It is an intriguing thought: imagine how Europe might look had the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia not disintegrated but, say, merely shed its “Socialist” prefix. It would have spared the societies of what are today Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia hundreds of thousands of dead. The European Union would not have looked so divided and impotent in the face of the killing on its doorstep. And the US would not have had to send soldiers to fight on European soil for the first time since World War II. In short, the region might well have been a “better place” – an assertion with which many citizens of the now-independent successor states would concur.

Of course, the entry of Yugoslavia into the EU would have meant a number of challenges, being something of a multiethnic “mini-Europe” in itself and one held together by a now-alien ideology and authoritarian system. But let’s assume that the European Commission successfully offered economic and financial aid to dampen the nationalist forces in the various Yugoslav republics and maintain the country’s integrity. Granted, the centrifugal forces that did tear Yugoslavia apart were by no means merely economic. However, in our scenario, the EU’s offer was substantial enough to provide incentives for citizens to cling to a Yugoslav Federation capable of accommodating their concerns and to jointly become part of the bigger Union next door.

Such a scenario allows for speculation about three real-world EU policies, all facing a combination of gridlock and rudderless flux: enlargement, common foreign and security policy (CFSP), and the setup of the EU’s membership. While this exercise is probably too hypothetical to draw practical lessons for today’s policy from it, imagining such an alternate path challenges our picture of what is normal and accepted today. These, after all, are policy areas in which distinctions between insiders and outsiders are key and in which the EU is seeking to promote its norms. The idea of the western Balkans not as a messy counterpoint to the EU, but rather as a full member of the bloc, challenges our real-world perceptions.

Alternative Enlargement

In our scenario, Yugoslavia applied for membership in 1991 and two years later started negotiations together with Austria, Finland, and Sweden. The relative economic health of its three coapplicants, which had been developing in close relation with the Community thanks to their membership in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), served to highlight Yugoslavia’s own fundamental challenges: unemployment was high, as were public debt and inflation, and socially-owned companies were no longer competitive. A privatization effort initiated in 1989 as quid pro quo for much-needed IMF loans was pushing the country towards disintegration. In turn, the emphasis on Yugoslav convergence highlighted problems with corruption and the rule of law, which also cropped up throughout the bloc’s eastern expansion.

As a result, the leitmotif of a “reunification of Europe” was ditched early on, the process becoming less geopolitical and more merit-based. The fifth enlargement was thus split into different phases: Yugoslavia became a member at the turn of the century together with the more advanced states from the CEE group – Hungary, Estonia, and Malta. Thanks to the early onset of its economic transition, Yugoslavia could also adopt the euro as a second-round member alongside Greece shortly thereafter. The simple fact of having a transition country like Yugoslavia apply for membership in the eurozone led the “old members” to insist on stricter controls for all aspirants. A second, larger group of countries entered the EU in the mid-2000s, including recently unified Cyprus: Given Greece’s smaller leverage thanks to the emphasis in the enlargement process on technical convergence as well as Yugoslavia’s fragility in terms of internal borders, the EU made the prior acceptance of the Annan Plan a precondition for accession. A third group around Romania and Bulgaria joined only in the present decade.

A Different Foreign Policy

Defusing the specter of war in Yugoslavia by means of enlargement policy, the EU avoided the piecemeal and reactive development of its own foreign policy capabilities. It had time to devise a new foreign policy system based on its 1992 Maastricht Treaty – which, however, would probably never have seen the light of day without the outside pressure to put it into practice. Distaste for violence and a focus on peaceful transition in Eastern Europe meant the EU did not intervene in bloody conflicts in the heart of Africa – Somalia, Rwanda, or Congo – avoiding military integration. Instead, NATO developed as the alliance of choice for many EU member states, enlarging eastward itself and at the same time engaging in peacekeeping and peacemaking missions mostly beyond Europe’s borders.

Alongside formerly neutral members such as Austria, Finland, and Sweden, Yugoslavia not only pushed for a clearly civilian approach to EU crisis management; as a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), it also allowed the EU to establish relations with important emerging powers such as India, South Africa, Indonesia, and Malaysia. While Belgrade did have to drop its NAM membership upon entering the European club (just like Cyprus and Malta), it built on its preferential contacts – both personal and institutionalized – to capitals of the Southern hemisphere. This became an important asset for the EU, given that its “special relations” with many world regions otherwise suffer from the colonial past of individual member states.

Shifting Membership

With nearly 24 million inhabitants, Yugoslavia became the EU’s fifth largest member state, dropping to sixth only when Poland (with 38 million people) joined. Until the reforms in 2001, it carried six votes in the Council, more than the Netherlands, Portugal, or Belgium respectively. And until more recently, it wielded seventeen votes, equivalent to Sweden and Finland or Austria and Denmark together. Relatively powerful on paper, Yugoslavia, however, remains fragile. The country is sometimes described as a big Belgium – organized in a highly federal, dysfunctional way. The six republics have used the EU to strengthen their hand vis-à-vis their federal government, not least via the Committee of the Regions in Brussels. In particular, the Slovene and Croat Republics have teamed up with regions such as Bavaria, Catalonia, and Scotland to fight for European influence and money. The Serbian Republic, in contrast, is held back by a complicated power-sharing deal with its autonomous Kosovar minority.

As a result, there has been a new power distribution within the EU, with a shift of competences away from the member governments in favor of both the European and regional levels. Economic and social policies, including issues such as employment, migration, and social security systems, are largely set in Brussels, whereas policies for infrastructure and transport, education, and culture have gone to the regions. This leaves the member states with clearly fewer competencies. Yet, the force of Yugoslav decentralization has become so strong – despite or even because of the economic and financial benefits of belonging to the EU – that the EU very recently had to facilitate the breakaway of one republic. This “velvet divorce” sets a precedent for independence movements in old member states, with the EU now facing a regrouping of its membership towards a greater number of small- to mid-sized states.

Tempting as the thought of non-war is, it is hard to imagine for those knowing the region that the transition from the Yugoslav slogan of “brotherhood and unity” to the EU’s motto “unity in diversity” would have been without friction. Still, looking through the hypothetical glasses of this exercise, a different kind of “normality” can highlight where the weaknesses of today’s EU lie.

Three lessons stand out, two of which the real EU has started to address. First, the EU would have adapted its rules for enlargement earlier in the process, thanks to knowing about the difficulties of a continued transition in its new member states. The economic and social pains of Yugoslavia adapting throughout the 1990s to join the euro would also have taught the EU a lesson about crisis-ridden Greece and Spain today. In reality, the EU has only recently started to address the question of conditionality, especially with regard to its Neighborhood Policy (and stands to see its magnetism fade vis-à-vis Ukraine). Second, the Union would have a much less developed security and defense policy, instead focusing on a more global foreign policy with even fewer military teeth than it has today. Here, the EU did make some progress by carefully trying to develop a more global CFSP involving various partners and regional groupings, something where it could still become a lot stronger.

The third and final lesson of Yugoslavia’s assumed entry to the EU, however, remains an open question: whether the nation state is still the determining framework to solve Europe’s challenges of the 21st century? A multiethnic member state with a weak federal structure would have foreshadowed today’s debates about eroding national sovereignty in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the recurring complaints about a democratic disconnect throughout Europe, or the independence movements in Catalonia and Scotland. That’s where the EU needs to urgently tackle this fundamental challenge. Far from providing useful answers itself, a member state called Yugoslavia at least would have forced the EU to address this question much earlier.

This article was originally published by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V. counterfactuals project.