Bled Strategic Forum 2016

Bled Strategic Forum 2016, “Safeguarding the Future” A Gloomy Conversation in a Lovely Location Valery Perry September 12, 2016

The 2016 Bled Strategic Forum was held last week against a backdrop of a shared and overriding sense of unease and insecurity. The business forum gave an opportunity for Slovenian businesses to forge links with investors from the region and afar – numerous participants from India and East Asia were among the over 1000 attendees. But while economic doors may have been opened during sidebar conversations and events, the general atmosphere was one of closing doors, of building walls rather than bridges. Nowhere was this more evident than in discussion of the 2015 refugee and migration crisis, which was raised in several panels as it relates to several trends.

First, the inability of the EU to prevent or more effectively and jointly respond to the crisis as it unfolded led to discussions on both the politics and institutions of the EU “machine,” and whether it is possible to build, shape or reform EU bodies to make them more flexible, responsive or effective. In light of the reactions of several countries to the crisis, do all member states (their leaders and citizens) in fact share the same understanding of the norms and values underlying the Union? And if political will is there, can the EU civil service system resist the bureaucratic tendency towards inertia to promptly and effectively respond to crises when needed?

In the absence of earned confidence that the EU can address such challenges, there will be a natural turn inwards towards national-level solutions. This inward-looking tendency has already become visible as populist and right-leaning political movements have used the chance to make the case to their citizens that shared regional solutions are not desirable. To date, the EU and its adherents have failed to send a convincing counter-message to disenchanted citizens in these countries.

This discussion led to a second common theme, Brexit and its consequences. While some (mostly from the UK) sought to frame this as a simple renegotiation opportunity, most saw this as a clear turning point in the EU’s history away from inevitable and certain integration and enlargement, at minimum demonstrating the potential for dissolution. There were differing views on whether this represents a true crisis, or a perfectly normal bump in the EU’s evolution, as claimed by at least two discussants. No conclusions were offered as to whether the UK should be punished or persuaded in upcoming divorce talks.

The uncertainty about the shape of the EU exacerbated the discussion on the third dominant issue, that of enlargement into the Western Balkans. Two standard ideological schools were on display: some argued that the best solution for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia would be rapid membership, with the understanding that unfinished reforms can continue to be undertaken once they are all formally in the club, while others aggressively countered that once a country is a member, then the EU has no tools at all to maintain the pressure for meaningful reform.

There were also differing views on display of whether prospective member countries should reform for the sake of improving the lives of their citizens through better governance and economic development, or to simply meet EU conditions, however pro forma and shallow. Tensions between Croatia and Serbia, grounded in recent and past history but made more potent due to Serbia’s candidacy for membership, were laid bare. One panelist noted that unless the three main political conflicts in the region – Serbia/Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia – are substantially addressed, any panel on the topic of enlargement into the Western Balkans will occupy exactly the same intellectual space at BSF 2017.

The broader security environment also was a major theme in discussion, with the changing roles of Turkey and Russia in regional and global affairs offering uncertain outlooks. The links among Turkish and Russian interests and agendas shaping their roles in ending the war in Syria, and the links to this conflict and the pressing refugee and migration challenge in Europe, was impossible to miss. The threats to the post-Cold War security architecture, most visibly in the case of Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the still uncertain post-coup politics of NATO member Turkey, left large question marks. Yet transatlantic approaches to security remain essential, in terms of not only political and strategic coherence, but the undeniable heft of NATO and the alliance’s military hardware (primarily from the US).

While the high-level speakers and panelists tended to send a grim message with few concrete ideas or actionable solutions, interventions by young forum participants on how they want their future safeguarded suggested a potentially new way of thinking and pragmatism. However, integrating these young voices and minds into their own domestic political environments and in turn into the EU system will represent a generational shift that lies sometime in the future. And as seen with Brexit, the young are the least likely to participate in current political actions such as voting or running for office. Does this reflect apathy, laziness and resignation, or a broader dissatisfaction with and disconnect from not only the European experiment, but the political and economic models they see around them?

A number of speakers noted that the September 16 meeting of the EU’s 27 (non-UK) heads of state/government in Bratislava, to be following by the September 20 General Affairs Council, will be critical in demonstrating that the EU is able to effectively address shared challenges. As the center of gravity of the EU, Chancellor Merkel is under considerable pressure to forge European solutions. Yet she is also under domestic pressures – now even more virulent after the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern elections – that mirror popular dissatisfaction in other countries.

Overall, while an interesting gathering with a good mix of individuals in a position to begin to address the myriad questions raised, the Forum was a missed opportunity in more directly considering why the EU and its prospective members now find themselves in a situation in which enlargement is not only not inevitable, but exit is a reality. Two missing links struck me in particular:

First, the inability to recognize the limits of EU accession preparation or the fact that it is not aimed at, or indeed sufficient to, resolve broader political issues explains both weak support for more enlargement and the “norms and values” crisis. We are seeing this most pointedly in Hungary, yet most extensively in the region of the former Yugoslavia. The souring of relations between Croatia and Serbia (related to elections in Croatia, but long-lasting and salient nonetheless) attests to the irrelevance of EU membership for lingering regional tensions, and in fact has added to the EU’s baggage the dynamic of Croatia’s leverage vis a vis its very recent warring opponent. Even more troubling was the lack of acknowledgement of the very negative impact that this regional dynamic still has on Bosnia and Herzegovina, where both Belgrade and Zagreb continue to pursue old agendas under the auspices of “regional cooperation” or “federalism”. Observers bemoan the country’s “lack of sovereignty” pointing to the Office of the High Representative; in light of the OHR’s moribund position, the real threat to BiH’s sovereignty continues to be from these regional capitals and internal allies. Those who argue that these political games simply represent “politics as usual” and election campaigning with no underlying impact are ignoring the impact that this rhetoric has on the already strained social fabric in BiH, and on the damage to already low social trust and confidence.

Second and more broadly, there were few signs of a dynamic approach to counter rising authoritarian tendencies regionally, but also globally. As evident in election campaigns the world over (Canada being a notable exception) support for democratic values, liberal governance, human rights promotion, inclusion and free markets is losing its luster as the world deals with the economic inequality and social dislocation of globalization, the combined fallout of the war in Iraq, the curtailed Arab Spring and the horrific war in Syria, and the emergence of models of development that disconnect economic and political liberalization, yet retain the worst aspects of cronyism and abuse of office. How can the Euro-Atlantic alliance make the case that its policies – often misunderstood but increasingly ineffective – do provide a roadmap for this post-post-Cold War world? This, perhaps, could be the topic for BSF 2017.