Black cloud over the Balkans

The status of Kosovo was supposed to be the last obstacle to solving the problems of the Balkans. Fa

Most people in the Balkans have seen the Kosovo train wreck coming for the past two years. But now that it is upon us, apart from some dark warnings, few have been able to spell out what the failure of talks on Kosovo's final status actually means.

The international significance of a debacle that reflects poorly on all participants is, by contrast, very clear: Russia and the United States have combined to humiliate the European Union. "They are clearly trying to undermine the EU - of that there is no doubt," a senior Brussels official told me recently.

For several months, both Russia and the US have in effect supported the maximalist demands of their chosen proxies in the Balkans: Serbia and Kosovo. This neutered the most recent negotiations of the US-EU-Russia troika, which were a last-ditch attempt to hammer out a compromise between Belgrade and Pristina. Serbia knew Russia would block Kosovo's independence in the United Nations, while Kosovo was secure in American support for a unilateral declaration of independence. Neither side had any incentive to compromise, and the EU was exposed again as incapable of managing a political crisis in its own backyard, while its taxpayers will be compelled to clear up the resulting mess.

Over the past decade, Brussels has channelled incalculable diplomatic and financial resources into the Balkans (far more money than either Washington or Moscow). The reasoning behind this expenditure is eminently sensible: as a consequence of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and the troubled transition from communism, the entire region has suffered from stunted development. This has enabled corrupt economic interests, chiefly from within the Balkans, but also from the EU and Russia, to turn the region into a playground for asset-grabbing, money laundering and other criminal activities.

By offering the inducement of huge infrastructural and financial support, the EU has persuaded the new leaderships in the Balkans to embark on far-reaching economic and political reforms. The EU's commitment has already had a stunning transformational impact on its two Balkan members, Romania and Bulgaria, not to mention Slovenia, the former Yugoslav republic that is now almost indistinguishable in character from Austria.

But the Kosovo crisis is casting a big black cloud over the hope that the remaining former Yugoslav territories would follow Slovenia's smooth passage into the EU. Croatia is likely to slip in before the door shuts. But the constitutional mess of Kosovo and Serbia may well keep that door closed, probably temporarily but perhaps for many years, as the crisis reverberates in Bosnia and Macedonia, and less directly in Montenegro and Albania.

So what happens now? In the long term, the question keeping EU officials awake at night concerns Serbia's membership of the EU. The enlargement commission and several key European foreign ministries have believed for some time that Serbia's admission is crucial for long-term stabilisation of the region, given its situation at the geographical heart of the Balkans.

Nonetheless, the major EU member states feel they have no choice but to follow Washington in recognising the UDI that Pristina is preparing. But most of them are doing so reluctantly - they know that, privately, UN officials in Kosovo predict that some 50,000 Serbs living south of the Ibar River will head to northern Mitrovica, the Serb enclave in Kosovo bordering on Serbia that is in effect governed from Belgrade; and that the recognition of an indep endent Kosovo will also result in the territory's de facto partition.

The sight of impoverished peasants throwing their worldly belongings on to the back of carts and trucks will make for an unedifying spectacle to accompany independence. But, though all sides in this dispute have long understood that partition would be a consequence of almost any solution, diplomatic cowardice has ensured that nobody has been prepared to articulate this clearly in public. So the independent state will be divided, with Belgrade retaining absolute control in the northern enclave.

Inelegant though a divided Kosovo might be, both sides can probably live with it. The epicentres of potential political earthquakes lie elsewhere. Zone one is Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the rule of a series of omnipotent European high representatives has disguised the profound weakness of the state fashioned in Dayton, Ohio. At stake is the very viability of Bosnia.

The most depressing symbol of the Bosnian Federation, which joins Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, is Mostar, the capital of Her zegovina. After 12 years, the two communities on either side of the Neretva River have nothing in common except a high school that Croat children attend in the morning and Bosniaks in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Serbian entity in the east and north, Republika Srpska, reacts with open hostility to attempts by the current EU Special Representative, the Slovak Miroslav Lajcák, to centralise in anticipation of transferring more power to the government in Sarajevo. Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, is encouraging this intransigence as well as contributing to the outbreak of Putin-mania in both Serbia and Republika Srpska. The dour face of the Russian president stares down from kiosks throughout the two territories as the presumed new saviour of Serbia's interests.

The Bosnian state will feel the strain of Kosovan independence as Serbia, backed by Russia, toys with demanding the same rights of secession for Republika Srpska as the west has granted Kosovo.

What neither Kostunica nor other Serbs care to mention too often is how Russia was the main international sponsor of another "betrayal" of Serbian interests - the recent independence of Montenegro. Renamed Moscow-on-Sea by local wits, Montenegro has invited Russian oligarchs to replace cigarette smuggling as the profoundly corrupt state's main source of income. According to the Podgorica weekly magazine Monitor, Oleg Deripaska, Russia's aluminium king, now owns 40 per cent of the new country's indust rial capacity.

But apart from becoming the new money-laundering paradise of the Balkans, Montenegro presents fewer potential problems than southern Serbia and Macedonia. Here we must wait to see whether Kosovo's independence further discombobulates the fragile relationships between large Albanian minorities and the Slav majorities. Despite being an EU candidate member, Macedonia is coming under renewed pressure from Greece in the ludicrous dispute about the former country's official name. The argument may be arcane, but with Greece administering a veto on Macedonia's progress towards European and Nato integration, the implications are very serious.

And in Kosovo itself? The great headache is the economy - under UN and EU administration, the province has experienced a precipitous decline in GDP and frightening levels of un employment. This is a dismal record that underlines the hopeless inadequacy of the west's post-intervention policies. The territory is now thoroughly criminalised as a consequence, and it is hard to see how independence will change this in the short term.

Two to three years ago, the EU was on the way to solving the fundamental problems of the Balkans. Kosovo's status was the final, albeit very complex, obstacle to circumnavigate. The collective failure to do so has cast the region back into uncharted, choppy waters, where lie several concealed rocks.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hopep to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.