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The Reluctant West is Needed in the Balkans

With undemocratic powers hustling for influence in the Western Balkans, the region needs EU and US commitment – but Brussels and Washington seem reluctant to offer it wholeheartedly.

Adnan Huskić, external collaborator

Originally published by BIRN


Debates on the rising influences by a set of new actors on Western Balkans mostly point to the apparent vacuum created by the declining presence of the EU and the US over the last decade as one of the main reasons for their emergence.

To give a sense of results of this process, one can mention Russia’s meddling in domestic affairs and support for right-wing nationalists in Macedonia, an outright attempt to topple the pro-NATO government in Montenegro, an election rally by Turkey’s President Erdogan in Bosnia organised in spite of bans on such rallies by most Western governments, or the surge in Chinese-financed (and implemented) infrastructure projects that lure investment-hungry governments into Beijing’s embrace.

Speaking in 2014, the then-new president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, echoed the general sentiment in Europe when he said that the commission would not focus on enlargement.

The popularity of an enlargement policy has been in steady decline since the economic crisis of 2008 and the rise of the extreme right and political populists in Europe.

Given the general political situation and slow pace of progress in meeting the EU’s requirements by the countries of the Western Balkans, Juncker’s statement, though factually correct, was politically unwise.

Living up to his promise, the European Commission abolished its exclusive enlargement portfolio and merged it with ‘neighbourhood policy’, which is designed for countries in the immediate neighbourhood of the EU which do not have a membership perspective.

The vacuum left by the EU was quickly filled by Russia, Turkey, Gulf states and China to the dismay of the West, especially the EU. Soon it became clear that the EU must reclaim its prominent role in the region.

New ‘credible’ strategy
This renewed and reinvigorated approach , signifying the EU’s return to the Western Balkans, first materialised in the new “credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans” strategy, which was published in February 2018.

For those unfamiliar with semantic acrobatics that the EU frequently uses to cover for the absence of meaningful content, this document could have been interpreted as not only the EU’s return to the Western Balkans but a rather substantial shift in its approach to the region.

But the events described below paint a slightly different picture.

For even an ever-shrinking numbers of Europhiles and EU optimists in the region (the author humbly counts himself as one) are beginning to realise that the EU’s excuse for not paying attention to the Western Balkans because of being consumed by internal problems represents a serious miscalculation. Global competitors of the West are gaining a strategic foothold in the Balkans, and regardless of its shape or form in the future, the EU can ill afford to ignore this.

Discord among member states
Labelling the official strategy document as ‘credible’ was meant to emphasise the serious character and underline the strength of the union’s commitment. At the same time, it seems to imply that the documents (read: commitments) that came before were actually not that credible. The first field test of the new strategy was much anticipated Sofia Summit in May 2018.

Bulgaria’s decision to place the focus of its EU Presidency on the Western Balkans deserves commendations, yet the discord among member states over the content of the new strategy managed to cast a long shadow over it.

The first EU- Western Balkans Summit since the famous Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, which articulated the European perspective for the region, was overshadowed by relatively pointless bickering between member states over the dynamics of enlargement laid out in the strategy. While some member states argued that none of the countries can realistically meet the dates set, others argued the contrary, wanting a faster pace of integration instead.

What came out of it in the end was the public watering-down of the already very vague EU commitment towards the Western Balkans.

Failure to deliver
If Sofia Summit revealed serious differences between member states concerning enlargement, at the EU Council meeting in June 2018, the Western Balkans fell victim to internal debates on the future of the EU and the domestic political considerations of member states.

Taking place in the aftermath of a breakthrough in the three-decades-old ‘name’ dispute between Macedonia and Greece and the electoral victory of a progressive and pro-Western government in Skopje, the EU Council meeting was supposed to recognise these achievements by granting Macedonia (and Albania) a date for the beginning of membership negotiations.

Awarding a date is a political, not a technical issue, and it would have helped solidify the support that the new Skopje government enjoys and give an additional impetus to its EU and NATO membership bids. Even Greece, which until then had blocked Macedonia’s progress in various international forums, lobbied heavily for Macedonia to be awarded a start date. Yet the much-anticipated decision failed to materialise.

France and the Netherlands, along with Denmark, strongly opposed giving the green light for a start of membership negotiations, stating the need for further reforms in tackling corruption and organised crime. Although reforms certainly are necessary, the postponement of the decision about the beginning of negotiations left many observers stunned.

Concerns about reforms could easily have been addressed by setting concrete benchmarks for progress and making the opening of individual chapters conditional upon fulfilling these. Granting both countries a date could have hardly jeopardised the European elections in 2019 or stalled the already non-existent progress in negotiating the future of the European projects, as France feared.
Given the volatility of the political situation in Skopje, where two political poles – one pro-Western with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, and another pro-Russian – are pitted against one another, the new government could certainly make use of good news from Brussels. The Macedonian government enjoys a marginal majority of support and will have to face even greater obstacles as the name change process enters a more heated and politically challenging phase. Still, the EU failed to deliver.

For a long time, the message from Brussels to the countries of the Western Balkans was that the EU needs positive stories from the region in order to keep the enlargement perspective afloat. But Macedonia offered a positive story and, as the Hungarian EU Minister Szabolcs Takacs said, “the EU failed to reward taking political risks to reach difficult agreements”.

Brexiters overshadow Balkans
European politicians talked about the Western Balkans again at the London Summit in July this year, as part of the Berlin Process, a diplomatic initiative designed to maintain the impetus of the relatively stalled enlargement process. But some observers have begun to question whether continuing the Berlin Process makes sense at all. In London, British politicians stole the spotlights reserved for the countries of Western Balkans amidst the Brexit turmoil.

First, Brexit Minister David Davis resigned the day before the summit officially began, followed one day later by his Brexiter colleague, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. The Western Balkans, understandably, remained out of the limelight.

The shape of things to come
What happened at these three events points to the conclusion that the situation in the region is probably going to deteriorate in the period ahead.

The power of the EU, reinforced by its increased presence in virtually every sphere, could halt and reverse negative trends in the region. People in the Western Balkans need an EU that insists on the values and principles of liberal democracy, the rule of law, respect for minorities, open borders, and an ever closer (and wider) Union.

But the EU of today seems utterly unable to sustain and project this image.

With the EU unable/unwilling at this stage to provide the necessary impetus and guidance in the region, NATO managed to partially fill in for the EU’s absence by inviting Macedonia to begin membership talks conditional upon the successful resolution of name dispute.

Yet the recent comments the US President Trump who described the EU as “a foe” and labelled the newest NATO member, Montenegro, “aggressive”  brought into question US commitment to the mutual defence clause contained in Article Five of the NATO Charter.

There is no reason to assume that either the EU or the US intend to shift their focus back to the region at any foreseeable time. With this, the stage is set for the stronger presence of alternative and emerging powers, who among other things seek to reshape the global order to their liking. 

And if suspicions from the recent article in the Financial Times, which suggested that the US might be heading in the same direction, prove correct, the Western Balkans might find itself once again in the middle of global realignment.

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