EU action awaited as phantom paper further unhinges Western Balkans

Drone view of river Drina near Ljubovija, border of Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina. [Shutterstock/Adam Radosavljevic]

A firmer stance from Brussels – noticeably missing last week – against a controversial document proposing border changes in the Western Balkans would help calm the growing anxieties in the region, analysts said. At the same time, regional and international actors contacted by EURACTIV firmly rejected ideas from the phantom non-paper.

Last week a Ljubljana-based outlet published what it said was a ‘non-paper’ allegedly authored by Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, or someone from his inner circle, proposing possible border changes to address lingering malaise in the former Yugoslavia.

Janša has denied writing the document. Asked by EURACTIV, European Council President’s Charles Michel’s office could not deny receiving the paper or provide any further comment.

Michel silent over unofficial document mulling border changes in Western Balkans

A phantom document proposing controversial border changes across the Western Balkans caused a political storm in the region and in Brussels this week. While most EU officials had little knowledge of the elusive document, the office of European Council President Charles Michel could not deny receiving it.  EURACTIV took a closer look

North Macedonia’s Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Dimitrov, whose country would be affected by the proposed border changes, called the proposed concept of greater states within ethnic boundaries “dangerous”.

“The only proper strategic response to these debates would be to strengthen and make visible progress with the European integration of the region,” the politician responsible for Skopje’s European integration told EURACTIV in exclusive comments.

“We need to focus not on creating greater states, but on making great European democracies and great economies in the region. The perceived fading of the European perspective of the Balkans in the last years may have actually something to do with the rebirth of this opposing vision,” he added.

Ghost of Christmas Past

This is not the first time territorial changes are proposed as solutions to the political woes of the peninsula.

The idea, which resurfaces every couple of years, was reportedly discussed in 2018 between Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo’s then-President Hashim Thaçi, who has since been indicted for war crimes.

The European Commission tentatively backed the plan, which was subsequently dropped after fierce opposition from Berlin.

Kosovo-Serbia talks break down as tensions mount again

The latest round of EU-sponsored Kosovo-Serbia talks effectively collapsed on Friday (7 September) as Serbia’s president refused to sit down with his Kosovo counterpart, citing a ban by Kosovar authorities on his planned visit to the former Serbian province as a reason to reassess all relations with Pristina.

A Rorschach inkblot of anxiety

Marko Prelec, former Balkans Project Director at the International Crisis Group and professor at the Central European University, said that the non-paper was a “kind of a Rorschach blot, whoever looks at it, they see what they want to see”.

“The reactions may say more about the people who are reacting than they do about the alleged non paper itself”, the analyst said, expressing doubts about the paper’s origins.

Prelec pointed out that the paper puts the date of a NATO airstrike campaign prompted by ethnic cleansing during the Kosovo War at 2001 instead of 1999.

In Prelec’s opinion it would be helpful if the EU took a firmer stance against the paper.

“The charitable interpretation is that Brussels and some member states are not sure about whether it’s wise to simply to try to deny its credibility by not commenting, or to come out and denounce it. I think at this point is probably best to denounce it.”

Prelec added that the paper needs to be seen in the context of the dwindling enlargement process, which lost momentum after Croatia joined the EU in 2013.

„People are talking about enlargement essentially being over, that view which was absolutely heretical just a few years ago… It was an unthinkable thing, which is now thinkable and, for some, probable.”

The EU’s reputation in the region has not been this low in a long time, senior policy fellow Engjellushe Morina at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank told EURACTV.

She said the non-paper is “a signal for the EU that they should find grounds for unifying their stance towards Western Balkans, because some of the EU countries have different opinions, different ideas.”

‘No plan B’: EU enlargement

EURACTIV understands that the issue of the non-paper is not on the agenda of the EU’s foreign affairs ministers’ meeting with their Western Balkan counterparts in May, but could be raised by participants as “any other business”.

EU foreign ministers were scheduled to hold a debate with and about the Western Balkans during their meeting in April. Asked about why the Western Balkans debate has been postponed, a senior EU official told EURACTIV last week that such a debate would require an in-person meeting, instead of a video link.

This is why we need a good and rich debate – and we think that that debate should be in person,” he said, adding that in May the set-up will be a “very frank and open discussion” among foreign ministers, with input from Special Representative Miroslav Lajcak, member states and regional leaders.

The Portuguese Presidency aims for decisions on enlargement to be reached by June, the country’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, Ana Paula Zacarias, told EU affairs ministers on Tuesday (20 April).

The aim would be to apply the new methodology to Montenegro and Serbia, and adopt the general positions for negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania and even hold the first intergovernmental conferences with these countries, if possible, Zacarias said.

A veteran Brussels-based EU diplomat told EURACTIV that some action was necessary because “whenever the EU is not present enough and visibly, regional dynamics are swiftly changing, dangerous narratives take shape and third actors are stepping in”.

“Joint action with the US is pursued more than ever, and we are working towards the same strategic goal, which is to anchor the Western Balkans firmly to the EU,” the diplomat said and added:

“There is no plan B, and it should not be any. Their future lies within the EU.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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