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Unclear signals from Austria ahead of Western Balkans summit

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In light of the upcoming elections in 2024 and polls favoring the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Austrian government is struggling to maintain a clear position on major European issues.

As the highly anticipated Western Balkans Summit and European Council approach this week, efforts to enlarge the EU continue. Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, however, opposed the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine. during a session in Parliament on Monday afternoon.

“There should be no preferential treatment for Ukraine, especially compared to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is also in accession negotiations,” he explained. As a sign of solidarity, Ukraine and Moldova should be offered the prospect of membership, but without an “accelerated procedure” for both states, the Chancellor said.

The Austrian Foreign Ministry said official Vienna sends a clear signal to third parties: the Western Balkans are part of our European family.

“It is vital to strengthen pro-European forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina and show citizens that their future is in the EU. At the same time, it is clear that Bosnia and Herzegovina must continue to implement its reforms,” they said.

No negotiations for Bosnia-Herzegovina before March

Recent reports also suggest that other EU leaders are not ready to decide whether to open accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina. A bloc of countries led by the Netherlands opposes it.

For them, negotiations should not be opened before March, when an evaluation of the reform process in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the achievement of 14 priorities is planned. They believe that not enough has been done to meet these priorities.

The country has also seen serious setbacks in freedom of expression, and the secessionist ambitions of Republika Srpska’s political leaders remain a problem, a letter said.

While the European Commission has recommended the opening of negotiations with Ukraine, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants this item to be removed from the agenda. “The Commission’s recent proposal for Ukraine’s accession process marks the end of the European Union’s enlargement policy as an objective and merit-based instrument,” he wrote in a letter to Council President Charles Michel.

“Headache” Austria

Known for his pro-Russian positions, this decision by the Hungarian Prime Minister was not a surprise. However, Austria’s recent efforts to oppose accession negotiations have presented an unexpected “headache” for some.

POLITICO’s ‘Brussels Playbook’ newsletter declared on December 5th that Austria insists on opening accession negotiations with Bosnia-Herzegovina if the EU does so with Ukraine. The newsletter quotes a European diplomat as saying: “Austria is hiding behind Hungary, but no one dares to point it out. »

Other diplomats cited in the text say that since BiH has not done enough to implement its reforms, this essentially means that Austria opposes Ukraine’s membership. The Austrian Foreign Ministry did not comment on a request from Europe’s Western Balkans regarding the statements made in the newsletter.

The Western Balkans, a key priority in Vienna

Not only because of their shared history and cultural interweaving, but also because of their economic aspirations, the Western Balkans have been one of the main focal points of Austria’s foreign policy. Thus, for many experts, enlargement has become a matter of political symbolism.

And what Austria is trying to do is create equidistance, says Vedran Džihić from the Austrian Institute for International Politics and member of BiEPAG. However, by still not achieving the 14 priorities, Bosnia and Herzegovina gives an additional reason to block accession negotiations.

“Yes, the argument remains that the EU must not forget the Western Balkans. But when it comes to reforms, Ukraine and Moldova have done more than Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he concludes in an interview with European Western Balkans.

Questionable intentions

For Džihić, Austria is not hiding behind Hungary, but simply failing to establish a clear position.

“Austria has the image of a country slowing down for its domestic political interests, with the Schengen veto against Bulgaria and Romania being the latest example.” He added that they often act out of political expediency when it comes to big European issues.

“He is not consistent and is often perceived in Brussels as an unreliable partner,” he criticizes. The country’s unclear relations with Russia, with no motivation to cut Russian gas or keep their companies working in Russia, have also been controversial.

The latest blow came last year when Interior Minister Gerhard Karner unexpectedly vetoed Romania and Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen area. International migration experts still criticize the decision. For many, it was simply out of motivation to win voters through tougher migration policies.

While the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) is progressing by more than 30% in the polls, the other parties, including the government coalition, are struggling to establish a clear position. Support for Ukraine and migration policies are among the most controversial topics.

We don’t know what will happen

As for this week’s summit, it is still unclear what the outcome will be. But postponing the issue of enlargement until the next summit in March would be catastrophic for Ukraine, a country which continues to fight against ruthless aggression.

It seems that with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s reluctance to work towards the priorities and uncertain future of countries like Serbia, the Western Balkans may not be of great importance to Brussels at the moment.

But Džihić doubts that Austria will stand in the way in the end. “It’s a small country. And they have already used their veto recently. They will only do it again if more countries join them,” he says.

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