The moral blunder in the Balkans

The moral blunder in the Balkans

French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent statement that Bosnia is a ‘ticking time-bomb’ have caused outrage in the Balkan country. (Reuters)

The French ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina was summoned by Sarajevo last week over President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks in an interview with The Economist in which he sought to justify blocking further EU accession talks with Balkan countries over concerns about Bosnian militants returning from Syria — a situation he described as a “time bomb.”
First, there is just no getting away from the fact that this was a bad argument to make. According to Bosnian intelligence, 250 adults and 80 children left Bosnia or the Bosnian diaspora to join Daesh in the Middle East. Of those about 50 have returned to Bosnia, where the overwhelming majority were quickly imprisoned. Almost 90 are thought to have died in the Middle East and about 150 remain in Syria, mostly in detention. The rest returned to countries where they lived before. So there are at most 150 Bosnian individuals who might wish to return to Bosnia and who can expect to be jailed when they do so.
Meanwhile, France is expecting at least 130 returning militants in the immediate aftermath of the US pullout from northern Syria, although there will be many others still left in the Middle East in other areas or in detention camps. Compared with Bosnia’s 250-330 citizens who traveled to join Daesh, France had 1,700 people doing the same. There are only about three times as many Muslims in France as there are in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet French citizens who went to join Daesh were six times as numerous as Bosnians who did the same. In other words, French Muslims were about twice as likely to go to the Levant and join Daesh than Bosnian Muslims. So if we are concerned with militancy, Macron should probably start at home.
But this is not about militancy. This was an extremely poor attempt at deflection. France has vetoed further European integration in the Balkans and has been especially hostile to Muslim groups in the area at least going back to the early 1990s. Back then, President Francois Mitterrand had an explicitly anti-Muslim approach to the Yugoslav wars. Now that would be recognized as racism. So instead of simply acknowledging anti-Muslim bias, these days we couch it into “concerns about Islamism” and “time bombs” and such.

It is baffling why Macron went the plain racist route while trying to justify his country’s position.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

This is not to say that Bosnia and Herzegovina, or indeed North Macedonia and Albania, which Macron has also blocked with no further explanation, are ready to join the EU. Given the recent experience with Poland, Hungary and quite a few other countries that have joined the EU since 2004, the EU should be weary about over-eager enlargement. It is all very well when the incumbent government of an Eastern European country looks pro-EU in the run-up to accession, but unless the entire political establishment of that country buys into the European project, you will have problems with nationalist populists down the road, which will then have veto powers in the European Council and hobble the project’s effectiveness and scope.
When such good reasons to be careful are available, it is baffling why Macron went the plain racist route while trying to justify his country’s position, especially given that this is off-brand not only for him personally, but also for his liberal, centrist political party, for the moral constitutional basis of the French republic, and for the moral institutional basis of the EU. This was a blunder.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
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