By Jahja Muhasilovic
On May 17, 2018, the EU member states gathered together with their colleagues from the Western Balkans to discuss the European perspective of the region. This was the first meeting of its kind since the famous 2003 EU-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki, where a European perspective was promised to the region. The EU had for too long been ignoring the integration of the Western Balkans. This view is confirmed even by the words of the Croatian prime minister, who said, “For too long we’ve been waiting for a meeting in this format.” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama struck a similar tone a day before the Summit during his interview with Euronews, where he said the EU should open the negotiation chapters as this would cost Europe “nothing, not even a cent”, while for Albania, “it is a matter of life and death”.
On the other hand, neglect has apparently created disappointment in the region as it has forced some populist politicians there to look for alternatives in Moscow or Ankara. It is apparent that Euro-enthusiasm has been in free-fall in the region for some time, which is in turn giving rise to new sets of concerns regarding the future of the Western Balkans, as all states in the region are investing their whole political capacities to integrate with the Union. More interestingly for the Brussels, this meeting came at a time when other geopolitical players, such as Russia, China, and Turkey, are starting to fill the vacuum left in the region by the Union itself.
But, let’s start with the positive news first. If we were to try and spot a rare positive signal at the Summit, it would definitely be the progress in negotiations over Macedonia’s name dispute. An important step seems to have been achieved between Athens and Skopje towards reaching a common ground. Prime Minister of Macedonia Zoran Zaev said how the two sides had considered a solution regarding a name that might be acceptable for both sides. Zaev added that they could have a deal even before the EU Summit in June. Skopje is in a rush to become a part of the club.
The regional states are determined for EU integration but the question remains whether Brussels feels the same, especially with the words of President of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker still echoing in minds: in 2014, he said enlargement was over at least for the next five years. The region, however, might not even have that long. Brussels should definitely do more to show that it still believes in further enlargement; that is, more than the 17-point ‘Sofia Declaration’, addressing issues like migration, organized crime, education, and rule of law, or more than a package, worth 10 billion euros, promised to the region for infrastructure and digital development projects.
Overall atmosphere of Summit
Even though the expectations from this Summit were not high at all, it was yet another attempt to reassure the regional countries that they were not forgotten by the Union. Despite the enthusiastic words of the host, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, that the meetings at the Summit were “from the heart” and honest, what we actually witnessed were usual diplomatic smiling sessions and repeated reassurances from both sides: once again music to the ears of the people of the region.
And finally, once again -- and who knows for the how many time -- both sides reassured each other that European integration was their “geostrategic priority”. To get a glimpse of the “honesty” that was all over the place, let’s just say that even the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, once again pointed out to the participants that “The Balkans are Europe”. Wow!
This empty rhetoric has for too long been circulating in the region! Such hackneyed statements have all become meaningless mottos of endless diplomatic meetings. Despite all the diplomatic efforts, like the EU-Western Balkans Summits, or the German-British initiative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, there has simply not been any evident progress. Despite shiny summits, not much is changing on the ground in the direction of European integration. On the contrary, some trends indicate that there are developments in the opposite direction. Too much geo-strategy and too little honesty in relations... The fact of the matter is that the EU has never become an organic part of the region but merely remained an external element. Simply too alien for the region. It may be the geostrategic glasses it has been wearing, though.
When we put all the diplomacy and rhetoric aside, the EU actually does not know what to do with the region. The region happens to be in Europe, but is not European enough. So what to do about it? Europe's unending dilemma vis-a-vis the Balkans.
Apart from the geopolitical games of the political blocks involved, which have for some time been dominating the region, the Western Balkans have chronic problems that should be dealt with urgently. Accession talks that are at a standstill with no talk of membership dates, bilateral problems between the states far from solutions, a few states threatening to break up into smaller parts, longstanding ethnic tensions, corruption that has gone uncontrolled, the whole region suffering depopulation of biblical proportions, the unstoppable brain drain, the whole region slowly turning into a hub for the migrants streaming towards the Union threatening to become a huge refugee camp in the long run are only some of the problems that trouble the region to this day. On the other hand, the Kremlin and other players, such as Beijing, that would like to undermine the Euro-Atlantic integration in the region are simply smelling the air of hopelessness and acting according to it, through their regional networks that seem to be getting stronger by the day.
The strengthening of the destabilizing elements raises a grim prospect for the region and begs the question, whether the future of the region will ever be bright. Europe simply cannot afford another war in the Balkans. If this is not sufficient reason to invest more energy into integrating the region, then I do not really know what else could be.
Despite this crisis, which has been allowed to grow so big, the EU is trying to fix its makeup through summits like this one. Only to make this irony worse, what we hear from those that should be voices of hope is in the opposite direction. Emmanuel Macron, who, along with Angela Merkel, is considered to be the strongest politician of the united Europe, said at the summit, "I am not in favor of moving toward enlargement before having all the necessary certainty and before having made a real reform to allow a deepening and better functioning of the European Union." But, after this cold shower, he tried to save the day by remarking, “The Western Balkans are the heart of Europe”. Here we go again.
The EU has once again proved that its preoccupations are “larger” geopolitical matters. Tensions with Washington regarding the recent U.S. pullback from the Iran nuclear deal, for example, are more worthy of being made agenda items at summits rather than some region down there in the Balkans.
Apparently, the Western Balkans are still not “hot” enough to occupy the agenda of the “Western Balkans Summit” properly, but representatives from the EU used this opportunity to continue their Twitter wars with Washington.
All in all, history has repeated itself. The Union is once again demonstrating that it does not have the capacity to deal with the Western Balkans, as it once proved during the bloody wars of the 1990’s.
It used to be the U.S. that had to solve the problems in Europe’s backyard. Yet, unfortunately for the Brussels, the Transatlantic relations are not good as they were in the 1990's. As Donald Tusk’s famous tweet, criticizing the moves of the Trump administration and the straining of the ties on the Brussels-Washington line, says, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” This would probably be a relevant question that an ordinary citizen living in the Western Balkans state could ask a Eurocrat like himself: Why would the region need enemies with a friend like the EU?
Too much has been invested in the integration process, yet there is too little in returns… This is a valid critique for both sides. The much-expected transformation of the region has remained superficial and limited to a bunch of protocols. Fifteen years on, the European perspective does not seem bright at all, and the “Thessaloniki spirit” seems to have been dead for quite some time if it ever existed at all.
[ The writer is a freelance political analyst and PhD candidate in Modern Turkish Studies at Bogazici University, Istanbul ]* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.