoid entanglement. Croatia, which has recently adopted a more nationalist posture, would inevitably intervene in Bosnia on behalf of the Croat population. Bulgaria and Greece would take a keen interest in the fate of rump Macedonia after the departure of the Albanians.

All this leads to a sobering conclusion. As the EU loses its dominance in the Balkans, so the region’s unresolved nationalisms are returning to the surface on a bed of popular discontent. The Balkans have the potential to blow their problems back into Europe, entangling the EU in a new, potentially violent regional crisis. This may not happen tomorrow but, as the EU’s influence wanes, the day of reckoning draws ever closer.

Ideally, the EU would avert this possibility by fixing its internal problems, reviving the goal of enlargement and stabilising the region by means of integration, as has long been the plan. Yet, as matters stand, that looks like wishful thinking.

Timothy Less is the director of the Nova Europa political risk consultancy

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind