The months of June and July are full of symbolism for the Western Balkans:
On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo lit the fuse for the First World War. On July 11, 1995, the worst genocide on European soil since the Second World War, took place at Srebrenica in Bosnia. And on July 10, this year, the leaders of the six nations of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – will meet in London at a summit convened by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May. The summit, part of the “Berlin Process” launched by Angela Merkel in 2014, will address security and economic matters, as well as “legacy issues” stemming from the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
At a pre-summit gathering in February 2018, the PM said she wanted to see a “peaceful, prosperous and democratic region – one anchored to European values…”
One supposes that the phrase was deliberately chosen as a counterpoint to the brutal spasm of nationalism which broke apart Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milošević. But a generation on, at a time when both western and eastern halves of the continent are either struggling to contain, or willingly succumbing to, a rising tide of populism, can we say with any confidence what European values are?
Many of those who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum would seek an answer to that question in the existence of the European Union. But, for the countries of the Western Balkans, the EU has been a mixed blessing. Despite billions in development aid, the influence of Brussels has done little to dislodge the ethnic silos in which Bosnian, Croat and Serb communities have lived since the “cold peace” of the Dayton Accords in 1996. And buffeted by the expansionist aims of Albania and Serb nationalism, “there is a growing repudiation of the European project across the entire region,” according to Der Spiegel.
So, what can the UK bring to the table? At the pre-summit in February, May said that, although the country was leaving the EU, it was not leaving Europe. And perhaps one hint of what “European values” might be lies in the fact that the UK is the only nation outside BiH to officially commemorate the genocide at Srebrenica with ceremonies up and down the country and a host of related events which express solidarity with the victims and mark a repudiation of ethnic and religious prejudice wherever it raises its head.
The credit for this national commitment goes to the charity, Remembering Srebrenica, whose theme for this year’s commemoration is “Acts of Courage”, honoring all of those, both within the Balkans and in communities everywhere, who have stood up and been counted in the never-ending fight against intolerance.
So, as the leaders of the six Western Balkan states gather around the conference table in 10 Downing Street on July 10, thinking of their own national interests, perhaps somewhere at the back of their minds will be a memory of what happened 23 years ago in a town called Srebrenica.
Jon Silverman is a professor of Media & Criminal Justice at the University of Bedfordshire. He is also a former BBC Home Affairs Correspondent and a member of the East Midlands regional board of Remembering Srebrenica.