ANALYSIS - EU-Western Balkans Summit and beyond
The credibility of the EU as a partner in the region is at stake, and this will have strategic consequences for the region and the EU, giving rise to a vacuum that can be easily filled by China and Russia
*The writer is a researcher and head of the Balkans Desk at TRT WORLD
The annual EU-Western Balkans Summit in Brdo, Slovenia involved lunch, family photos, smiles and all the usual routine, but no decision or progress on enlargement; all that was achieved was a “reaffirmation” of ties.
Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, wrote that “Europe is like a bicycle that must always keep moving”, because if it stops moving, it falls over. Looking at the European Union today, one is tempted to compare it to a bicycle whose wheels have been removed for a replacement of tires and no one seems to be particularly eager to repair it. This attitude was evident during the informal EU-Western Balkans Summit held on Wednesday in Brdo, Slovenia.
The summit highlighted a clear division between the European Commission, led by German Ursula von der Leyen, who was clearly in favor of enlargement, and the European Council, headed by French Charles Michel, who expressed clear reservations about EU enlargement.
The latter clearly stated that it was no secret that the 27 member states were not on the same page about the bloc’s capacity to take on new members. Leyen is in favor of accession but not right now, and not until 2030 -as proposed by Slovenia-, but “when all conditions are fulfilled”.
Of course, the EU has not had positive experiences with its eastward enlargement that happened with Romania and Bulgaria, or with the Visegrad Group, also known as the V4 countries; Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, an informal alliance within the EU that opposes the West’s liberal democracy, supports the struggle for a Christian Europe, and is against the supposed decadence of the West, emigration, multiculturalism, among other things.
Just to put things into perspective; the six Western Balkan countries -Montenegro, Serbia, Northern Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina- have a combined population of less than 18 million people and are roughly the size of North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany). Their total GDP is comparable to that of Slovakia. These figures do not indicate magnitudes that could cause Europe problems.
Putting aside the EU’s overall reluctance, the Western Balkan states are at odds with each other. Take, for example, Serbia and Kosovo. The statehood of Bosnia and Kosovo are still not fully secure. Not to mention the pervasive corruption and crime throughout much of the region. Furthermore, there are concerns within the EU regarding some of these countries. Spain, for example, refuses to recognize Kosovo because it perceives a direct link between the case of Kosovo and the Catalan and Basque peoples. Bulgaria is embroiled in a language dispute with North Macedonia, which had to change its former name “Macedonia” due to Greek sensitivities to be able to begin accession talks with the EU. The Netherlands does not want members of the Albanian gang, which currently has a stranglehold on drug trafficking in the country, to be able to travel and stay there. Germany is irritated by desperate asylum seekers, as well as those who come as visitors and simply do not leave. France sees the region as impeding Europe’s desired “strategic autonomy”.
In short, the EU keeps stalling the said countries indefinitely while, on the one hand, presenting catalogs of demands on issues such as democracy, rule of law, fighting corruption, and so on, and, on the other hand, promoting investments and infrastructure programs. In reality, it primarily seeks to calm down and maintain the region’s political class, which is becoming increasingly unwilling to be guided by the EU, especially since China is willing not only to provide unconditional political funding, but also to seek direct bilateral contacts from the parties in power.
China is already investing billions in the Western Balkans, especially in Serbia, the biggest country in the region with its population of seven million. Furthermore, China seeks cultural influence through its Confucius Institutes, cultural centers, and media, as well as collaboration and exchange programs with private universities in the region. The EU, on the other hand, lacks the political will to keep the Western Balkans from sliding economically, and possibly politically, into China’s sphere of influence. This is demonstrated by Emmanuel Macron, who sees “strategic autonomy” in the Gaullist tradition as a kind of equidistance between China and America, as well as an opportunity to give France a greater status as the EU’s sole nuclear power. Or Angela Merkel, who pursued more tangible goals such as not jeopardizing the sale of German cars in China.
The credibility of the EU as a partner in the region is at stake, which will have strategic consequences for both the region and the EU, giving rise to a vacuum that can be easily filled by China and Russia. Russia exploits the mistakes of the EU, which has pursued a policy of “appeasement” for years to satisfy the corrupt political elites of the Western Balkans. Through blunders like the botched EU vaccination policy, Russia has managed to establish itself as a viable player in times of crisis. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Putin’s most important link to the region, utilizes his good relationship with him not only to supply Serbian population with vaccines, but also “vaccine tourists” from neighboring countries. The Russian Sputnik vaccine has thus gained geostrategic importance.
Instead of confronting China and Russia, individual EU states pursue their own shortsighted foreign and security policy objectives. On September 28, France and Greece announced a “strategic defense alliance” in Paris. The two countries are not only EU members, who are obligated under Article 42:7 of the Lisbon Treaty to stand by each other in the event of an armed attack, but also NATO members, such as Turkey, against which the new alliance was formed and which, like other Balkan countries, is still a candidate for EU membership.
As long as EU countries work against each other in this manner, there can be no “strategic autonomy”. Neither summits nor resolutions will change that.
The bike will in the meantime continue to sit there without tires, with no likely repairs in the foreseeable future.
**Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.