The Brief, powered by PLATFORMA – The Merkel of the Balkans

The Brief is EURACTIV's daily evening newsletter, sent out at 5pm.

Ten days ago Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev went to Mutti Merkel to seek her support in trying to untangle the eternal name dispute with Greece, a mess that has for many years prevented his country from joining NATO and starting EU accession negotiations.

It’s always nice for a Balkan leader to be photographed next to Mutti but Zaev expected more.

He is sometimes referred to as the Macron of the Balkans, as a way to compliment him. He is, in fact, something of an accident of history: a decent and open-minded politician wishing the best for his country.

So Zaev, the nice gentleman, got the family photos but no commitments. This is despite the fact that, on the other side of the border, there is a Greek prime minister who also believes it is time to solve an issue harming his country’s reputation in its NATO and EU family.  Alexis Tsipras is also a big accident of history.

But the risk that this “window of opportunity” will not be used is quite big. Bigger than 50%, in any case. And who knows when the stars will align next time?

The official reason why Merkel doesn’t want to get involved is that the effort to solve the name dispute is a UN-led process. But the real reason is that the European People’s Party (EPP), her European political family, doesn’t want to make presents to Zaev, a social democrat, or to Tsipras, a Syriza left-winger.

Incidentally, why is the EU so sympathetic to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, despite his closeness to Russia? Because he’s EPP.  “It’s all very ideological,” said a source with excellent knowledge of the EU’s cuisine.

Moreover, EPP is not at all excited by messages suggesting the Western Balkans could join the EU in a foreseeable future. Juncker’s spokespersons will not confirm it, but he has been under fire for suggesting that 2025 could be the date any and all Western Balkan countries could join the EU (provided they are ready and in full compliance).

But offences do not stop there. Bulgaria now holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU and its Prime Minister Boyko Borissov is convening on 17 May a Western Balkans summit in Sofia, with the participation of the leaders of all 28 member countries and of the six Western Balkan states.

Borissov is the only one who broke ranks with the EPP discipline. Reportedly, Merkel is mad at him for having pushed for the Western Balkans summit, but also forpositioning himself as “the Merkel of the Balkans”, as Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (a socialist) called him in London at an EBRD event last Monday.

Thanks to the EU Presidency, Western Balkan leaders can now present Borissov to their audiences as the incarnation of the European Union.

Borissov has said the EU can replace the UK with the Western Balkans. It may sound like nonsense, but Bulgaria’s strongman speaks a language of the street – which is also their language. No one ever spoke to the Balkan leaders like this and they seem to like it.

In the absence of Merkel, Balkan leaders embrace her surrogate.

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The Roundup

By Alexandra Brzozowski

With his opposition to the Spitzenkandidaten process, French President Macron wants to “weaken” the European Parliament, EPP’s influential MEP Elmar Brok warned in an exclusive EURACTIV interview.

While former Italian PM Berlusconi feeds the gamble over the next premier candidate, his top pick, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani declared he ‘is willing to serve Italy.’ Meanwhile, our ‘Fact or Fake’ series looks into fake videos and pictures circulating on social networks since the start of the Italian election campaign.

Britain’s departure from the EU could weaken both parties, warned former British PM Tony Blair, calling on European leaders to reform the EU in a bid to persuade British people to change their mind on Brexit.

Four conditions should be met to make citizens’ consultations initiative launched by France’s President Emmanuel Macron a success and avoid turning it into a boomerang, which would irremediably drain trust in the EU project, writes Thierry Libaert.

Europe can compromise on many things, including Brexit, but not on the “more worrisome” threats to the rule of law and media freedom, says Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen.

Tech giants like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter are coming under more and more pressure in Europe, and now face a potential legal threat if they do not remove posts with illegal content within one hour.

A “non-paper” by the Commission’s energy directorate updates existing scenarios for renewables and energy efficiency. The analysis also takes into account the rapidly falling costs of solar and wind power.

Producers will decide how best to convey alcohol information – either on the label and online or just on the internet. This month, the industry will present a “self-regulatory” proposal regarding the labelling of its products.

Millions of patients in the UK and Europe may be at risk, as it is still unclear whether the UK post-Brexit will continue to participate in the European Reference Networks – a platform, which aims to help patients with rare diseases.

Water resources are unequally distributed on the planet. But access to water and sanitation depends mainly on good urban planning, Cécile Gilquin of the French Agency for Development said in an interview.

After the Beast from the East struck Brussels and large parts of Europe this week, some solutions could be found on social media. The Russian Embassy in the UK had its very own advice on how Europeans should deal with the cold.

Look out for…

Elections in Italy on 4 March – Berlusconi’s comeback?
More news here.