Trans-Europe Express: Will the EU ever get the Western Balkans right?

Sent out every Friday at noon, Trans-Europe Express gives you an insider's view of the most important coverage from across the EURACTIV media network, its media partners and much more.

The EU’s fast-and-loose approach to the Western Balkans has never been more evident than in the last few years.

After Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made it clear in 2014 that there would be “No further enlargement in the mandate of this Commission,” the region fell off the radar and wallowed in its own political and economic woes.

Meanwhile, the Union wrestled with the Greek financial crisis, refugees, Ukraine and Brexit.

Both sides kept up appearances. The EU worked on ‘enlargement’ and the Balkans implemented ‘reforms’.

The wake-up call came with the ‘coup’ attempt in tiny Montenegro, the region’s frontrunner, in October.

Suspicions of foul play, possibly involving Moscow, were never dispelled. And Russia remained as keen as ever to regain a strong grip on the region it traditionally sees as its own.

Then came the trouble in Macedonia and the refusal of the long-ruling nationalist conservatives to cede power to the Social Democrats, culminating in a skirmish in the national parliament.

When whispers of possible new conflicts reached the Brussels’ corridors, the EU’s Western Balkans desks shifted into a higher gear. High-level talks, urgent briefings and shuttle diplomacy ensued.

Within a couple of months there was a string of successes:

Montenegro shook off Russian threats to join NATO, the Social Democrats assumed power in Macedonia and set about mending ties with Greece, Albania’s parties buried their differences to hold an orderly election, while Serbia named a reform-minded female prime minister and toned down its rhetoric with Kosovo.

And yet, for all its renewed commitment, the Union has once again managed to not get it quite right, as evidenced during the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Trieste on 12 July.

Only four months ago, top EU officials unveiled a plan to create a Balkan common market of 20 million people, enjoying a free flow of goods and labour. The foundations were to be laid in Trieste.

The proposal, backed by Belgrade, was cold-shouldered by some of its neighbours, to whom it smacked of a ‘new Yugoslavia’ that would again be dominated by Serbia.

It also looked like a concept, deliberate or not, that could allow the Union to keep the region in the waiting room for a long time.

And so it was downgraded to a ‘regional economic area’ and the leaders agreed on smaller steps: a transport union with some digital elements and a joint investment platform, mainly for infrastructure and energy.

Not bad, but far from a full-fledged free trade zone that would spur investment and industry.

“What has been offered to us on the table is not what was presented in February 2017,” remarked Kosovo Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj, in Trieste.


The Inside Track

Communist environmentalism. The international community is asking itself whether China has what it takes to lead global climate policy now that the US has abdicated responsibility. German diplomats in Beijing have attempted to broach the issue, reports EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel.

More state, less economy. The clue should be in its name. But the shadow economy’s drain on Central and Eastern Europe’s economic growth and public finances can still be difficult to recognise, writes George Simon.

No colonial baggage. Ireland decided on Friday (14 July) to join the European Union’s Operation Sophia, a naval mission aimed at fighting human smuggling and trafficking in the Mediterranean.

Europe’s next street sweepers. The European Union’s population increased last year, despite the same number of births and deaths being recorded. Eurostat said the bump was driven by migration.

Macron prefers day traders. France’s development aid objectives appear to be compromised by cuts to the Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), which funds more than a fifth of the country’s international solidarity effort.

Tell them to send burritos. The European Commission has proposed a new strategy that would exploit Spain’s strong ties with Latin America in order to help middle-income countries that are not eligible for development aid.

Chicken is not beef. Fish fingers in Germany contain more meat than those sold in the Czech Republic. The Visegrád Group has asked for an EU solution, but the Commission is dragging its feet. reports.

Collective farming nostalgia. The Serbian Ministry of Agriculture is planning to unveil draft amendments and supplements to the Law on Agricultural Land with the aim of limiting the sale of such land to foreigners before 1 September, when the market is to be liberalised.

Renewables are for Germans. The Commission has just announced it will drop a mechanism to monitor progress in limiting greenhouse gas emissions in the Western Balkans. The decision will make it difficult to manage climate goals in a region vulnerable to climate change.

Technocrats, not environmentalists. Does the new French government have a plan to fight climate change? In a rare display of consensus, both NGOs and the country’s power industry don’t think so.

Solar-powered tanks. Despite the Syriza government’s unwillingness to crack down on fossil fuel emissions, the Greek army has decided to defy its left-wing masters and start experimenting with greener electric vehicles.

Still Communist after all these years. The EU remained silent on Thursday, despite being pressed by journalists to say something following the news that Poland’s far-right government had submitted a bill to parliament that would subordinate the country’s Supreme Court to executive power.

But they care about nature. The European Commission has told Poland to stop large-scale logging in one of Europe’s last primeval forests and has sought a court order to make the country “suspend the works immediately”.

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