Navigating Hierarchies and Balkanist Discourses in Europeanization: A Conversation with Vjosa Musliu

In this conversation with assistant editor Lorena Drakula, Vjosa Musliu discusses her book Europeanization and State Building as Everyday Practices. Performing Europe in the Western Balkans (Routledge, 2021). The conversation critically examines mechanisms of Europeanization, discourses surrounding international interventions, and the processes of EU enlargement to the Western Balkans.

Vjosa Musliu is an assistant professor of International Relations at Vrije Universitaet Brussels and a co-editor of Routledge Series in Intervention and State Building.

Lorena Drakula: We know that a lot of countries are still somewhere on their way to European integration, and through this process, there has been an increasing emphasis on performing a certain type of “Europeanness”. You argue that there needs to be a performative turn in European studies and demonstrate that the process of Europeanization is just as much about changing behaviors as it is a political project of EU integration. What does it mean to perform “Europeanness” and how does your approach to Europeanization differ from previous scholarly ones?

Vjosa Musliu: Processes of Europeanization and exercises of performativity of Europe and Europeanization are nothing new, and they certainly have not started, or are not pertinent only to the countries of the Western Balkans. When you look at previous rounds of EU enlargement with countries of Central and Eastern Europe, you notice a similar pattern, even though it might not have been called an exercise of performativity at that point.

I also want to clarify that I am certainly not the first one to use the term performativity in the literature of Europeanization. There have been others who have talked about it, especially concerning the EU’s external relations and how the EU constructs and maintains its relations with its Others. What I try to do in the book is try to give more emphasis to these sporadic voices who have been grappling with Europeanization and with notions of performance and performativity, and try to suggest a new, proper research line on performativity in Europeanization and especially in processes of European integration.

Now, when we look at the bulk of the literature on Europeanization and EU external relations, most of this literature has traditionally prioritized structures, institutions, and elites – very macro subjects of specific states, and specific societies, and how they have negotiated and articulated processes of Europeanization and integration. In the book, which is published with the Routledge Series of Intervention and State Building, I wanted to bring attention to Europeanization as an everyday practice, with a focus on two aspects.

On the one hand, processes of Europeanization touch everyday aspects of people and different sectors of society. On the other hand, the notion of “Europe”, or imaginations of Europe, are co-opted by local populations, internalized, and performed (or strategically internalized to be then strategically performed!) to show a vocation of Europeanization.

That can mean very different things depending on who the subject of this internalization is. The reason why I have been rather adamant about looking at Europeanization through these microcosms or everyday practices is to move beyond conceptualizations of Europeanization through grand strategies – as totalizing, ubiquitous, omnipresent processes. Instead, I try to deconstruct them through everyday practices, the way people change behaviors, or how certain practices, festivities, ceremonies, etc. are redefined based on these imaginations of Europe and imaginations of how others, who are currently outside of the borders of the European Union, want to be perceived as European.

In the book you mostly focus on the region of the so-called Western Balkans, and you argue that international interventions in the region are often introduced in such a way that reproduces this relationship of aiming towards Europeanness, but never really achieving it. What are some examples of tropes that reproduce such hierarchical, and in this specific case, also Balkanist discourses? Are we meant to remain trapped in such a mode of “not yet” or how could this type of relationship be overcome in your view?

The way how processes of Europeanization are presented to the countries of the Western Balkans, and more broadly, how processes of Europeanization or European integration are presented to countries who are currently outside of the borders of the European Union, have largely retained this messianic promise of something that is “to come”, of something that is “on arrival” but never fully present.

The Bosnians are constantly pitched, re-inscribed, and reproduced as ‘almost Europeans’, provided that they take yet another set of benchmarks, yet another set of conditions, and so are North Macedonians, Kosovars, Albanians, etc.

In this sense, political or bureaucratic processes are given as pedagogical politics towards countries and societies outside of the European Union, whereby becoming “European” is ultimately associated with becoming better or becoming more progressive.

In the case of the Western Balkan countries, becoming “European” is also internalized as an opportunity to cease being the “Balkans”. Currently, the countries of the Western Balkans are Serbia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Montenegro. These are countries that are in the Balkan Peninsula, but they are not part of the European Union. Prior to Croatia’s and Slovenia’s membership in the EU, they were also part of this bigger club of Balkan countries, and later on this political term – the Western Balkans – which has been created by the European Union itself to denominate these countries outside of the European Union. In this sense, they have created a new civilizational border between “us” and the “Other”.

The “Others” in this scenario are countries that on their way to the European Union, and based on this framework, these countries are then subjected to a set of structural changes in terms of their political architecture, economic models, financial choices, the way how they present themselves, or participate in the society of world states. Once Slovenia and Croatia became members of the European Union, they were suddenly removed from this denomination. So, for the EU, they are not part of the Western Balkans anymore, because by becoming members of the European Union, they magically and automatically ceased being Balkan countries. At the same time, you will also see public discourse within Slovenia and Croatia welcoming or embracing the new denomination as Europeans, and they ceased identifying as having anything to do with the Western Balkans as a whole.

The denomination of the “Balkans” has been wonderfully elaborated in the works of Maria Todorova, but also in the works of Piro Rexhepi, where he talks about homonationalism and the way how EU’s policies have also re-inscribed and reinforced notions of “Balkanness” in the countries of the Western Balkans. So, to a large extent, it remains a concept that has far little to do with geography and much more to do with the sociopolitical and cultural Otherness that countries of the Western Balkans employ.

But we have to also take into account that these denominations of “us” versus “Others”, or Europeans versus non-Europeans, EU versus Western Balkans – this is not just rhetoric that features prominently in the discourse of the European Union or certain circles inside the European Union.

The power of words, tropes such as the Balkans, the Orient, or other essentializing denominations that cast non-Europeans as Others, continue to be prevalent, and their productive tension lies in the fact that they are co-opted and internalized by the subjects in these regions as well.

I happen to travel a lot both for work and for pleasure in the region and I do notice this repetitive claim of people who have internalized their denomination as the “Balkans”, as something that is essentially ineffective, that is the opposite of “Europeanness”. This is also something I talk about in the book as well. When I talked to people in the region, especially in the pre-pandemic period (because I have not managed to do as extensive fieldwork post-pandemic), the EU and the very notion of Europe were portrayed as this “Pleasantville” where everything functions. It is rendered as corruption-free, problem-free, with high quality of life across all strata of society, with the utmost respect for human, gender, and sexual rights, and this monolithic view of how Europe is imagined outside of the EU then also reinforces the image of oneself as being essentially the Other, and outside this unambiguously civilized club.

I noticed a very similar trend when I was doing fieldwork in Peru. Much like many of the countries in the Western Balkans, Peruvians also graciously celebrate Europe Day. They have the entire month of May where they celebrate Europe Month with a set of activities that are mainly in the cultural domain. There you can also see this very fetishized view of what Europe is, and how Peruvians imagine themselves as something that is on the lower scale of that high benchmark, or that high plateau, where Europe and Europeans are.

One of the main examples of performing “Europeanness” is the case of Kosovo, where international interventions had arguably the biggest influence on the process of state building (visible in the official flag, which has European colors, and anthem, officially called “Europe”). So, what role have international organizations played in achieving forms of stability in Kosovo, and how has this affected the state and type of democracy in the country?

The structures of Western interventionism and state-building have been present in Kosovo ever since 1999 when, thanks to a NATO intervention, the war ended and Kosovo was subjected to a set of international administrations and missions, starting with the entering of NATO troops in the country, and then the deployment of the United Nations administration that de facto ruled and governed Kosovo for a period of give or take 10 years. This was followed by the deployment of the European Union rule of law mission called EULEX, which happens to be the biggest and most expensive EU mission deployed to date. In this sense, the case of Kosovo is particularly interesting to illustrate the entire set of structures of Western interventionism and how they engage in processes of intervention and then, later on, state building.

Now part of your question is about the concept of stability, which is quintessential to how these missions and these sets of interventions in Kosovo have taken place.

When you look at the experience of the United Nations in Kosovo – not just their mission statement, not just their discourse, but the very materiality of their politics – their projects have been geared towards maintaining stability, not necessarily creating and consolidating democratic institutions.

The creation of democratic institutions, favorable legal infrastructure, an architecture of a Weberian state, for instance, had to be subordinate to the notion of stability. These missions have been preoccupied, if not obsessed with, the notion of stability. Now, when you look at how they conceived of stability, this primarily meant the lack of armed friction between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo. Other ethnic groups, the Roma, Bosniaks, Turks, Gorani, and other minorities were not part of the problematization of the developmental processes in Kosovo. So, Kosovo had been reduced to this problem that is essentially about the perennial fights and the so-called ancient hatred between the Serbs and the Albanians, and everything else had to be subordinated to the idea of maintaining certain stability between these groups. This was, again, to a large extent what characterized the UN mission in Kosovo.

The successive mission of the European Union, because it had a different mandate, and had much more limited responsibilities and scope, was specifically dealing with issues of justice – the prosecution of war crimes and high-profile cases, for instance. You can still trace that the very essence of maintaining this form of interacting stability is co-constitutive to how the missions in Kosovo had been thought of and how they were deployed.

Someone asked me very recently, concerning my critique of the international interventions in Kosovo, whether there has been anything positive, or if there had been any success stories. I believe this was a question addressed in one of the EU institutions recently in Brussels, and I think this is also a bit of an intellectual fallacy, if not an intellectual laziness, to just look at what has been successful and what has not been successful when we look at such large-scale missions. Because, first and foremost, we have to problematize the question – successful for whom? And successful to what end? If we are talking about measuring the success of an EU mission based on the mission statement that they set for themselves in Brussels – this is one way of looking at effectiveness or success. If you want to look at how this has impacted developmental or democratic processes on the ground, this is a different kind of intellectual exercise. So usually before I engage in any type of analysis, for me it’s very important to further problematize, not just for the sake of a discursive exercise, effective or successful for whom?

These missions have been very much designed and deployed to create institutions from scratch. They have, of course, laid down the groundwork for very promising democratic practices to take place in Kosovo. One example I can give you is that, when I work with similar organizations in Serbia or Albania and Kosovo, I do notice a very different working culture of the civil society. For instance, in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, because they have been exposed to these large-scale international administrations, they have learned the language of applying for funds, of organizing certain events in a very European, or a very EU, format. There you can see the direct impact of these international administrations and international projects in the Western Balkans.

You said now that the creation of these institutions was starting from scratch, but there have been institutions before in Kosovo. So, what do you mean from scratch?

The way international intervention and international missions have deployed themselves in Kosovo, and the way they communicated this deployment and intervention to the rest of the world, was to create this idea that they are intervening and ‘Year Zero’ starts here.

There was almost an organized amnesia as to what legacy or what memory, however problematic, or different, or underdeveloped, had previously existed in Kosovo. The idea was that we will now embrace, collectively and uncritically, this new European, democratic, open market logic of building a state, hence creating that ‘Year Zero’, and we start to create institutions as if from scratch.

The previous legacy, the pre-war legacy, and the socialist remnant legacy were not only deemed ineffective but also as something that was arguably more backward in comparison to this newly promised project that was afoot.

In the case of Kosovo, this tends to be even more complicated, because throughout the decade of the ‘90s, because of the repressive regimes initiated by the government in Belgrade and the apartheid-like state in which Albanians in Kosovo lived, they had developed and organized an entire structure, an entire parallel state within a state. This parallel state, as the Nomadic Manifesta Biennale testified last year in Prishtina, organized itself from the bureaucracy, to protocol, to social security, to the medical sector, to the education sector, so it was a fully-fledged state administration, conducted parallel to the Serbian state, and managed in exile through the diaspora, primarily in Switzerland and Germany. So, to the contrary, there was quite some creative knowledge and heritage, not just socialist, but also this entire parallel heritage that was left untapped, that also had to be cast aside to make room for the ‘Year Zero’, so that the new glorious project can start on a clean slate.

The idea is that you can create a form of a tabula rasa and then start to build up from then onwards. I don’t think these processes were conducted with a well-thought-out evil plan in which we have to completely forget about the past. However, the way how the very engineering of the new state-building processes in Kosovo took place rendered the previous experiences, the apartheid system, as well as the previous socialist legacy, as being completely irrelevant and too backward to be even taken into consideration as having any added value or the potential to redefine this new system and create something that would have been more in line with the sociopolitical context in place.

In the book, you explicitly omit the case of Serbia because of lack of space, but could I nevertheless ask you to briefly elaborate on whether Serbia also performs this Europeanness, especially in today’s context of the war in Ukraine and its refusal to introduce sanctions towards Russia?

The book has a handful of chapters wherein I zoom into the processes of the creation of the flag and the national anthem in Kosovo, and then I look at how the political and the public elite in Kosovo distances itself from Islam and subjects of Muslim identification. I look at the recreation of the public space in Skopje in North Macedonia, and the celebrations of Europe Day in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But because of lack of space, indeed, Serbia is one of the cases that is omitted in the book. For this particular book, I did extensive fieldwork and ethnographic research and the inability to do justice to such a project in the case of Serbia led me to completely omit it. However, you can notice a lot of these processes and fragments of this imagination and portrayal of Europe, as well as a certain internalization of Otherness in response to processes of Europeanization, in the case of Serbia too. This might differ depending on whether you look at the more urbanite elites or whether you go further south to the Sandžak region. But I think that, in the grand scheme of things, it would not be significantly different from what we have observed in the cases of Bosnia and Herzegovina or North Macedonia. In particular, in the case of Serbia, I think the performativity is even further layered.

As opposed to countries such as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Kosovo, where you have this verbally very clear pro-European vocation, in the discourse of the political elite in Serbia (the current political elite, but not only) you would also be able to trace performances of what can be called traditional “Serbianness” – invoking allegiances and legacies with the Orthodox church, with what Russia represents today, or historical ties towards Russia, as well as the civilizational conflicts with the West.

The case of Serbia is even more interesting considering that NATO, as one of the structures of Western Interventionism, bombed Serbia’s military sites for 78 days in 1999 and, as we have seen, this has been a recurring theme that very much defined, redefined, and reshaped Serbian politics, not just in relation to Kosovo, not just in relation to the West, but also in relation to how Serbs perceive themselves. 

I would say that in the case of Serbia, there might be a three-layered gradation of performativity. There is a certain sense of performing “Europeanness” by invoking certain historical processes and traces of development, and then you can also discern very clear performative exercises that pitch Serbia as part of a different non-Western civilizational block. Lastly, and probably even more importantly at this point, there is a lot of performativity of the “Serbianness” itself. After the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, after the successive wars, significantly carried out by Serbia, and then the NATO bombing, and then the continuous dispute over the status of Kosovo and what Kosovo represents for Serbia, we have constantly seen this performative act of “Serbianness”, and especially over the past 10 years. So, there is this everyday practice of performing a certain vision of what a Serbian citizen is and what that means in relation to their stance towards Kosovo, towards the West, towards the EU, NATO, and Russia.

The process of EU accession has also been a main facilitator in the ongoing negotiations around normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo, however, elsewhere, you write about how the process of EU enlargement is replaced by initiatives such as the Berlin process, at least temporarily. So how does this replacement of the EU enlargement process with programs such as the Berlin process affect these chances of normalization?

Just to contextualize, earlier on I have written something about the enlargement process, and enlargement being, if not clinically dead, then at least in a coma for the moment. In 2016, we had the closure of the Directorate-General (DG) Enlargement, and bringing it together with DG for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR). That was not just a symbolic halt to the processes of the enlargement. Now, we have to contextualize that this was happening in a period when the EU was grappling with a set of financial, political, and moral crises as well. I think the EU was in  need of an inward gaze into what was happening inside the European Union. We had Brexit, we were still dealing with the repercussions of the financial crisis, there was a devastating refugee crisis that continues to this very day, and the so-called democratic backsliding in a number of countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary.

To that end, there was little animo, perhaps logically, to keep the mantra or the processes, or the project of enlargement still alive. But that also sent a different kind of message to the countries of the Western Balkans who are still in this invisible waiting room to one day potentially become members of the European Union. And because of this halt in enlargement, we had an outsourcing of EU enlargement to processes such as the Berlin process, an intergovernmental initiative where Germany had the lead and became the main actor in it; and smaller scale projects that were, if not directly initiated by the EU, then largely supported by the EU, such as the Open Balkan initiative. I think this inflation of new initiatives to outsource processes that were previously associated with enlargement testified that that project is currently on hold.

The decentralization of EU enlargement with different processes further sent the signal of an EU that is detached from the idea of including countries of the Western Balkans inside the Union.

We have also had numerous cases of “no” votes from countries such as France or the Netherlands when it came to visa liberalization policies with Albania and North Macedonia. In the grand scheme of processes of Europeanization, this did testify to a complete lack of animo. On top of this, we had the process of the so-called EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina, where the EU cast itself as merely a facilitator. But this process has been going on since the early 2000s, so it has been a good decade of negotiating for the normalization of relations. The last agreement of 2023, the one we saw in Brussels, is again yet another vague document, and much like the rest it is prone to interpretation, in addition to being plagued by lack of implementation. In that sense, there is, in my opinion, a bit of a step back in this process of normalization of relations because the document says – this is not an agreement on normalization (which is the very name of the entire project) but on the path to normalization. I don’t know what is being renegotiated backstage because we don’t see the negotiations. We also don’t see in great detail what has already been negotiated. This has also been a major problem of this entire process, that it is not transparent.

The EU has an entire media machinery and a website for every single thing, but there is no website where you can trace the process of the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, and even less so a place, a website, or a repository where you can find all of the agreements.

I think that also says something about what kind of an actor in international negotiations the EU is, but also about the very complicated process that the EU has been dealing with in this case.

So, it somehow also seems like a performance of negotiations that again, never really happen, a normalization that is always to come?

When I talk about performativity in the book, I do go back to how Europe performs itself. So, Europe also performs Europeanization.

Europe also performs itself as this place where rights are guaranteed, the systems function and corruption is very difficult to find, if not non-existent.

This is the image that it portrays of itself in the world, and this is also how it re-legitimizes itself. A microcosm of this exercise of how the EU performs imaginations of Europe as this grand project is the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. Because many times we have seen that this dialogue has been more important for the EU itself rather than for the countries that are negotiating, or  as they call it, the parties that are negotiating. When we had this flare-up of tensions with the license plates in Kosovo and Serbia two years ago and again last year, we could see how senior EU officials, who had been directly involved in the dialogue, were coming out with public declarations to say that the parties should sit and they should de-escalate the violence – completely oblivious to the fact that the parties, or at least one of the parties, was merely trying to implement what had been agreed in Brussels with the help and with the facilitation of the EU.

This, to me, raised questions at the time, and it still raises the question of whether the EU is aware of its involvement in the process. Now the answer to this question, otherwise rhetorical, is not as important as the question that we need to problematize – for whom is this dialogue more important? Is it for the EU or for the parties that are involved? So, in a nutshell, as much as you can find Europe being performed only in the street of Lima, or in Prishtina, or Sarajevo, you can also find all of these performances in the EU quarter itself.

The text was edited for length and clarity

In collaboration with Karen Culver and Lucie Hunter

Contact Us