EU’s Balkan enlargement policy must now be guided by geopolitics

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A man walks past a mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and US President-elect Donald Trump (R) in Belgrade, Serbia, 5 December 2016. The message on the mural reads in Serbian, Russian and English 'Kosovo is Serbia'. [Andrej Cukic/EPA/EFE]

While the EU has played for time, delaying the EU enlargement process largely because of its own problems, the geopolitical context has changed, writes Vladimir Krulj.

Vladimir Krulj is a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and a former senior adviser to the government of Serbia

When Britain began its negotiations to leave the EU, Brussels derided those who wanted to pursue the ‘have cake and eat it’ strategy.

Sadly, the future of Serbia’s relations with the EU – on which a crucial decision regarding progress will be taken in the coming weeks – shows both the EU’s own desire to pursue ‘cake and eat it’ strategies when it suits it, but also how much Britain will be missed.

On 18 December, Brussels will host the fifth Serbia-EU Stabilisation and Association Council. it has also been confirmed that on 10 Dec, Serbia will open two more chapters in EU accession talks as ambassadors of EU member states (COREPER) have formally confirmed this decision.

Serbian and, indeed, Balkan expectations are low. We expect more of the same: the EU will show enough willingness to keep all the Balkan countries interested, but not enough to deliver concrete change for the Balkans’ desperate people.

Without a clear EU enlargement policy, the Balkan people are losing faith

The Western Balkan countries, with a GDP at significantly less than half the EU average, need access to the EU to grow economically. They look enviously at the infrastructure created by the EU’s structural funds in near neighbour countries inside the Union. Their young people dream of the opportunities free movement would create, and their businesses of the trade growth they could secure.

However, the EU has been holding out the carrot of EU membership to Western Balkan countries for years, while seemingly always retreating from a clear decision.

The economic strains of the financial and debt crises have been compounded by the political problems of the migrant crisis, and the growth of ‘illiberal democracy in Hungary and Poland. Now, with the United Kingdom – formerly the EU’s greatest proponent of enlargement towards the East – leaving the club, there is real doubt in the Balkans about the Union’s genuine commitment to the region.

China, Russia and the Gulf States are circling

While the EU has played for time, the geopolitical context has changed. China is a now rival economic suitor, actively driving investment in the region through its ’16 + 1’ strategy. Turkish investment is growing strongly too, closely followed by the Gulf States.

But it is Russia, keen to weaken the EU and create instability where it can, which has changed the game. It has increased its meddling in Balkan affairs as its relationship with the West has deteriorated. Macedonia’s name dispute with Greece, Montenegro’s entry into NATO and of course the Serbia-Kosovo relationship all create fertile ground for Russian disinformation and hybrid warfare.

To give it its due, the EU has tried – with some success – to support those still trying to lead the Balkans Westward.  Montenegro HAS joined NATO; the name of ‘North Macedonia’ has been agreed after brave steps taken by Zoran Zaev and Alex Tsipras; and the EU has supported an ongoing dialogue process between Serbia and Kosovo.

How can Serbia meet an undefined EU position on Kosovo?

But it remains to be seen whether these steps create meaningful progress towards EU integration for Montenegro or North Macedonia; and the EU’s position on the Kosovo issue remains confused.

Whereas the US has committed to support whatever negotiated settlement the parties come to, certain EU countries, most notably Germany, are ruling out territory swaps even if Presidents Vučić and Thaçi agree to them. What solution they propose instead is unclear – despite maintaining that a ‘resolution’ of the Kosovo question is a sine qua non for the continuation of Serbia’s EU integration journey.

Frustration with the lack of progress is most definitely one of the reasons behind the recent rise in tension between Belgrade and Pristina. Because Belgrade would not support Kosovo’s membership of Interpol, Pristina has over-reacted by slapping 100% tariffs on all Serbian goods – a measure which will harm Kosovar consumers of all ethnicities, and SME’s on both sides. But this is what happens when the hopes of countries are continually dashed.

Balkan accession is an easy win for the EU, if prioritised

There is no doubting that the EU faces existential battles of its own right now. The impact of Brexit on the long-term future of the Union is unclear, although it seemingly created short-term unity among the remaining 27.

The government in Rome is threatening to upset all sorts of apple carts; right-wing populists threaten big gains in next year’s European Parliament elections; Mr Orbán shows no sign of backing down; and who knows what next Middle Eastern or African catastrophe might re-open the migrant ‘flood-gates’, and the consequent discord between European ‘partners’?

But precisely because of all these short-term battles, it seems the EU is losing sight of its core mission – and Western Balkan integration is stalling. But I believe Balkan accession can reinvigorate the founding purpose of the Union – to bring peace, security and prosperity to the European continent.

The eighteen months of Brexit negotiations have shown that cake and eat it strategies rarely work. I wonder if Brussels will see the irony when it decides next month whether to help or hinder Serbia’s EU future?

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