Blog Post by Emil Kirjas, Founder of Kirjas Global, Vice President of Liberal International
Under the Slovenian presidency, on 6 October near Ljubljana, the leaders of the EU will meet meeting their counterparts from the 6 non-EU countries from Southeast Europe for EU Western Balkans Summit. This will be the first meeting of that nature, in person, after the 2018 Sofia Summit, given that the 2020 Zagreb Summit was in virtual format due to the pandemic constraint. A possibility for a new fresh start, one would think.
A plate full of issues
A lot of things have happened since the Sofia meeting. The Covid pandemic created cracks in the EU-WB relations, as the citizens in the region saw themselves isolated from the common EU response at the start of the pandemic and were tremendously delayed in receiving the needed vaccines. The promised Kosovo visa liberalisation process never happened, while North Macedonia found itself stunned now by a Bulgarian veto blocking the start of the accession talks. Albania has been left to wait for North Macedonia. Montenegro and Serbia have stalled in the process. Bosnia and Herzegovina are not even close to the formal start of the accession talks.
The citizens look at the EU with even greater suspicion given the two Eastern Balkan states – members of the EU – Romania and Bulgaria are in decade-long limbo for their accession to Schengen. A lot of things have accumulated on the EU’s plate for Southeast Europe. Next to the question of the fulfilment of criteria, even to a bystander, it is obvious that there is a clear political deadlock. Such situations call for leadership and solutions, not for further delays of the accumulated matters.
With so many matters to be resolved, the tensions in the region are constantly on the rise and the public support for the EU membership is reaching record lows. That is not good news for the Union which is challenged by other emboldened geopolitical actors. Turkey has challenged the EU both in the eastern and the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Belarus, with full backing of Putin’s Russia, has abducted an EU plane flying between two EU capitals. China behaviour during the pandemic and in the South China Sea questions the international liberal order.
In the last month alone, the Europeans have found themselves stunned by an irrevocable US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan allow its fall to the extremist Taliban, as well as a surprise announcement by Australia, Britain and the US about AUKUS strategic alliance in the Indo-Pacific, by arming Australia with US nuclear submarines, a place with conventional European submarines.
Enlargement: Yes or No?
In preparation for the EU Western Balkans Summit diplomats have been working on the joint declaration as crown of the event. What seemed obvious since the 2003 Thessaloniki Agenda when the region was promised full integration in the EU, according to Reuters report, suddenly faced opposition from four countries. The report alleged that the EU can no longer align itself to guarantee the future membership of the six Balkan countries. The timing of the report completely overshadows the ongoing visit of the EC President Ursula von der Layen to the region.
It seems that at the forthcoming summit in Slovenia the EU will offer disappointing rhetoric to the region. Apparently, the word “enlargement” is the issue. The same word for which the Union has a directorate, a commissioner and for which there is an ongoing process, based on earlier decisions and commitments. Such attitude of the European Union towards the Western Balkans is worrying and disappointing. Instead of showing initiative and proactive attitude on a global scale, the Union is constantly putting itself in a defensive role.
The EU is putting a thorn in its side, inventing problems with its public opinion for which the integration of the Western Balkans is of minor importance, presenting itself globally as an incompetent actor even in its closest neighbourhood, which surrounds it territorially. The other geopolitical actors interested in the Balkans will not miss the opportunity to take advantage of the growing EU disappointment in the region. In response to the ongoing geopolitical slaps, to put it mildly, the EU should react with an aggressive positive and proactive approach to Southeast Europe, consolidating its territory with measures for rapid integration of the Western Balkans within the Union.
There is no time for drowsiness and even impotence in the EU policy towards the Western Balkans as it will cost the EU much more than hundreds of millions of euros in damage with the rapid evacuation from Afghanistan or tens of billions lost with deals announced under AUKUS. EU cannot forget its most important and most successful historical lesson that investing in prevention and integration is the best possible cut for the continent. As if it is not clear that the geopolitical position of the EU today would be way worse if the enlargements of the first decade of this century had not taken place.
All eyes on Paris: a golden chance to show leadership
EU continuous failure to meet what has been earlier agreed, be it on Kosovo visa liberalization or North Macedonia accession talks or generally on the promised enlargement would be a strategic mistake. It is not so much up to the Netherlands and Denmark, and even less to Bulgaria. The attention in on French President Emmanuel Macron, who will take over the EU presidency ahead of the French elections. He will either show determination and leadership for the Union, especially for the accelerated integration of the Western Balkans, for which the French may reward him with a new term, or he will continue to inflict geopolitical defeats, hold protest speeches, and withdraw ambassadors.
If the glass is seen as half full, not half empty, as it is now, in fact, the Western Balkans is a golden chance for Macron and for France and the EU. Now it is time to show the EU’s capacity to address the not-so-difficult problems in the region by setting a clear message for a quick and time-determined EU membership.
Such an approach will relax the tense relations in the region, will give motivation for quick solution of the bilateral problems, and will offer a new impetus for the domestic reform processes. It would be unfortunate – or rather very dangerous – for Europeans, whether they are in the EU or not, if that chance was missed at the EU Western Balkans summit in Slovenia.