Sometimes, a viable idea can grow from a stillborn one. Take the notion now ricocheting around the Balkan cybersphere of a “Balkan Benelux.” Within the specific contours the authors sketch out, this idea has less than a tiny chance of getting anywhere. They presumably intended it as a talking point for more realistic discussions about some kind of economic or political union for the west and/or south Balkans. That is very welcome, not only for armchair futurologists, because it’s in all Europe’s interest to arrest those countries’ slide into – dare I say Balkanization?

Austrian economist Günther Fehlinger and Kosovo-born journalist Ekrem Krasniqi propose that Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro should form an economic zone along the lines of Benelux. This would remove some of the obstacles in their difficult paths toward EU membership and help the grouping compete with the stronger EU economies. They propose eliminating barriers to the movement of goods, services, capital, and people, saying this would bring immediate benefits of some undefined kind.

An economic union of four of Europe’s worst-performing countries is a very strange idea on the face of it – what would the group’s motto be, “In Weakness is Strength”? But the fatal flaw in this Balkan Benelux is not only the prospective members’ economic feebleness. Rather, it’s the brutal fact that wider Europe doesn’t need these four countries. Europe could watch as these countries become like much like Central America in the 1980s – a collection of wretched little states written off by the nearby powers. If Europe’s economic axis ran east-west along the shores of the Mediterranean, as it did for most of recorded history, or if the main road from the center of Western wealth and power (Italy) still ran across the Balkans to Greece and the riches of Anatolia, the centrality of this mountainous area in the world economy would be a given. (“Rugged” Switzerland didn’t become wealthy in spite of its remoteness, but thanks to its favored position on the axis of wealth creation reaching from southern England to northern Italy which had emerged from the collapsed Roman empire.)

Fehlinger and Krasniqi insist that Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Macedonia “are a good fit – they are all highly competitive when it comes to attracting foreign investors and they have a different history and ethnic mix than Bosnia and Serbia in the north.”

One might also note that ethnic Albanians make up about 5/8ths of the combined population of “KAMM.” Serbophiles were quick to warn of a plot to create the dreaded “greater Albania,” a problem the authors themselves foresaw, writing, “It is important to convince the international audience that this is not some kind of greater Albania through the back door.”

For “international audience,” read Serbia and Greece. However, this is a minor issue. Far more cogent is the fact that KAMM is just about the poorest part of Europe. By my back of the envelope calculation, the GNP per capita of KAMM is about 1/15th the level of the richest Western European countries. Whereas in 1960, just a few years after the birth of both Benelux and the European common market, Beneluxians produced just about the same amount of national wealth per head as the other richest Europeans. Which means that KAMM is a very, very long way behind where the Benelux countries were when they formed their club.

How, then, to make rich Europe sit up and take note of the aspirations of this ragtag quartet? As I see it, the problem with KAMM is not that it’s overloaded with Albanians, although the solution I’m going to propose would dilute their numerical superiority. The main weakness is that it excludes the biggest problem child of all, Bosnia. Consider the plight of Bosnia, should those four form an economic zone excluding it. It’d be even more isolated and fractious, even less likely to ever become a prosperous state. But while Europe could afford to look askance at KAMM, a quintet with Bosnia would have to be taken seriously, because of the political and strategic dangers, as well as the economic misery. This union – let’s call it Alboskodonia – could become the germ of a wider Balkan union, perhaps including Greece. Stranger things have happened in Europe: Benelux soon joined the European Common Market with eternal foes France and Germany. Hail, Alboskodonia!

Photo: The Roman Via Egnatia ran from Italy to Byzantium across the Balkan peninsula. This fragment of the road is near Radožda, Macedonia. Source: www.tauresium.info

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email: ky.krauthamer@tol.org

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