EU faced with ‘deep disappointment’ in Western Balkans

EU's chief diplomat Josep Borrell in Brussels, Belgium, 06 May 2021. [EPA-EFE/JOHN THYS]

EU foreign minister will discuss the Western Balkans on Monday (10 May) to determine how to improve cooperation with the region, burdened by lingering nationalism, a weak economy and widespread disappointment with its fading EU membership prospects.

Ahead of the meeting, a senior EU official told reporters that “the EU can only be safe and secure if the Western Balkans are safe and resilient, thus contributing to improving the chances for the process that leads the region to the EU,” the senior EU official added.

A preparatory working document, titled ‘EU reinforced engagement in the Western Balkans’ and seen by EURACTIV, acknowledges regions’ citizen’s disillusionment with the slow, stop-go enlargement process.

“We need to acknowledge that despite the steadfast commitment to EU integration, and the unprecedented levels of EU financial and economic support – including to face the COVID-19 pandemic – the people in the region are experiencing a sense of deep disappointment in the enlargement process,” the working paper states.

“The widespread perception in the Western Balkans is that the prospect of accession is receding and that European aspirations are lost under a complex set of conditions and procedures that keeps the Western Balkans locked into a Sisyphean destiny,” it adds, warning of nationalist rhetoric gaining momentum again.

The working paper comes after the region faced a political storm over a series of phantom documents proposing controversial border changes across the Western Balkans and a weak response from Brussels.

“In the perceived absence of an EU integration process, which would provide the broader space for the coexistence of a plurality of national identities, exclusionary nationalistic rhetoric and politics are regaining momentum,” the document states, in a reference to Bulgaria’s continued blockage of North Macedonia’s accession hopes.

The stand-off between the two south-eastern countries has intensified after Sofia refused to give its blessing last autumn for the start of Skopje’s formal EU accession negotiations, citing ongoing arguments over language and common history.

It also urges Serbia and Kosovo, its former province that declared independence in 2008, to accelerate efforts for a comprehensive agreement on the normalisation of relations as both leaderships would now have “solid political mandates from their electorate”.

Meanwhile, the document zooms in on the need for the countries in the region, where Russia and China have been growing in influence, to align their foreign policy to that of the EU.

“To deepen the existing notion of progressive alignment, we should combine our expectations for adherence to EU statements, positions and restrictive measures (value-based cooperation) with a stronger issue-based cooperation on common initiatives, building alliances in relation to global governance in areas such as climate change, digital, artificial intelligence,” it states.

“Beyond the core EU-Western Balkans relations and engagement, the special role of candidate countries and aspiring candidates would also warrant associating the region to EU strategic reflections, such as the Conference on the Future of Europe, which would give partners in the region additional positive impetus in advancing the European agenda. Further work will be undertaken to flesh out possible actions in this regard.”

However, the paper remains vague how exactly communication can be stepped up besides high-level visits, of which there are already plenty.

Borrell’s strong language on Bosnia

Ahead of Monday’s foreign affairs ministers meeting, EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell emphasised in a blog post “the particularly difficult situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, a country where Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs have lived an uneasy co-existence since their conflict ended in 1995.

Borrell wrote he had sent “a clear message” to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s leaders during a recent encounter with the country’s presidency to “stop using divisive nationalist rhetoric and instead focus on rapid progress on reforms”.

“A call for redrawing borders in the region and partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina along ethnic lines has triggered a push for inflammatory reactions,” he said in reference to the various phantom documents.

The EU’s chief diplomat stated he has had “a difficult call” with members of the Presidency, where he reiterated that the EU’s position has not changed and that it would “support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its future lies within the EU as a united and sovereign country”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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