The Brief – How to shoot down ambitious Balkan plans

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter.

Events in the Western Balkans may indeed seem peripheral to the EU, particularly as it braces for debates on the new budget and eurozone reform, but let’s not forget the old quote by Winston Churchill (and he knew what he was talking about!):

The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.

The news on Tuesday of the killing of a prominent Serb leader from Kosovo must have come as a nasty shock to Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who has invested a lot of his personal authority in what was to be a highlight of the country’s EU presidency:  a revival of the Western Balkans’ European perspective.

The role of the rotating EU presidency has considerably shrunk in recent years, leaving just enough leeway for the chair country to put one or two items on the agenda. Borissov wisely chose the Balkans, a region he knows only too well and which has been more or less left to its own devices for a decade.

The start could not have been better. Jean-Claude Juncker personally backed the plan in Sofia, a summit with regional leaders was pencilled in for May and Serbia and Kosovo were to resume their dialogue in Brussels, after almost a year. Serbia, together with the more advanced Montenegro, is a frontrunner of EU integration in the region.

But a lot of the initial enthusiasm must have vanished with the shots fired at Oliver Ivanovic, a politician considered to be a free-thinking moderate who spoke Albanian and was well-liked by the international community.

He had also been outspoken in criticising the rising reign of crime and terror – enforced by Serbs themselves – in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo.

Kosovo’s Albanian leaders rushed to join the EU and Borissov in condemning the murder and vowing to investigate quickly and punish the perpetrators.

But the damage has been done.

The official Belgrade delegation in Brussels turned around upon hearing the news and flew back home. The talks were suspended. Serbia’s powerful President Aleksandar Vučić held an emergency session of the national security council and said Serbia will treat this as an act of terrorism.

It is easy to foresee how quickly the modest progress will unravel.  Serbia and Kosovo will trade accusations and the fragile trust will crumble.

Vucic has already said he will demand that Serbian police take part in the investigation because the Kosovo law enforcement cannot be trusted. (Even though the EU’s EULEX mission has been helping the local authorities shore up Kosovo’s judicial and police systems since 2009).

Tabloid media (and Serbia is hardly a slouch in that department) will have a field day, perfecting various conspiracy theories and anti-Albanian slurs. In Kosovo, some are already saying the whole thing was a ploy by the Serbs, either local or from Serbia, recalling that Serbia’s own Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated by Serb criminal gangs in 2003.

So Bulgaria’s ambitious plans went from dream to nightmare in less than a week. It now has a couple of months to undo the damage and get everything back to square one. Time is not its ally…

The Roundup

The EU’s plastics strategy will cut not only pollution but also the economic loss of single-use plastics, which cost the bloc’s economy €105bn every year, Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella told EURACTIV’s Sam Morgan in an interview.

Meanwhile, the Commission rolled out the new strategy for dealing with plastic production and pollution in the coming decade and beyond.

Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party has brought down its own government for the second time in less than a year. Like his predecessor, Prime Minister Mihai Tudose fell out with the party’s powerful back-room leader Liviu Dragnea.

EU auditors have been unable to assess the ECB’s banking supervision because the bank refuses to cough up the data they need, according to a new report.

Open Britain thinks 2018 will be a good year for pro-Europeans as Donald Tusk again said the UK would be welcome to stay in the EU if the British people change their mind.

The Commission will not impose a unified excise tax on novel tobacco products such as e-cigarettes until more is known about their effects. Anti-smoking campaigners see them as a gateway to tobacco addiction, while the industry says they are a healthier alternative that should be encouraged.

Poland is continuing its mission of conciliation with Brussels, saying it will rely on dialogue to resolve its rule of law dispute with the EU executive.

Azerbaijan plans to build the gas infrastructure Bulgaria needs to end its reliance on solid fuel and improve the quality of its toxic air. Only 3% of Bulgarian homes currently have access to gas.

Look out for…

Juncker and Bulgarian PM Borissov address the plenary in Strasbourg at the start of the Bulgarian Presidency.

Views are the author’s

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