The Brief: Brussels’ Balkans balancing act

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter.

BRUSSELS’ BALKANS BALANCING ACT

The European Union must perform a delicate balancing act as it seeks to win the tug of love over the Western Balkans with Moscow and Ankara.

The region risks becoming the battlefield of a war of influence. There are doubts about US commitment to the region after the election of Donald Trump, and Russia and Turkey are moving to fill the gap.

Fears over “third country interference” in the region led EU leaders last week to declare their “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans”.

Sound familiar? The conclusions of the 2003 EU-Western Balkans summit read 14 years ago, “The EU reiterates its unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries.”

But EU support comes with strings attached, such as reforms, and with mixed messages.

Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn has said the EU “will never be complete” without the Balkans. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has vowed there will be no more enlargement during his term in office, which expires in 2019.

There was no mention of enlargement in the executive’s White Paper on the future of the EU.

Talk of EU enlargement is the last thing the leaders of some member states want to hear. The Dutch have already rejected the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

It will be difficult to get a Balkan candidate country’s accession ratified across the EU. With crunch elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany to come this year, the prospect of low-paid workers migrating to richer EU states would be a gift to the Eurosceptic right.

What can the bloc offer instead of enlargement? EU funding and programmes offer some lean-in against Russian and Turkish influence but are difficult to communicate well.

A recent poll said Serbians are more likely to think Russia is the country’s biggest donor, despite the EU providing around €3bn in aid since 2000. MEPs will vote in April to demand more from Belgrade, after its foreign policy rapidly diverged from the EU’s.

Issues such as the Kosovo-Montenegro border dispute stand in the way of milestones like visa liberalisation for Pristina. But they also may be an obstacle for the NATO accession of Podgorica.

There is scope for the EU to be more political, as with the 2004 and 2007 enlargement, especially as dormant tensions across the Balkans are showing signs of stirring.

So far, it has shown little appetite to do so, and fuelled anti-EU sentiment among Kosovars.

Western Balkans (and Ukrainian) politicians need to be able to dangle the prospect of future prosperity as part of the EU to their voters.

If they can’t convincingly point to that long-term perspective, why resist the overtures of other countries offering support with seemingly fewer conditions attached?

THE ROUNDUP

Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed she will seek permission for a second Scottish independence referendum in 2018 or 2019. She said Brexit is not just about Scotland’s relationship with Europe but what “kind of country we will become”.

Meanwhile, Theresa May is expected to formally trigger Brexit this week. A leaked report from the UK Treasury has warned of a painful economic shock if Britain crashes out of the EU without a Brexit deal. UK Brexit chief David Davis said yesterday the government was preparing contingency plans.

Odd couple Donald Trump and Angela Merkel will meet tomorrow. Will he try and hold her hand? Will he ask the East German for advice on his wall? Could this be the biggest clash of style and substance ever seen between two leaders?

Poland will pursue a “negative” policy towards Brussels after it failed to block the reappointment of Donald Tusk as Council head. Tusk has been summoned for questioning in Poland regarding a case dating back to 2010 but will be unable to attend due to Parliament commitments.

French presidential candidate Benoît Hamon has dismissed the idea of multi-speed Europe as mere “blabla” and has pledged to undertake substantial reform, particularly in eurozone governance.

An electricity market dispute on the German-Austrian border has thrown the design of the EU’s internal energy market into doubt.

Russian giant Gazprom has loosened its grip on Central and Eastern European gas markets. It has agreed not to seek any damages from its Bulgarian partners following the termination of South Stream.

Member states have moved to weaken EU energy efficiency targets for 2030.

Norwegian officials are reportedly lobbying against European Parliament calls to ban offshore drilling in the Arctic, while the EU announced €40 million for Algerian renewable energy projects. If Wales were a member state it would place 4th in terms of sticking to recycling targets.

Turkish-Dutch relations have nearly collapsed after the latter barred ministers from campaigning in Rotterdam. Turkish President Erdogan again played the Nazi card. The European Commission today said this was a part of European history that “needs to be forgotten”.

Martin Schulz has been dubbed a “sexy beast” in Germany. Can this be true?

What better way to celebrate 60 years of the EU than running a GIF competition? And congratulations to all involved in the Brussels press revue.

LOOK OUT FOR…

The European Court of Justice will rule tomorrow on the rights of Muslim women to wear the headscarf in the workplace.  Judges will decide if banning the headscarf is discrimination under EU law.

Views are the authors’, not our sponsor’s.

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