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The EU and the new geopolitics of inclusion: what has recently changed in the Balkans?

On the 6th of May, all the EU Member States and six Western Balkan countries held the Zagreb Summit. The intent of the meeting was to examine a European perspective toward the Western Balkans and their future in the EU.[1] [2]

Originally arranged to take place in Zagreb, Covid-19 emergency led the EU and states’ representatives to reunite remotely via videoconference. Despite the impossibility to organise an in-person encounter, the strong symbolic values that the context itself and the themes taken into consideration have not been affected at all. As a matter of fact, apart potentially appearing as an ordinary event, it evoked instead very strong features. 20 years ago, the EU and the new states arising from the ashes of the Balkan wars gathered in Zagreb with the intention of drawing a common and shared path in the name of regional cooperation, liberal reforms and reassurance of stability.[3] In 2020 these entities have talked again together but through a completely different lense. Today, these countries can look at themselves with completely different eyes: Croatia talks as a full EU member plus the current leader of the EU Presidency; Serbia and Montenegro are working towards the EU membership; Albania and North Macedonia are finally getting closer to the Union, and Bosnia and Herzegovina already holds deep relations and a special status with all its European neighbours. Everybody can agree that this represents an extremely remarkable achievement.

The main result of the conference has been the release of the Zagreb Declaration.[4] The EU affirmed with a univocal statement its strongest support for a European perspective in the whole region. On the other side, Western Balkans commit themselves to uphold European values and principles in regard to democracy, rule of law, fight against corruption, good governance, the respect for human rights, gender equality and the rights of persons belonging to minorities. Further efforts still need to be devoted to reconciliation and regional stability as well as finding definitive and inclusive solutions to disputes and issues rooted in the legacy of the past. Apart from the actual points of the declaration, there have been new crucial remarks.

The most significant is the willingness of the EU to open Albania and North Macedonia accession talks. In fact, it has been firmly stated that after great political work between all EU members, now this positive voice is one and crystal clear. The need for specification comes after Macron’s loud veto last October.[5] As a matter of fact, France and another small number of countries rejected the two countries from moving forward with their membership bids.[6] The ideas at the basis of the rejections were the lack of reforms in line with EU standards as well as a general fear to bring in a region scarred by past ethnic war and now struggling with crime and corruption.[7] This phase of distension has brought the entire region to become increasingly intertwined with the EU.

In addition to it, the EU specified its greatest support to the whole region for the Covid-19 emergency. In the Declaration itself, starting from the very second article, they state to have mobilised a package of over EUR 3.3 billion including immediate support for the health sector (through delivering essential supplies) and support for the social and economic recovery. To this, they added EUR 750 million of Marco-Financial Assistance and EUR 1.7 billion package from the European Investment Bank.

Undoubtedly positive signs of trust and cooperation from both sides, but what is the reason behind all these recent condescending actions?

What represents the biggest fear for EU now, especially during the pandemic, is the entry of third operating actors in its near neighbourhood. Among these, Chinese interventions in the area depict the major risk. Surely this is not a new deal: in recent years, China has increasingly financially supported local markets: from infrastructures to energy, and commerce to loans. In this way, it has been ensuring long-term political dependency.[8] Adding up to the already weak economy to the devastating socio-economic costs generated by the pandemic, it becomes evident the need for outside partners for a matter of survival.[9] And surely, when help does not cost you a long path of reforms and modifications of your socio-political apparatus, it is even better. A few weeks ago, Aleksandar Vučić himself publicly admired the timeliness of Chinese help intervention and the strong bond between the two countries.

However, another coincidence hit the floor: on the same day of the summit, Freedom House released a new report[10] deeply affecting European pledges: Serbia, Montenegro and Hungary have been declassified for the first time as hybrid regimes.[11]

…so, is a friend in need a friend indeed?

[1] EU Sends Strong Message to Western Balkan Countries from Zagreb Summit, Total Croatia News, available at: https://www.total-croatia-news.com/politics/43433-zagreb-summit

[2] Vertice UE-Balcani occidental, Council of the European Union, available at: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/it/meetings/international-summit/2020/05/06/

[3] Zagreb Summit, 24 November 2000, available at: https://www.esiweb.org/pdf/bridges/bosnia/ZagrebSummit24Nov2000.pdf

[4] Zagreb Declaration, 6 May 2020, available at: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/43776/zagreb-declaration-en-06052020.pdf

[5] Michael Peel, France objects to North Macedonia and Albania EU accession talks, Financial Times, 15 October 2019, available at: https://www.ft.com/content/fce9e9a0-ef36-11e9-ad1e-4367d8281195

[6] EU blocks Albania and North Macedonia membership bids, BBC, 18 October 2019, available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50100201

[7] John Irish, Robin Emmott, Macron opens door to North Macedonia, Albania EU accession talks, Reuters, 15 February 2020, available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-security-macron-balkans/macron-opens-door-to-north-macedonia-albania-eu-accession-talks-idUSKBN2090DM

[8] VIsar Xhambazi, China Buying Balkans Influence Competing with West, Balkan Insight, 28 January 2020, available at: https://balkaninsight.com/2020/01/28/china-buying-balkans-influence-competing-with-west/

[9] Nathalie Tocci, The Western Balkans belong with Europe, Politico, 6 May 2020, available at: https://www.politico.eu/article/the-western-balkans-croatia-serbia-kosovo-belong-with-europe-european-union/

[10] Nations in Transit 2020, Freedom House, 6 May 2020, available at: https://freedomhouse.org/article/new-report-nations-transit-2020-finds-weakened-institutions-europe-and-eurasia-politicians

[11] Milica Stojanovic, Freedom House: Serbia, Montenegro, Hungary ‘No Longer Democracies’, Balkan Insight, 6 May 2020, available at: https://balkaninsight.com/2020/05/06/freedom-house-serbia-montenegro-hungary-no-longer-democracies/

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