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UK’s relationship with the Western Balkans after Brexit

Article by Cvete Koneska

June 14, 2018

UK’s relationship with the Western Balkans after Brexit

The UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) in 2019 will provide an opportunity for the country to re-define its foreign policy. This opportunity is greatest in regions where the UK can now conduct its foreign policy outside the EU. One such region is the Western Balkans, the six Southeast European states (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia) that remain outside the EU, but which are included in the EU’s Enlargement policy.

So what could post-Brexit British policy towards the Western Balkans look like? What priorities and objectives could shape the UK’s approach to the region from 2019? Here I discuss several factors that can influence that debate, such as the commercial and strategic importance of the region, as well as historical links and legacies.

Commercially, the Western Balkans is not very important for the UK. The region is in the southeast corner of Europe, encircled by EU member states, and does not share a border (maritime or land) with the UK. The countries and markets are small, not fully integrated with each other, and do not provide a major commercial opportunity for the UK.[1] As a result, investing additional resources to strengthen commercial ties to the region is unlikely to lead to significant returns for the UK. In addition, these economies are to a great extent already integrating with the EU and within the next decade are likely to become EU members. Therefore, ultimately, they will fall under the UK’s new external trade and commercial policies with the EU. Drafting a short-term separate external trade and commercial policies towards the Western Balkans will not be an efficient use of British diplomatic resources.

Strategically, the region is also of limited importance to the UK. Although security concerns are typically raised in arguments favouring greater involvement with the Balkans, once the UK is outside the EU this argument will partly lose its force. While the Balkans remain important for European security and stability, as the 2015 migration crisis demonstrated when thousands of refugees from the Middle East arrived in the EU through the Western Balkans route, for the national security of the UK this is at best an indirect threat. To the extent that the UK remains invested in European security post-Brexit, mostly through NATO structures, the region will retain some strategic importance, but with the entire European continent between itself and the Western Balkans, the UK will not be directly affected by security developments in that region.

Finally, unlike some other regions, such as the Commonwealth countries, the UK does not have strong historical and cultural ties with the Western Balkans. Although the population in the region is increasingly fluent in English, and aspects of British culture and education have become well accepted, UK’s cultural links to many of these countries are weak. Even as the Western Balkans societies over the past decade have become closer to the EU, thanks to increased mobility since the Schengen visa restrictions were lifted in 2010, this has not extended to the UK, which maintains a strict (and expensive) visa regime to the countries in this region, which is unlikely to be relaxed after Brexit. Consequently, the Western Balkans diaspora in the UK is small[2] and not very influential.

By and large, due to its small size and the limited strategic and commercial importance to the UK, the Western Balkans countries are unlikely to become a significant priority in British foreign policy after Brexit. Limited diplomatic resources in the UK are likely to be applied elsewhere, to issues and regions perceived to be of higher importance.

This is not to argue that the UK should disengage and de-prioritise this region from 2019. After all, there are several important legacies of British foreign policy in the region worth safeguarding and building upon. First, the UK, together with other global actors, has been actively involved in the rebuilding and reconciliation projects in the former Yugoslav states after the conflicts of the 1990s. This UK was directly involved in negotiating and rebuilding peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, which remain critical to regional stability and peace. Over the past almost thirty years, the UK has developed strong diplomatic and civil society networks with local and regional organisations in the Balkans as well as among the political elite and influencers. It should continue to use these networks and exercise its influence to further strengthen the stability and regional cooperation in the region. The UK should continue to work with the EU and other governments and international organisations in the region to support the continuing peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts there.

In the Balkans, the British legacy of the past couple of decades is worth preserving and expanding. This is particularly important in the context of developing a value-based foreign policy. Since the UK’s clout in the international arena is not anchored in commercial or military power, nor driven by large resource reserves, its foreign policy is largely rooted in promoting liberal and democratic values. As the UK seeks to carve out a distinct profile and role in the international arena after its exit from the EU, championing key values, such as human rights and good governance or the rule of law, can provide it with a foundation for its future foreign policy doctrine.

Second, continued albeit limited, engagement with the Western Balkans will provide the UK an opportunity to remain involved in Europe and European affairs beyond the EU. The government has often repeated claims that leaving the EU does not mean that Britain will leave Europe, but it will remain invested in European security, cooperation , nd prosperity. The Western Balkans is one area where these claims could be successfully tested, especially given the footprint that British diplomacy already has in the region.

Of course, the Western Balkans’ countries key foreign policy priority is EU membership, so this may complicate their relationship with the UK in future. While the UK remains supportive of their accession into the EU, it may see a declining willingness by countries in the region to engage on a bilateral basis. With limited diplomatic resources available, governments in the region may well choose to focus them elsewhere – probably in Brussels or Berlin – where their impact on achieving strategic goals would be higher.

Nonetheless, to the extent that British priorities for the Western Balkans coincide with those of the EU, the UK can have a significant voice in the region. In particular, in areas such as rule of law or judicial reforms, where the UK has a long track record of assisting governments in the region, the UK can work alongside the EU in helping governments in the region to improve governance standards.

While the Western Balkans is unlikely to become a major foreign policy priority for the UK government after Brexit, it has the potential to be a place where an independent British foreign policy can be tested and developed. Given the positive legacies of British involvement in the region in the past two decades, and the largely overlapping priority areas towards the region with the EU, the UK can continue to play a positive and significant role there, without the need for significant increase of diplomatic and technical resources.

Cvete Koneska is a Senior Analyst-Europe at Control Risks.

[1] See figures from the Office for National Statistics on trade relationship between the UK and Western Balkans states.

[2] See data from the Office for National Statistics, with the total of WB6 population in the UK amounting to around 75,000 in 2017 (around 60,000 from Albania and Kosovo).

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