Global Europe Brief: Elephants in the Balkan Room

Welcome to EURACTIV’s Global Europe Brief, your weekly update on the EU in the global perspective from our foreign affairs news team: Georgi Gotev and Alexandra Brzozowski.

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AN AWKWARD ENCOUNTER

EU leaders confirmed their “unequivocal support for the European perspective” of their Western Balkans counterparts during the EU-Western Balkans e-meet this week. However, the final declaration did not make reference to enlargement, instead focusing on the cooperation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the need for continued reforms, especially on rule of law, the fight against corruption and media freedom.

Leaders were asked to appear against neutral backgrounds to avoid insignia that one EU official said “would make the video conference difficult” as lingering diplomatic tensions mean nationalist symbols could cause offence.

But it is not surprising that the summit did not do without uncomfortable topics, one of the reasons being an interview by the EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell in the wake of the meeting, saying the EU “should not be more catholic than the Pope” and demand that Serbia and Kosovo exclude a land swap from a potential deal, which many fear could open the door to others in the region to argue for similar options on their territories.

Nor did Bulgaria’s threat to veto the start of Skopje’s accession talks with the EU due to a lack of progress in the work of the implementation of the Treaty on Good Neighbourhood Relations between Greece and North Macedonia do much to promote good will.

However, it was the geopolitical background vibes, that made the meeting a distinctly awkward exercise.

“The fact that this support and cooperation goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region deserves public acknowledgement,” the declaration stated, adding that this move would deserve more public recognition and need Balkan countries to follow EU foreign policy objectives – a veiled reference to concerns about countries aligning themselves too closely to Russia and China.

EU member states, such as France and the Netherlands who had blocked the inclusion of the word “enlargement” in the Zagreb summit document, did not dare to say this openly, as they don’t want to risk loosing the region to geopolitical competition, an EU official suggested after the summit.

MEPs in the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee were also unimpressed with the summit outcome when they quizzed Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi. Bottom line: We are concerned that the gap between the messaging about the EU’s role in the region and the public opinion could become a problem.

IMAGE OF THE WEEK | Banksy’s newest artwork depicts child playing with nurse toy, with Batman and Spider-Man discarded in a bin. The piece appeared at the Southampton general hospital. Photograph: @banksy/Instagram/PA

EU IN THE WORLD

VIRUS IMPACT. One of the pieces of good news in recent days seemed to be that the health crisis has passed its peak in Europe. Most EU countries are seeing a “substantial decrease” in COVID-19 cases, and Bulgaria is the only EU country where coronavirus cases are increasing, the director of the EU’s disease control agency said this week.

But relief could be short-lived as the economies of EU countries will shrink by 7.4% this year as the COVID-19 pandemic is set to cause the worst recession in the bloc’s history, according to the European Commission’s spring forecast, which also foresaw a significant rebound in 2021.

GLOBAL ORDER. The COVID-19 pandemic ‘has ended blowing up’ the global order, effectively destroyed the global governance model and the EU should play a key role in rebuilding the international order, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters.

TRADE PACTS. The UK and US kicked off the first round of talks on a trade deal which London has made a priority following its exit from the EU. The talks with Washington are set to run alongside post-Brexit trade negotiations with the EU. While there is plenty of motivation for Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump to move speedily and give both men a quick political win, a trade deal is unlikely, writes EURACTIV’s Benjamin Fox.

HEZBOLLAH BAN. German police last week raided mosque associations alleged to be close to Hezbollah and banned all the group’s activity on its soil after designating it a terrorist organisation, a much-anticipated step long urged by Israel and the United States. Iran has condemned Berlin’s ban, saying the move serves US and Israeli interests. European countries do not share a common approach to Hezbollah due to various historical ties to Lebanon. Could Germany’s decision compel the rest of the EU to crack down on the organization too?

According to MEP Nicola Beer (Renew/FDP), Europe’s efforts to stop Hezbollah doesn’t end with a designation, but the need to include wide-ranging financial measures: “When we freeze all the assets, when no criminal and also no legal business is possible in Europe, then we will dry out Hezbollah, which has a lot of money to finance all of these attacks,” she said during a recent webinar.

DEFENCE CORNER

NUCLEAR DEBATE. Germany’s centre left has reopened an old debate about whether to remain under Washington’s nuclear umbrella. Germany should “exclude the stationing of US nuclear weapons in the future,” Rolf Mützenich, the leader of the Social Democrats (SPD) in the Bundestag, has demanded, prompting a backlash from coalition partners. A dispute about the country’s role in NATO‘s nuclear strategy could follow.

RED FLAG. Very little seems to have changed since 2007, when Russia’s President Vladimir Putin gave his speech in Munich: Feelings of being betrayed and insulted by the West continue to have an effect on decisions and messaging. Integrity, sovereignty and the need to be seen as a superpower remain as parameters in the Kremlin’s corridors. Therefore, even if Russia has said that it is up to Finland to decide on its possible NATO membership, such a decision would still have negative implications for bilateral relations, according to a study commissioned by the previous Finnish government and published this week.

EUROPEAN TANK. Germany and France have signed two cooperation agreements to launch the development of a new Main Ground Combat System. “With this project, Germany and France are sending an important signal for European cooperation in defence policy,” the German defence ministry said. It is the second joint project Paris and Berlin are cooperating on: In February both countries gave the green light for building a prototype of Europe’s next-generation fighter jet, effectively launching a project long held up by disputes over how the industrial work would be divided.

DEFENCE FUNDING. The EU bears a huge responsibility for what the future will look like, and has a key choice to make: work for sustainable peace by seriously tackling the root causes of conflicts, or continue the path to militarism and prepare for war, ENAAT’s Laëtitia Sédou writes in an op-ed for EURACTIV.

PEACEKEEPING EFFORTS. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, overstretched UN peacekeepers — civilian, military,  and police — were a thin blue line helping to protect civilians, support peace agreements and contain conflicts in hot spots and war zones across the globe, but to extend the global fight against COVID-19 to areas struggling to emerge from conflict, we need to continue sustaining and promoting peace and stability, relying on UN peacekeepers to stay on course, the UN’s Atul Khare and Jean-Pierre Lacroix write.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had called for a global ceasefire in March, in the world’s conflict zones in order to protect vulnerable civilians from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

EURASIA DIGEST

‘WRONG’ ALLEGATIONS. Kazakhstan is not developing biological weapons or researching their possible use against other countries, its ministry of foreign affairs said, denying allegations circulated in Russian and domestic media that the country is working on biological weapons similar to COVID-19, being financed by the United States.

‘WEAK’ COMMUNICATION. The European Commission’s recently presented objectives for the Eastern Partnership post-2020 were strong on content but “very clearly weak on political signalling,” the head of Georgia’s mission to the EU, told EURACTIV in an interview. She also added that the upcoming EaP summit, which will bring together EU leaders and the six partner countries — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine — is a chance to ‘balance out’ the communication with concrete steps to bring the region closer.

US ELECTION WATCH

It’s 180 days until the US Presidential Elections and Joe Biden’s advantage over President Donald Trump in popular support has eroded in recent weeks as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee struggles for visibility with voters during the coronavirus pandemic, according to latest polls.

CREATIVE GOVERNANCE. Europeans have started to realise what it means to have an absence of American leadership on the international stage. This pandemic can ultimately offer opportunity to reimagine the transatlantic community and trigger the emergence of different kinds of leaders.

WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 

ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT DAYS…

The regular institutional cycle has temporarily ground to a halt. But we’ll continue to keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as operations moved exclusively online.

  • Johansson in European Parliament’s LIBE Committee
    | Thursday, 7 May 2020 | web-stream
    Commissioner Ylva Johansson will be quizzed by MEPs on the future of Schengen, common migration and asylum policy in light of the pandemic.
  • Europe Day
    | Saturday, 9 May 2020 | Europe-wide
  • UK-EU talks on post-Brexit ties
    | Monday, 11 May 2020 | videoconference
  • Foreign Affairs Council (Defence)
    | Mon-Tue, 11-12 May 2020 | videoconference
  • European Parliament plenary session
    | Wednesday, 13-15 May 2020 | web-stream
  • European Commission to adopt measures on tourism
    | Wednesday, 13 May 2020 | Brussels

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