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Belgrade Media Report 17 January 2020

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United Nations Office in Belgrade

Daily Media Highlights

Friday 17 January 2020
LOCAL PRESS

• Vucic congratulates Mishustin : I am certain we will continue development of friendly relations (RTS)
• Vucic: Elections to be held on 19 or 26 April (TV Prva/Tanjug/RTS)
• Djuric: Belgrade devoted to dialogue, the problem is in Pristina (RTV/Beta)
• Joksimovic: Candidate Countries Should Join Debate on New EU Enlargement Methodology (Beta)
• Cadez: Serbia, region can count on US support (Tanjug)

REGIONAL PRESS

Bosnia & Herzegovina
• Dodik, Ivantsov: Any changes to DPA would be death sentence for B&H (RTRS)
• Dodik: Sarajevo needs to return property of Serbian Orthodox Church (RTRS)
• National agreement required in B&H without international interventions (Srna)
• EU to present new methodology for accession of candidate countries and possible candidates to EU (Nezavisne)
Croatia
• Plenkovic on working visit to Germany (HRT)
Montenegro
• Visegrad group wants WB to take part in the discussion on Europe’s future (RSE)
Republic of North Macedonia
• Ahmeti says he was given an offer to partition Macedonia, but he rejected it (Republika)
• Interior Minister Culev discusses election preparations with members of the diplomatic corps (Republika)
Albania
• Commissioner Varhelyi: EU should open accession negotiations with Albania before the Zagreb summit (Radio Tirana)
• Elections in Serbia, Albanians in Presevo Valley united (ADN)

INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SOURCES

• Last Chance Saloon: Can the EU and Balkans be Reconciled in 2020? (BIRN)

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LOCAL PRESS

 

Vucic congratulates Mishustin : I am certain we will continue development of friendly relations (RTS)

 

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic extended his congratulation to the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Mikhail Mishustin on the occasion of assuming the post. “I am convinced that the confidence you are entrusted with will give you a strong determination to work decisively and with dedication to the benefit of your country and fraternal Russian people.

I am convinced that by working together we will continue to develop the centuries-long friendly relations between Serbia and Russia and between the Serbian and Russian people, adorned by unbreakable closeness and mutual understanding and respect. We are grateful to Russia for actively supporting our state and national interests, especially in the United Nations and other international organizations where Serbia strives to protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as its independence and libertarian tradition. Wishing you much success in your responsible office, as well as good health and happiness in your personal life, please accept the assurances of my highest consideration.” Vucic also sent a letter to the previous prime minister Dmitrii Medvedev, where he thanked him for his many years of good cooperation which he had with him as the prime minister and the president.

 

Vucic: Elections to be held on 19 or 26 April (TV Prva/Tanjug/RTS)

 

In an appearance on TV Prva, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was asked about the election date, to which he responded: “It is either 19 or 26 April, the latter being the more likely date.”

Vucic said today that if the Serbian Progressive Party, of which he is the leader, gains citizens’ trust in the upcoming elections, more than 60 percent of the party’s local officials will be replaced. “There will be big changes because after four, five or six years in power, new energy is needed,” said Vucic. He also said that there would be big changes in the Serbian government, which also happened after the previous parliamentary elections, but, as he said, not enough had been done. “I protect each of the ministers when they are attacked, sometimes I fight for them more strongly than they do for themselves, not because I won’t allow criticism of the government but because the government is doing a tough job,” said Vucic. Vucic also said that he believes that the capital of political parties is not in real estate, but in people. “The Serbian Progressive Party works systemically and systematically, we also have a youth academy within the SNS, precisely because we believe that they are the future,” said Vucic, and when asked if he thought that so many personnel changes would be risky, he replied: “I don’t care whether something is risky or not.” Vucic once again stressed his support for Serbs in Montenegro fighting for their Church, saying that this was an attack on the Serbian Orthodox Church, SPC, as a whole, not just on one metropolitanate. “They strive to erase the name of the Serbian Church in Montenegro, leaving only some metropolitanates and councils. That way somebody will try to calm the passions down there. What I said to Djukanovic and the people in the Church remains the same. I don’t prevent the Church expressing itself on national issues, but they can’t prevent me from express my opinion either,” said Vucic, adding that his relationship with Milo Djukanovic is decent but that he will not renounce his words. “It’s quite a decent relationship, as becomes two presidents. I will certainly not send tanks to Montenegro. But on the other hand, I have enough honor to say what the Serbian interests are down there. And our people are as many as 28 percent in Montenegro. They are trying to reduce their numbers, but they will not succeed,” said Vucic. The president said he expects nothing from the new Croatian president, Zoran Milanovic. “The only thing I want to see is what they can do for Serbs, and what we can do for Croats. We need to work with everyone,” says Vucic.

 

Djuric: Belgrade devoted to dialogue, the problem is in Pristina (RTV/Beta)

 

Belgrade is devoted to continuing its dialog with Pristina and all regional initiatives that would improve cooperation and trust between the societies and peoples of the Western Balkans, but at this time there is no political structure that shares these values in Pristina,” the Head of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija Marko Djuric has said in talks with Greece’s new Ambassador to Serbia Georgios Diakofotakis, whom he also briefed on the political and security situation in Kosovo and the problems of Serbs living there. Djuric said that the free flow of people, goods, services and capital are the tenets on which peace in modern day Europe exists which is why this model needs to be applied by the countries in the region so that there is permanent stabilization and an enhancement of relations. Djuric thanked the Ambassador for Greece’s principled support for Serbia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, a statement said.

 

Joksimovic: Candidate Countries Should Join Debate on New EU Enlargement Methodology (Beta)

 

Serbian Minister for European integration Jadranka Joksimovic stated during the meeting with the Belgian Ambassador to Serbia Kun Adam that countries that are EU member candidates and potential candidates should also be included in the debate about the new EU enlargement methodology. The negotiation process envisages a meeting of two political wills – of the EU and of countries that want to join it, Joksimovic said, as stated by the Serbian government.

Joksimovic said that Serbia would continue, with undiminished dedication, to fulfill the criteria needed for the continued process of accession, and that it knew what its obligations were.

She informed the Ambassador that Serbia, at this time, has four completed negotiation positions: 2 – freedom of movement for workers, 3 – right of establishment and freedom to provide services, 14 – transport policy and 21 – trans-European networks, the statement reads.

The Ambassador said that Belgium would continue to support a credible enlargement policy, adding that Belgium was carefully monitoring and participating in the debate about methodology, and expects a proposal from the new European Commission, the statement reads.

 

Cadez: Serbia, region can count on US support (Tanjug)

 

Serbia and the Western Balkans can count on support from US institutions and business associations when it comes to creating a single regional market and improving the business climate, Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Serbia (PKS) President Marko Cadez said Thursday after discussions in the US Congress, the Department of Commerce and a council for the IT industry. Cadez, who is on a three-day visit to Washington, said the support particularly applied to the Little Schengen initiative as well as to attracting new investors, opening a Serbian House in the Silicon Valley and to even better positioning of Serbia’s growing IT community on the US market. He said his discussion partners had commended the progress of the Serbian economy, economic growth, growth of investment and improved business conditions in the country, and in particular, the development of the ICT sector and the system of incentives for research and development. According to a statement from the PKS, digitalization of the economy and improvement of the education system in line with the contemporary needs of the labor market and the digital economy were also highlighted as examples of successful reforms.

 

REGIONAL PRESS

 

Dodik, Ivantsov: Any changes to DPA would be death sentence for B&H (RTRS)

 

Serb member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) Presidency Milorad Dodik met with Russian Ambassador to B&H Petr Ivantsov. They discussed the political situation in B&H and the region and stressed that relations between B&H and Russia need to be improved. Dodik stated that any changes to the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) would be the death sentence for B&H. He said that it is not realistic to change the DPA at any international forum. Dodik further noted that the international community, via High Representatives, did everything to demolish this agreement which, according to Dodik, has been degraded to a significant extent. “The Dayton Agreement has already been degraded to a significant extent and it was not done as requested and that is for it to be an agreement of two entities and three constituent peoples. Those who believe that possible inclusion in the agenda at some international forum would mean that their goals will be complied with are delusional,” Dodik underlined.

 

Dodik: Sarajevo needs to return property of Serbian Orthodox Church (RTRS)

 

Metropolitan Hrizostom of Dabar-Bosnia hosted a Christmas reception in Sarajevo on Thursday, stressing that precondition to every peace is good will among the people. Metropolitan Hrizostom specifically addressed the issue of failure to return usurped property to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Hrizostom stressed that failure to return confiscated and usurped property of churches and religious communities continues to violate basic human and religious rights, recalling that a restitution law, which was prepared more than 15 years ago, is now kept locked in drawers of B&H bureaucracy. “Not only that the building of our Sarajevo seminary has not been returned, it is being largely exploited economically. We want to believe and we express hope that the current B&H Presidency and the B&H Parliament will finally put the issue of adoption of a restitution law on the agenda of its activities,” Metropolitan Hrizostom told the Christmas reception in Sarajevo. Serb member of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik agreed that this issue has to be resolved, assessing that the Christmas reception shows that BiH has potential to respect different religions, but that it nevertheless remains in the shadow of the fact that property has not been returned to the Serbian Church and that facilities that are worth millions of BAM are retained by the Federation of B&H and cantonal authorities. “This speaks of Sarajevo’s attitude towards the Serbian Orthodox Church, which is catastrophically bad, which cannot show that this city is multi-ethnic because it does not respect the fundamental right, which is the right of religious communities to property,” Dodik stressed. Dodik reminded that this request is repeated every year during the Christmas reception and nothing has been done in order to solve this. Dodik reminded that the international community did nothing to solve this issue. He stressed that during the times when the international community illegally decided on such things, they still avoided this particular issue. Dodik stressed that Sarajevo cannot carry the epithet of a city that respects everyone’s rights until this is solved.

 

National agreement required in B&H without international interventions (Srna)

 

Serb member of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik stated in Sarajevo today that US President Donald Trump could help B&H by enabling B&H peoples to reach an agreement without international interventions. “Trump has said on several occasions that the sovereignty of states should be strengthened and that America will not interfere in internal affairs,” Dodik told the press, answering the question whether he expected a new US policy toward B&H after receiving greetings card from Trump. Dodik recalled that US policy was initially correct, supporting the Dayton Accords and B&H made up of two entities and three constituent peoples, which got deformed through the pressures by the administration to provide criminal support to the High Representative to amend the Dayton Peace Agreement. “It is not a credit to the US. We see that, regardless of their desire to make B&H a unitary state, it failed as a concept,” Dodik told the press. Dodik recalls that he has supported Trump since the presidential elections, while federal Sarajevo supported Hillary Clinton, saying that all Serbs living in the USA, who have the right to vote, should support Trump during the second presidential elections. “We believe that his attitude towards respect for the rights of the peoples will be respected,” Dodik emphasized, adding that as a Serb member of the B&H Presidency, he received a greetings card from the Trump family signed by Trump himself, his wife and son. He noted that he also received greetings cards from Russian President Vladimir Putin and others, thanking them for such appreciation. Asked why regional leaders did not come to B&H and whether the newly elected President of Croatia, Zoran Milanovic, would be invited, Dodik said that B&H was producing more problems than it could solve, “which probably annoyed regional leaders”. Dodik believes that B&H needs to show more respect for regional issues and, with less arrogance, to resolve issues such as the Peljesac Bridge, defining the borders with Serbia and many other outstanding issues. “It is very difficult to come up with a solution in B&H. We thought that the Council of Ministers issue had been solved, but now we see it is not,” Dodik said. Dodik reminded that the presidents of Montenegro and Serbia, Milo Djukanovic аnd Aleksandar Vucic, were coming to B&H, but did not know why some regional leaders were not. “Congratulations to Milanovic. Whether he will come to B&H or not is his business, and I don’t mind him coming,” Dodik stressed.

 

EU to present new methodology for accession of candidate countries and possible candidates to EU (Nezavisne)

 

The daily noted that the new methodology for accession of candidate countries and possible candidates to the EU will be presented in the upcoming period of time, most likely by the end of January. As President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen said, a new plan will also be presented to “friends in the Western Balkans” and she especially pointed out Albania and North Macedonia in this context. The daily learned unofficially that the first serious discussion within the EU on the topic of enlargement will take place during March Summit of European leaders and, after that, all details will be clarified during the Summit on the Western Balkans in Zagreb in May this year. The Summit was recently mentioned by Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plekovic, who said that the enlargement and continuation of journey of North Macedonia and Albania will be one of priorities during Croatia’s presidency over the EU. Plenkovic added that each of the candidates will have to be assessed individually in line with results they achieved. Researcher from the Faculty of Social Science in Ljubljana Faris Kocan commented on possible criteria and said that he expects there will be at least four separate pillars – gradual connecting, possibility of re-opening of chapters i.e. returning of a country to a previous stage should there be regression, stricter preconditions to advance to a next stage and access to structural funds of the EU for implementation of defined reforms. Kocan added that he is aware of the fact that the EU’s credibility has been weakened but he noted that it is possible to create a new momentum in European integration should the improved methodology is proven successful. “This is the priority for the new European Commission which, in light of growing global challenges and non-liberal foreign policy operations of US, Russia, Turkey and China in the region, must respond and offer an institutional, security, economic and political safety to the Western Balkans,” Kocan concluded.

 

Plenkovic on working visit to Germany (HRT)

 

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic was received in Berlin by German Chancellor Angela Merkel while on a working visit to Germany. Chancellor Merkel said Croatia’s mandate at the head of the Council of the European Union was extremely important and that they were heavily invested in Croatia’s success since Germany would be assuming the role immediately afterwards. “Today we discussed our bilateral relations, which are very good. Three million vacationers from Germany visited Croatia last year. We also have a lot of Croatian citizens here in Germany who act as a bridge of sorts between our two countries. We also work together very closely economically,” said Merkel. Plenkovic said that over the past thirty years Germany had been Croatia’s greatest partner, in both a political and economic sense. “Our bilateral trade will exceed 6 billion Euros sometime this year. Germany is one of the top investors in Croatia, and many of our people live and work in Germany,” he concluded. Merkel also addressed Croatia’s plans to join the Schengen Area, saying that “Croatia has achieved much success on the road to the Schengen area, and I can say that they have made great progress towards the final accession to the Schengen area.”

For his part, Plenkovic confirmed that Croatia had received a very clear recommendation from the European Commission that all criteria for joining the Schengen area had been achieved last year. He then touched upon the country’s strategy for the introduction of the euro single currency, saying there were two paths ahead for Croatia: the Schengen area and the Euro zone. Furthermore, Plenkovic attended the inauguration of the 85th International Green Week, a major food and agricultural fair featuring 1,800 exhibitors from more than 60 countries. Croatia is this year’s partner-country.

 

Visegrad group wants WB to take part in the discussion on Europe’s future (RSE)

 

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, suggested in Prague, that prime ministers of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria request Brussels to discuss future of the EU. Prime Ministers of the Visegrad Four accepted it gladly. “I suggested (Czech) Prime Minister Babis invites WB countries to attend the conference on the future of Europe because they care about European future too” said at the press conference Orban. He expressed satisfaction with the fact that prime ministers of V4 had defined some key issues related to cooperation, climate policy, security and suppression of illegal migration. “Conference on the future of the EU lies ahead. I welcome Orban’s suggestion that WB countries should also take part in the discussion as their future belongs to the EU too”, said Slovakia’s Prime Minister, Peter Pelegrini. In the V4 plus format, Prime Ministers of the Visegrad four and Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, discussed climate policy and the way in which mid-European region and states whose industries depended on the coal and dirty technologies would modernize their economies and reach climate neutrality.

Czech PM, Babis and Slovakia’s Pelegrini, pointed out that they counted on the upgrade of nuclear plants in reaching climate neutrality. Pelegrini warned that achieving climate neutrality should be implemented in a socially just manner, without jeopardizing peace in coal-dependent regions. Visegrad 4 Prime Ministers agreed that migration quotas are past and that members states had right to decide who would live Europe. They stated that Europe had to stop illegal migration at outer borders and that all V4 states were ready to support states in the southern Europe that are subject to migration waves.

 

Ahmeti says he was given an offer to partition Macedonia, but he rejected it (Republika)

 

DUI party leader Ali Ahmeti said that he received offers to partition Macedonia along ethnic lines, but rejected them, considering the high toll the move would exact on the country. Ahmeti was the commander of the terrorist UCK/NLA organization which sparked a civil war in Macedonia in 2001, killing hundreds. Ahmeti said that the offer was made to him by “high officials”. Any partition would be very harmful for the Albanians but also the Macedonians. There would’ve been minorities left on the other side here and there and new wounds would open. We did not accept this, and now we have our national symbols and language and we achieved our goals, Ahmeti said, making a pitch to the Albanian voters ahead of the April 12 elections. In an earlier interview in 2014, Ahmeti said that the offer included giving Tetovo, Gostivar, Debar, Kicevo and Lipkovo to the Albanian entity, which would lead to removing 60.000 Macedonians from these cities. Ahmeti is trying to present the latest concessions given to him by former Prime Minister Zoran Zaev as major victories for the Albanian cause in Macedonia, while opposition ethnic Albanian parties insist that more could be gained. The DUI leader rejected the idea of a pre-election coalition with Zaev’s SDSM party, who is now competing with him for the Albanian vote.

 

Interior Minister Culev discusses election preparations with members of the diplomatic corps (Republika)

 

The interim Interior Minister Nake Culev held a series of meetings with diplomatic representatives in Macedonia, to discuss the upcoming early general elections and the police preparations to ensure they run smoothly. Culev met with the ambassadors of Hungary, the Netherlands, Croatia and the Czech Republic, as well as the head of the NATO mission in Macedonia. “We concluded that the only alternative for the Republic of Macedonia is securing membership in the European Union, which needs to be validated through holding fair and democratic elections,” Culev said after his meeting with the Dutch Ambassador Dirk Jan Kop.

During his meeting with Ambassador Laszlo Istvan Dux, Minister Culev expressed his gratitude for the help Hungary extended to Macedonia in securing our border with Greece during the migrant crisis in 2015 and 2016.

 

Commissioner Varhelyi: EU should open accession negotiations with Albania before the Zagreb summit (Radio Tirana)

 

EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, who is on a visit to Tirana, said in a joint statement with Prime Minister Edi Rama that Albania aims to open negotiations before the Zagreb summit, which will be held in May 2020. Commissioner Varhelyi said the European Commission’s report on Albania continues to be equivalent, praising the country as ready to open negotiations with the Union. “As you know, the enlargement process and the Western Balkans are priorities for us. We want to increase our presence here. We want to be an even more important partner for the region. For this I will work hard with you Prime Minister to make this possible. For us, the EC report continues to be valuable. We continue to evaluate Albania as ready for the opening of negotiations. We want to do it before the Zagreb summit. It will be a new methodology for EU negotiations. The fact that the negotiations were not opened has been of concern to some member states. We need to look at these concerns carefully. We are working to find a solution that creates a new opportunity to move forward with the enlargement process. It is crucial to continue with the reforms. Today the Prime Minister spoke about a new element. It is imperative to keep up with the reforms.  All political parties must help to make this a reality. Without the support of all parties there can be no progress,” said Varhelyi.

 

Elections in Serbia, Albanians in Presevo Valley united (ADN)

 

Albania’s Acting Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Gent Cakaj conducted on Thursday meeting with political representatives of Southern Serbia’s Presevo Valley, in Albania’s capital, Tirana. This meeting focused on Albanian political parties creating a common list for upcoming parliamentary elections in Serbia, which will carry the mane “Albanian democratic Alternative – United Valley”. Meanwhile, the parties signed “Agreement on the creation of a joint electoral list of Albanian political subjects for the parliamentary elections in the Republic of Serbia” which marks the uniting of parties for the highest representation and most powerful position from Serbia’s parliamentary elections. However, at the joint press conference, Cakaj appraised reaching of this agreement and added that this joint list will have an irreplaceable function in raising many concerns, which Valley’s Albanians face. “This list will have irreplaceable function in the raising of a wide range of concerns, which Albanians of the Valley face, starting from education in Albanian, free and open use of national symbols, as well as the increase of representation in state institutions,” said Cakaj.

 

INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SOURCES

 

Last Chance Saloon: Can the EU and Balkans be Reconciled in 2020? (BIRN, by Srecko Latal, 16 January 2020)

 

A new enlargement strategy that the EU will craft in 2020 may be the bloc’s last chance to re-establish its presence in the Balkans and prevent a new crisis that would threaten the whole of Europe.

Annoyed by each other’s recurring deceits and preoccupied with their respective internal problems, the EU and the Balkans have been drifting apart for years. Their dishonest and lethargic relationship was effectively put on ice in 2018; the Balkans was increasingly nervous and rowdy, while the EU was playing hard-to-get. The countries of the Balkans looked elsewhere, dating other, more interested suitors like Russia, Turkey, China and the Gulf states, but while the EU jealously objected it still refused to offer either immediate, concrete benefits or any guarantees for eventual future reengagement. The ordeal fuelled frustrations and anger on both sides, reaching breaking point in 2019 when French President Emmanuel Macron declared the nuptials officially off until both sides resolved their own internal issues. Other EU member countries rushed to reassure the Balkans that Macron did not really mean it, that they could still live happily ever after as one. Yet it was clear to both sides that this was just a face-saving gesture and that no one could say for sure whether, when and under which conditions the EU and the Balkans would be reconciled. Many feared this really was the end of the EU-Balkan love affair; even more, they feared what the consequences might be. The fate of the EU-Balkan engagement now depends on the result of the EU’s expected makeover, which should also include a reform of its enlargement approach, and on whether the Balkans will remain faithful and stay away from trouble until the process is finalised. And the process has already started –in November, when France circulated its “non-paper” calling for “a renewed approach to the accession process,” while still offering “unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan.” Yet it’s four core principles – gradual association, more stringent conditions, more tangible benefits and reversibility of the enlargement process – as well as some of the details, were perceived by many EU and Balkan officials alike as more of an excuse to finally and officially kill the engagement rather than an honest attempt to save it.

 

European Commission’s mission impossible

Following the French proposal the European Commission was given the difficult task of putting together a new enlargement strategy for the Balkans, which is due to be unveiled by the end of January 2020. In the meantime, Austria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Slovenia circulated their own non-paper in December, stressing that “internal EU reform cannot be a precondition for enlargement” and concluding that the EU “door remains open”. The document called for more “effective and targeted financial incentives” and much-needed improvement to communication with the region. However, many pundits believe that its proposal to group negotiation chapters into key areas is unrealistic due to the limited political readiness and technical capacity of Balkan governments. Several other EU experts and think tanks have also circulated their proposals for urgent changes to the enlargement process. This represents a true ‘mission impossible’ for the Commission which – in less than two months spanning the Christmas holidays – is supposed to square the EU-Balkan circle and find the silver bullet that has for so long evaded numerous EU institutions, officials, leaders and countries. The Commission’s proposal will be discussed at the EU Summit in March and then at the Balkan Summit in Zagreb in May. By that time, EU and Balkan leaders should reach agreement on a way forward, or so officials hope. This new enlargement approach could easily be the last chance for the EU to reconnect with the Balkans and save its tarnished image and weakened leverage in the region. It could also easily be the last chance for the Balkans to peacefully resolve and gradually transform its growing internal ethnic, political, economic and social tensions and problems. Yet most Western and Balkan officials alike remain pessimistic as to the Commission’s capacity to produce something that would lead to a true breakthrough.

 

One enlargement, two conflicting views

The core of the problem in the EU-Balkan relationship lies in divergent, even conflicting views of what enlargement is, or rather what it should become. Ever since the region’s enlargement perspective was officially launched at the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, Balkan countries – still licking their wounds from the violent breakup of former Yugoslavia – saw their eventual EU membership more as a tool for national and political rather than economic and social stability. Jobs, investments and the common market – which enlargement promised – were all very important for the peoples of the Balkans and their leaders. But even more important for them was the fact that only EU borders were wide enough to accommodate those Albanians, Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs, Turks and other Balkan ethnic groups who were determined to live within the same borders as their ethnic kin. Only the EU was able to mimic former Yugoslavia and gradually neutralise and transform the region’s nationalist ghosts and enable them to peacefully co-exist once again within the same boundaries. Without this perspective, the Balkans seemed doomed to continue spiralling backwards towards ethnic tensions and possibly even new conflicts. This understanding was very much in the minds of EU decision-makers in the early 2000s. At that time, European countries were haunted by the still-fresh memories of the Balkan wars and the price EU countries paid in the lives of their soldiers and billions of euros of taxpayers’ money for failing to prevent the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. It was this realisation that was the main driving force behind the Thessaloniki Summit; European leaders understood that fast-track membership for all Balkan countries was a key prerequisite for Balkan and European stability. Yet the new faces who gradually took over the management of EU institutions and member countries have in subsequent years misplaced this crucial institutional memory. The subsequent global recession and more recent internal problems – BREXIT, right-wing populism, rule of law issues, migration – saw most EU member countries turn inwards to confront their own challenges rather than those of the EU as a whole. Along the way, many EU leaders and officials grew to believe that the EU had lost more than it had gained by taking in the likes of Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia, and pledged not to make the same mistake again with the rest of the Balkans. The newly rediscovered selfishness of EU states did not only threaten continued enlargement, but it also undermined the very foundations upon which the EU was built. So it seemed that the EU has misplaced its own institutional memory and has forgotten that the European Coal and Steel Community – the first EU organisation established in 1951 – was not established because of jobs or the common market, but to prevent another war between France and Germany.

 

Missing the woods for the trees

By 2019, the EU had become so focused on the trees that it completely lost the sight of the wood and the memories of its importance for the Union. What was once the key strategic mechanism for long-term stability of the entire continent became a lame tactic used to keep the Balkans at bay. In the process, the EU became even more stringent in focusing on bureaucratic procedures and administrative reforms, which then further diminished the EU’s already weak political and economic presence in the region. As enlargement lost its importance for the EU, the Union’s growing detachment from the Balkans and its mounting internal problems made it less important and attractive for Balkan leaders. Nevertheless, many Balkan residents still remain hopeful of eventual EU membership, fearing that any alternative will be much worse. Yet their leaders heard the EU message loud and clear and started pondering alternative options. In the eyes of these leaders, these alternative options – in a world buffeted by new Cold War-style divisions and growing ethnic, political, economic and social tensions – required alliances with other regional or global powers, such as the United States, Russia, Turkey, China or Gulf states. Yet the growing rivalries among these powers, as well as their often conflicting interests – which may or may not dovetail with the interests of the Balkans – are now only adding fuel to the region’s simmering fires and threatening destabilisation once more. This stark difference in the perception of enlargement between the EU and the Balkans has been one of the main reasons why the attempts of various EU officials to overhaul the enlargement strategy all failed miserably.

 

Squaring the EU circle

Most of these attempts focussed on changes to the technicalities of the process, such as the sequence of EU moves. They failed to change the context and address the main flaw in the EU approach – the fact that the EU has forgotten about how important and devastating the Balkans can be for EU’s own stability. As long as the Union remains in denial about the Balkans’ – as well as its own – recent turbulent past, the fragile region and the entire continent will continue slipping towards turmoil and chaos. Yet a new enlargement strategy needs to take into account not only the reality on the ground in the Balkans, but also the reality on the ground in the EU, and the fact that hardly any EU member country would in the foreseeable future get the green light from its people to accept new member(s) into the EU family. So even those European leaders who favour continuation of enlargement have their options limited by their constituencies. The only way for the EU to resolve this conundrum is to create a new, two-speed enlargement strategy. The long-term one would reaffirm the accession of the Balkans at some distant future date and focus on long-termf reforms such as education and rule of law. In the meantime, the short-term track would focus on more immediate deliverables that could relatively quickly re-establish EU leverage in the region while at the same time stabilising and winning back the Balkans. This approach would require concrete and relevant projects in key areas, mainly in infrastructure, such as transportation and clean(er) energy; Greenfield investments that would create new jobs; and the direct involvement of EU institutions and agencies in the fight against all-pervading corruption. Both long and short-term tracks would have to urgently abandon the so-called “Balkan regatta” approach which in recent years only exacerbated already tense relations among Balkan countries. They would also have to take into account the dramatically weakened technical capacity of all Balkan governments and institutions which, even if they rediscover their political willingness for reform, will not allow them to tackle more than one or two difficult reforms at the same time. This means that instead of further complicating already confusing reform requirements and opening of different chapters at the same time, the EU would have to prepare a country-by-country road map and be prepared to do some hand-holding, especially in the initial phase. These activities would help in restoring the EU’s presence in the Balkans, which would stabilise the region and buy the Union some time to undertake its own internal restructuring. The EU’s own future reform of itself should also be done while taking into account enlargement to the Balkans, especially if the idea of a ‘multi-speed EU’ gains traction and which would easily accommodate the Balkans as one of EU’s circles. While this all indeed seems like a proper ‘mission impossible’, the EU undoubtedly has the capacity to pull it off. The only thing that the EU needs to remember is its own turbulent past as well as the lessons of the 90s and the fact that although the relationship with the Balkans is indeed difficult and taxing, it is worth it. Without a stable and prosperous Balkan peninsula, there can be no stable and prosperous Europe. As in any other relationship, mutual consent and shared interests are required if the EU and the Balkans are to live happily ever after.

Srecko Latal is a journalist, editor and analyst who has been covering the Balkans since the 1990s. The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

 

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