Western Balkans as dinner topic for European diplomacy

During the EU Summit, most of the discussions centered around Poland, but, in the evening, during dinner, the focus shifted on the Western Balkan countries.

“We cannot discuss only Poland”, said one of the EU diplomats following the first day of the EU Summit in Brussels. “There are more pressing problems, and one of them is certainly the developments in the Balkans”. Head of states and the governments have been talking about the situation with our southern neighbours during dinner. The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini had just returned from her tour of the Western Balkans, and during dinner, talked about the gravity of the situation there. She talked about Russia which had been trying to solidify its influence on the local governments, ethnic groups and decision makers. On Monday, when meeting with one of the EU foreign ministers, Mogherini was quoted as saying: “I saw a region that is burdened by tension and challenges now more than ever”.

The Balkans could be a chess board with superpowers as players – Mogherini warned. “The concern is great. Moscow’s goal is probably to weaken the ties between the region and the EU, and to portray Russia as an alternative to the EU that is falling apart”. When speaking at the Serbian National Parliament last week, the EU foreign policy chief was booed by the anti-EU MPs. She felt on her own skin that Europe had strong opponents in the Balkans too. MPs from the Serbian Radical Party were shouting at her “Russia, Russia”, and Mogherini could barely utter a word.  

Goal: Becoming an EU member one day

Heads of EU states and governments (Poland excluded) reacted to Mogherini’s word with “unlimited support” to the European future of the six Balkan states. All of these states should join the EU, in order of their development level. “We keep our word”, said the newly elected president of the European Council, Donald Tusk. The EU diplomats were clear about a country as fragile as Bosnia and Herzegovina being allowed to join at a much later date. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the situation in those countries “was complicated” and added: “We have decided to provide even more support to them in order to boost the chances of those countries having a future in the EU.”

“We have neglected the Balkans”, one of the EU diplomats, knowledgeable about the region, complained prior to the summit. Because of the numerous crises in the EU, migration problem and the Ukraine conflict, the Balkan countries have been referred to only as “the Balkan route” or “the transit route” in the last two years. Macedonia is still experiencing a difficult political crisis, Serbia will not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state (despite most EU countries doing so and Russia refusing), and the activities of the national parliament in Montenegro have been stopped. Furthermore, there was a coup d’état attempt in Montenegro last year which had been apparently spurred on by Russia. Russia is also against Montenegro joining NATO. In Bosnia, the Republic of Srpska has been threatening with the secession from the federal state.

Although the heads of EU states and governments did not point their finger directly at Russia in their statement, “everybody knew which country they were talking about”, an EU diplomat said. Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern pleaded with his EU counterparts not to allow the Balkans to become a vacuum. The US has been obviously slowly withdrawing from the area which presents Russia with an opportunity to position itself much better.

EU is frustrated

Twenty years after the civil wars in the Balkans, the European Union is frustrated with the nationalistic outbursts in neighbouring countries. Ethnic conflicts in the region, as one of the EU diplomats lamented, are still not resolved. Three years ago, the EU hosted “The Western Balkan Conference” which took place in Berlin, Vienna and Paris. The conference was supposed to enable the Balkan countries to establish closer ties to the EU, and to facilitate dialogue between the EU candidate countries. This year, the conference will take place in Italy. The British PM Theresa May said in Brussels that, despite Brexit, Great Britain would continue to be active in the Balkans, and even host a Western Balkan Summit in 2018.

The European Union wants the Western Balkan states to maintain good neighbourly relations, and promises to support them in their all-encompassing reforms. The number one goal is to support the institutions that respect the rule of law and economic development. This year, Serbia will receive financial support in the amount of 215 million EUR, Kosovo will receive 92 million EUR, Albania also 92 million EUR, Macedonia 95 million EUR, Montenegro 40 million EUR, and Bosnia and Herzegovina 44 million EUR. President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker was quoted as saying that none of the said Balkan countries would join the EU while he was in the office. At this moment, the EU is more preoccupied with Great Britain exiting the Union.

By Bernd Rigert

(Deutsche Welle, 11.03.2017)


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