The regular autumn meeting of the European Council (EC) shall be held on 17th and 18th October in Brussels. Although the importance of meeting of the EU leaders is focused on Brexit on October 31st 2019, the Western Balkans expects that the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Albania get the date for the start of the negotiations with the EU.
The EU was created as peace project after the end of the World War II and it enabled to ensure permanent peace in Europe and long-term stability. In recent past though, in the Western Balkans, several wars were going on. Therefore, a fragile peace was established along with temporary stability.
The analysts believe that EU leaders must be aware of the fact that if they want the EU peace project to continue, it needs to be implemented in the Western Balkans countries, because through the EU membership, it would be ensured that countries of that region achieve permanent peace and long-term stability. As long as the Western Balkans is an unstable region, the EU shall not be able to address the key issues and long-term strategic positioning in the international framework.
Is the Western Balkans a stepchild of Europe?
European leaders have often confirmed their support to the Western Balkans and its Euro Atlantic road, expressing at the same time concerns about the impact of individual states in the region, particularly Russia, China and Turkey. The EU with its enlargement stalemate practically pushes the Western Balkans counters to Russian "hug", to blame in the end those countries for their close relations and cooperation with Russia. However, some EU states always set new requirements and membership criteria for the Western Balkans.
Some experts have been pointing out that 15 EU member countries would not be able to fully meet the membership criteria now, which are required from the Western Balkans countries. They also note that Bulgaria and Romania were admitted to the EU membership, as well as Croatia recently, without imposing so strict requirements of the membership. In 2004 only 9,5 countries were accepted to the EU membership, because only half the Cyprus was accepted. The French region Corsica and the Italian region Sicily are also mentioned as those, where the EU regulations do not function at all as stipulated by the EU standards, regulations and directives.
(Non)functioning of the EU can be illustrated best on the example of the dialogue between official Belgrade and Pristina on normalization of the relations, which is mediated by the EU. Although so called Brussels agreement on dialogue was signed on April 19, 2013 the dialogue was terminated and its destiny is not certain.
The dialogue was held non-transparently, while on the other side the EU demands transparency from the Western Balkans countries, though the EU is non-transparent itself. It proved in the cases of tax evasion for certain transnational companies, which were happening in Luxembourg in times when its prime minister was the current president of the European Commission Jean-Cloud Juncker (EPP). There are numerous examples of non-transparency and unacceptable role of the EU.
The Unacceptable role of the EU – the case of Ursula van der Leyen
The latest example of an unacceptable role of the EU is disputable visit of newly elected president of the European Commission (EC) Ursula von der Leyen (CDU/EPP) to the Republic of Croatia. She will have to be more careful in future when it comes to the Western Balkans and actions of the European Commission. Von der Leyen said during the visit that she will work on bringing closer the Western Balkans countries to the EU. The Western Balkans is the part of the Europe and if the EU wants those countries to become EU members, it must precisely define the year of the enlargement, and not only send the statements about this; otherwise those countries will be forced to find some other solutions to take.
Croatia is typical example of new European behaviour. Actually, Croatia does not respect the decisions of international arbitration court regarding the cross-border dispute with Slovenia. At the same time, Republic of Croatia does not respect the decision of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Courts for the crimes perpetrated in the former Yugoslavia (MICT), by which certain highly positioned officials of Croatia and Croatian Democratic Party (HDZ) are sentenced by absolute decision for participation in the associated crime against Bosnia and Herzegovina. HDZ is a political party against which the process is ongoing at the district court in Zagreb. At the same time it should be added that the position of Serbian community in Croatia suddenly deteriorated after Croatia became full member of the EU. Serbian community was cooperative and important factor, which contributed that Croatia became the EU member.
The audit of events from the Word War II is ongoing in Croatia where the attempts are made to rehabilitate fascist and collaboration armies and present them as anti-fascist. Of enormous importance is the position of Jewish community, which still did not resolve the issue of returning its property taken from them. Audit of history contributed that the Jewish community and other anti-fascist associations independently and in fact separately celebrate anniversary of liberation from the concentration camp Jasenovac that was held by the Ustasha regime. Representatives of the Croatian state do not take place at those commemorations. Pro fascist appearances and speeches of the president of the Republic of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic (HDZ) and her open involvement in internal affairs in the nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina are evident.
Croatia as the EU and NATO member did not resolve open border issues with any of the neighbours except for Hungary, since it inherited that border from former Yugoslavia.
Republic Croatia shall on January 1, 2020 start with the Presidency of the EU Council. The focus of its presidency will be the Western Balkans where it is in conflict with almost all states. Croatia does not recognize legal and legitimate election of the Croat Željko Komšic (DF) for Presidency member of Bosnian and Herzegovina from the Croatian population only because its favourite president of HDZ BiH controversial Dragan Covic (HDZ BiH) was not elected. Komšic was elected based on the same election law by which Mr Covic was previously elected. It became almost constant trend that Croatian officials misuse their EU and NATO membership when it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as to the Republic of Serbia. It is expected that similar situation will be soon in the Council of Europe (CoE), because secretary general of the Council of Europe is Marija Pejcinovic Buric (HDZ), former minister of foreign affairs of Croatia.
The analysts find worrying the fact that the EU and NATO institutions did not react to the behaviour of Croatia when it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, because it is evident Croatia misuses its EU and NATO membership. Many war criminals find their shelter in Croatia, including those who were sentenced by absolute decision in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the crimes they perpetrated, while Croatian secret services harass the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina living on its territory. Croatian police practices inhuman behaviour against the migrants (beating and torture) and performs illegal readmission of migrants from its territory to BiH, which was already alerted by the human rights organisations. Croatia strongly builds its relations with Russia despite the introduced sanctions of the EU against Russia. Croatia shall need help to face and overcome challenges and situations it is in. If it wants its chair mandate in the EU not to be doomed in advance, at least when it comes to the Western Balkans, it shall need help from the EU as well as from the countries of the region, because the experiences so far showed that "facing the self" is the most difficult.
Trilateral Serbia – North Macedonia – Albania
In Novi Sad on October 10, 2019 trilateral meeting between president of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic (SNS) and prime ministers of North Macedonia and Albania, Zoran Zaev (SDSM) and Edi Rama (PS) was held. Declaration of measures for establishment of "small Schengen" was signed between the three countries.
This declaration should help the entire Western Balkans region to start functioning in four key EU freedoms – freedom of movement of capital, goods, services and people.
Joint declaration foresees elimination of state border controls and other obstacles to simpler movement in the region until 2021, and also to enable citizens to travel in the region with personal ID card only as well as to find employments anywhere if they have the certificate of their qualifications.
Declaration also foresees recognition of diplomas in the region as well as better cooperation in combatting organised crime and support in cases of natural disasters.
President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic invited all so-called members of the Balkans six to accept the document about "small Schengen", regardless of their differences referring to the recognition of Kosovo.
The prime minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev said that the initiative for economic networking of the countries in the region should be joined by all six Western Balkans countries (Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo).
Zaev said that North Macedonia supported the initiative because "much more needs to be done in economic networking. We are sending message that political relations in the region become simpler, that Balkans is not a barrel of gunpowder anymore but the region of stability and economic development, committed to the Euro integrations and improvement of the standard of its citizens".
Last week the president of Serbia Vucic held in Belgrade trilateral meeting Serbia-Turkey-Bosnia and Herzegovina and the joint basis for commencement of works on highway Belgrade – Sarajevo was laid, which is one of the important infrastructure projects.
Experts believe that those are new positive moments arriving from Serbia and its president Aleksandar Vucic that should be welcomed and supported by the EU in order to continue and additionally intensify that trend of cooperation. It is expected that new and better era for the future of Serbia and the region shall start.
The Western Balkans as the new Višegrad Group
On the initiative of the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, with the support of North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, mutual cooperation in the Western Balkans region has been intensified. The Western Balkans leaders are aware of the need to take strong steps towards mutual cooperation, which will be aimed at creating better living conditions for citizens and, especially important, stopping the trend of mass displacement of population from the region.
Analysts believe that the countries of the Western Balkans must establish strong political, economic, cultural and any other form of cooperation and act jointly towards the EU, as a group of states with clearly defined requirements. When it comes to the EU enlargement, it is necessary to specify when the enlargement will take place, since it cannot be delayed indefinitely. It is important to emphasize that regional cooperation does not mean that the countries of the region have given up their European path and the EU membership, which Montenegro expresses as its concern.
In so doing, as an experience can serve the cooperation within the so-called Višegrad group of countries (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia), which very often jointly act within the EU with clearly expressed demands and attitudes. Moreover, the Višegrad Group was formed to make it easier and faster for these countries to join the EU and NATO, which they did. Therefore, it is important for the countries of the region to act jointly towards the EU and / or other foreign policy initiatives, as a single approach is insufficient and does not guarantee success.
The date for the start of the negotiations with the EU for North Macedonia and Albania
At the EU Summit on 17 and 18 October 2019 in Brussels, the decision on the date for the start of negotiations should be taken. Although some member states were sceptical of assigning the date, in the end only France remained to approve the start of the EU negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.
Analysts believe that the EU member states, including France, must show vision for the enlargement, because if the enlargements had not happened in the past, the EU would never have developed into such respectable regional integration. Given that the EU has 27 members (excluding the UK), there is always the possibility of different conditions and blockades, which should be avoided or not allowed by the member states. This is especially important in circumstances where other countries are trying to exert strong influence in the Western Balkans, above all Russia, China and Turkey. The EU hesitance can have strategic consequences in the Western Balkans and it is due to uncertainty about EU membership and pressures from the domestic public, that certain countries could change their geopolitical orientation.
Analysts believe that the reservations of France and its President, Emmanuel Macron (ALDE), when it comes to assigning the dates to start EU negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania show another absurdity of the European policy. Specifically, Macron's La République En Marche Party is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament (ALDE), who are strong supporters of the enlargement, and that it’s member La République En Marche is blocking the enlargement. This is why ALDE is under a historic responsibility because President Macron belongs to ALDE. It is surprising to see French President Macron, who was seen as the new leader of Europe two years ago when coming to power. With the announcement of the blockade of the assigning the date for the start of negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania, Macron shows that he has no vision and disassociates with his political group ALDE within the EU, which is a strong proponent of the enlargement, thereby assuming a huge responsibility for the EU's destiny and enlargement process.
In addition to the issue of stability in the Western Balkans region, it also concerns the credibility of European leaders. Namely, at the EU summit in June 2018, they decided that they would assign in 2019 a date for the start of negotiations to North Macedonia and Albania, if they meet conditions for the start of negotiations. For both countries, and especially for North Macedonia, this has been clearly achieved. If no date is set for the start of negotiations (the start of negotiations does not mean the EU membership), European leaders will eat their word and lose their credibility. This will also call into question (Robert) Schuman's vision of the united Europe. In that case, one could even say that President Macron was working against the idea of his great countryman, who launched the project of today's EU.
The EU has jeopardized the American interests as well
The dialogue between official Belgrade and Pristina was led by the EU as a mediator. The dialogue was a fiasco. No significant progress has been made in the last ten years since the Western Balkans region was left to the care of the EU. Other countries, especially Russia, China and Turkey, have strengthened their presence and influence in the region. Such action by the EU necessitated the return of the United States to the Balkans. The justified questions are: is the EU a reliable partner and can the EU overcome the internal crisis without strong support of the USA?
Analysts believe that of particular symbolic importance, and may be the last chance because of the credibility of the EU in the Western Balkans, is to save the Western Balkan countries from the "hug" of Russia, China and Turkey by assigning the start date of EU negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania, at the EU summit in Brussels, and to accelerate work on conclusion of a dialogue between official Belgrade and Pristina by signing a legally binding agreement, while the countries in the region intensively work on the regional co-operation started in the region.
IFIMES is an international institute of the Special Consultative status with the UN. It has permanent representations with the Un in New York, Geneva and Vienna respectively.