The Brief – Balkanic optimism

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The rollercoaster that is the Western Balkans is (almost) as unpredictable as the Brexit saga. Last week, the region’s prospects appeared in the doldrums and there was little chance of a reversal of fortunes soon. Take a step back though and there is hope to be had.

EU membership talks involving Montenegro and Serbia, the two frontrunners, have been stuck for almost a year, with the last negotiating chapters opened in December 2018.

EU leaders could not agree at the October summit to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia and the latter’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, then called a snap election for the spring.

But fast-forward a few days, and things suddenly look up.

Three countries – Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania – have agreed a mini-Schengen, with free flow of people, goods and services. And Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of the worst-performing countries in the region – announced its intention to join this week.

That would create a common market of more than 15 million people and the initiative could hardly be ignored by the EU.

“Anything that stabilises the region, deepens the cooperation, will be getting support from my government and from the EU,” said an EU diplomat whose country is quite cautious about enlargement.

Serbia, the biggest of the six Western Balkan hopefuls, is preparing to sign a free-trade deal with the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union [hint, hint, Brussels]. But at the same time, it is trying to attract a €1.4 billion investment from Volkswagen.

As for Zaev, what looked like a desperate, emotional protest of a man let down by the EU, could well have been a well-calculated gamble that may pay dividends in the end, rather than bring back nationalists to power. Here is why.

North Macedonia is all but certain to join NATO in December or January. The alliance has already publicly reassured the country its accession would go ahead. So chalk one up for Zaev.

France, the staunchest opponent of enlargement, holds municipal elections on 15 March. After that, there will be much less need to play up its resistance to “quick enlargement” for domestic audiences and Emmanuel Macron could be easier to sway.

The European Council meets on 26-27 March and enlargement will be on the agenda again, before a major EU-Western Balkan summit planned in Zagreb in May.

Seeing, on the one hand, that the Western Balkan countries are finally stepping up cooperation and readying an EU-like single market of their own, and, on the other, hardline nationalists in North Macedonia waiting to oust Zaev, the decision should be positive.

Given the potential for the political situation in North Macedonia to deteriorate, the European Council should not wait until May 2020 to find another opportunity to open accession talks,” Green MEP Tineke Strik, a shadow rapporteur on North Macedonia, told the European Parliament’s plenary on Thursday (24 October).

Incidentally,  Lonely Planet has just named North Macedonia the third-best place to visit in 2020, calling it a “little-known gem”.

As for the other five countries, the Zagreb summit should open the EU door a wee bit wider, or at least give them a clearer road-map and perspective.

But then again, things could also take a nastier turn in the Balkans. The participation of  Kosovo – Serbia’s former province whose independence Belgrade does not recognise – in the ‘mini-Schengen’ is bound to come up and could even derail the process. Or not.

Just go back and read the beginning.

The Roundup

French President Emmanuel Macron finally revealed his substitute pick for France’s vacant European Commissioner slot on Thursday, naming former economy minister Thierry Breton.

And the UK might have to do the same, as Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen made clear that a Brexit extension will mean that the UK will have to nominate a member of the new EU executive.

Speaking of Brexit, don’t miss this week’s edition of the Digital Brief, dedicated to the expected impact of the UK’s departure on various parts of the tech sector.

Ahead of Mario Draghi’s final ECB governing council, we bring you a review of his eight-year mandate at the European Central Bank, courtesy of Jorge Valero, who spoke to eight politicians, decision-makers and analysts from different countries.

Turkey’s recent behaviour “has put us all in a terrible situation”, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said in Brussels and added that Erdogan’s Ankara is “going in the wrong direction” with NATO. EU lawmakers, too, condemned Turkey’s Syria incursion and demand sanctions.

Gas power plants in Spain are running below 25% capacity, according to an investigation published in the Spanish media on Wednesday, sparking calls from environmentalists to stop funding the country’s “oversized” gas infrastructure.

Tighter environmental regulation and fierce competition from renewable energies are increasingly making coal-fired power operate at a loss. According to a British think tank, coal-fired power plants are losing billions every year but energy companies say this is nonsense.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged on Wednesday (23 October) members of parliament’s Finance Committee, including from his own party, to take a polygraph test in the wake of bribery allegations.

Look out for…

NATO defence ministerial meeting in Brussels.

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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