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Europe’s new agenda in the Western Balkans

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A quiet but fundamental change is underway in the European Union’s policy towards the Western Balkans. As the mandate of the current European Commission draws to a close, it appears that plans to enlarge the Union are following suit. Enlargement is becoming a policy that should not be discussed – at least in public assemblies and parliaments in Western Europe.

It’s no secret that the majority of European public opinion is opposed to enlargement – ​​as an upcoming ECFR survey will demonstrate. (Strikingly, Austrians and Germans, home to the largest Balkan diasporas in terms of population, are among those most skeptical of enlargement.)

But, like the Eurobarometer confirmed, this trend is not new. What has changed is the clear commitment of policymakers not to deviate from public expectations on peripheral issues like this. “Due to the fear of foreign immigration,” a German MP explained recently, “people in my constituency would notice – and closely examine – a decision to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia. Even if it is only a small step away from membership, it will be viewed critically by public opinion at that time.”

Of course, the reasons for this defensive posture go beyond the migration crisis. They are linked to the difficult transformation of Romania and Bulgaria into Member States, to deficits in the rule of law in Poland and Hungary, and to the lack of influence of other Member States and European institutions on these countries. . More importantly, Europeans fears on the sustainability of the EU – with a majority of citizens convinced that there is a realistic possibility that the EU will collapse within the next 20 years – seem to move in the direction of strengthening ties between Member States rather than an increase in their number. In other words, the French position of holding back enlargement has less to do with the Western Balkans themselves than with President Emmanuel Macron’s desire to prioritize the quality of integration.

However, Macron’s recent visit to Belgrade seems to break this pattern. For the first time in decades, a French president has devoted significant time and political capital to a Western Balkan country.

During the joint press conference with his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic, Macron adopted a friendly attitude towards the countries of the region (which sometimes prompted the audience to interrupt his speech with a standing ovation). But he did not mention the accession process, focusing instead on the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo. Macron promised to help restart negotiations on the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo in the coming weeks, reaffirming France’s commitment to the common format with Germany that he helped create at Berlin last April.

The German government called the Berlin meeting to end behind-the-scenes negotiations between Vucic and Kosovo President Hashim Thaci over a possible land swap deal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has invited leaders of other Western Balkan countries to express concerns about the chain reaction such a deal could trigger – and to persuade Macron to help redirect negotiations between Vucic and Thaci . The meeting was also an opportunity to highlight that negotiations had already led Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj to impose a 100 percent tariff on Serbian goods entering his country.

When Josep Borrell leaves his post as Spanish Foreign Minister to take office, he will have to prove his “Europeanness” in the Western Balkans.

Since then, little has changed. Although Haradinaj was forced to resign after being subpoenaed by war crimes prosecutors in The Hague, Kosovo has not bowed to pressure to repeal the tariffs. French diplomats hope that a new government in Pristina will try to restore ties with Belgrade. Paris wants Kosovo and Serbia to begin a process that will ease political tensions and improve security in the Western Balkans. Berlin wants it too. But he also wants to reassert control of the dialogue between the countries – which Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, has carried out with little transparency over the land swap project.

The main message from France and Germany for the Western Balkans is clear: countries in the region must prioritize efforts to demonstrate a sufficient level of political governance – and they will only be allowed to begin the technical processes of accession to the EU only after having achieved this objective. It is therefore still too early to say whether the Western Balkan countries are moving towards EU membership or simply towards an association between certain sectors of their economy and the EU market.

As the next European Commission is unlikely to put enlargement among its priorities, the next EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will have some influence in the region. When Josep Borrell leaves his post as Spanish Foreign Minister to take office, he will have to prove his “Europeanness” in the Western Balkans. With the UK leaving the EU – and thereby reducing its diplomatic influence in the region – Borrell will be forced to align with Berlin and Paris on the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.

To produce lasting solutions, any agreement between Serbia and Kosovo will need to encompass the broader political aspects of good neighborly relations. Creating a common future for the communities of northern Kosovo and southern Serbia will involve a long-term vision rather than a simple demarcation of territory.

The complex arrangements that underpin the composition of Spain’s regions provide a good example of how countries can reach a workable agreement that cuts across ethnic divisions. There are also good examples of this in the Western Balkans: the agreement between North Macedonia and Greece, as well as that between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, are exactly the kind of political gestures that demonstrate the will of countries to resolve long-standing disputes. Fostering the political will to reach such summit agreements and helping the public understand them will be the main concerns of the next High Representative in the Western Balkans.

And as the EU recalibrates its policy toward the Western Balkans, other powers are stepping up their game there. The region has for some time been the focus of China’s efforts to expand its Belt and Road Initiative ” in Europe. There is a visible Chinese presence in almost every corner of the region. At the same time, military cooperation between Belgrade and Moscow is also growing – to “preserve the territorial integrity of Serbia,” as Vucic announced last week in Nis. The southern Serbian city is home to the “Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center,” widely seen as a potential foothold for a Russian military presence in Serbia. Vucic traveled to Nis to welcome ten BRDM-2 military reconnaissance vehicles as part of the first phase of a bilateral arms deal between Serbia and Russia. Last June, Slavic Military Brotherhood exercises – attended by elite Belarusian, Russian and Serbian troops – took place in northern Serbia.

The EU should not wait too long before adopting a more concrete approach to economic, migration and security issues in the Western Balkans. As it recalibrates its policy tools and their underlying logic, the EU should make clear that the onus is on Western Balkan countries to act responsibly. Their maturity and policy choices, and not the box-ticking exercises that characterize the accession process, will set the tone for their relations with the EU more than in recent decades.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent solely the opinions of their individual authors.

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