Global Europe Brief, powered by FACEBOOK: Balkans seeks new hope as disappointment looms

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EU enlargement to the Western Balkans has been stuck in a rut for years. But there is a glimmer of hope this could change in the next few months, under the Council presidency of Slovenia, one of the biggest advocates of expansion.

Besides post-pandemic recovery, enlargement to the Western Balkans is among the main priorities for the EU in the coming period, needed to respond to strategic and security challenges posed by third actors like Turkey, Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Janša, whose country takes over the EU presidency in July, told the European Parliament a week ago.

But will the region’s high hopes be met? Or will the EU’s renewed focus turn into yet another disappointment?

This week, EU institutions have agreed on an aid package for candidate countries worth roughly €14 billion.

“This long-awaited agreement on our ambitious financing assistance is a positive, welcome and strong signal for the Western Balkans and Turkey,”  Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said.

As well as improving convergence with the EU, he said, it would also bring “tangible benefits for citizens” in the EU hopefuls — Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Turkey.

The money would be invested in improving the region’s connectivity, infrastructure, environment and climate, as well as energy and digital, Várhelyi said. The financial plans still have to be approved by the European Parliament and the European Council (and Turkey might be a stumbling block here).

But funding and its “tangible benefits”, as well-intended as it might be, is by now far from enough.

The latest moment to send a clear signal will be this year’s Western Balkan summit, likely to take place in early October under the auspices of Slovenia’s EU Council presidency.

However, considering the stumbling blocks in the region itself – from the standoff between Sofia and Skopje to the undeniable presence of China and Russia – and the EU’s monsieur ‘non’, France, which will inch closer towards an election campaign, hopes for that clear signal might prove inflated.


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EU IN THE WORLD

BLAME GAME. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has blamed the EU for having suspended “the mutually beneficial architecture of cooperation” and for pushing to “shut Russia out.”

Describing the current state of EU-Russian relations using military terminology, Lavrov heaped all the blame for their deterioration onto the West. In its best fashion, Moscow has been resorting to the argument of “plausible denial” when Western law-enforcement authorities have pointed the finger at Russia’s involvement in a number of diplomatic incidents.

Keep an eye out for EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell’s Russia report, due to land on the desks of EU ambassadors ahead of the EU foreign ministers meeting on 21 June, before EU leaders have another chat about the matter at their next summit in late June.

MIGRATION PACT. The European Commission said it is optimistic that the EU’s new Pact for Migration and Asylum will be approved during the Portuguese EU Council presidency by the end of June.

KISSINGER QUESTION. Africa’s version of the ‘Kissinger question’, which originally referred to who should be the United States’ first contact in Europe, is one of the issues that remain open as the EU and African leaders seek to develop a so-called ‘strategic partnership’.

TRANSATLANTIC LINK

JOINT BODY. Recent reports and comments, also this week from  European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager this week, indicate that the US and EU will likely announce a joint Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council to promote joint innovation and standard-setting on emerging technologies soon. EU bubble bookies have their bets on the upcoming EU-US summit on 15 June.

PIPELINE TANGO. Ahead of US President Joe Biden’s maiden trip to Europe in mid-June, Germany and the United States are holding talks in Washington in a bid to settle the long-running row over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The timing of the German-American rendezvous is anything but coincidental.

MAFIA CLEAN-UP. In transatlantic rule of law news, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned three Bulgarians for corruption in Bulgaria, as well as their networks encompassing 64 entities. The move was part of the largest Global Magnitsky action taken in a single day, targeting more than 65 individuals and entities for their significant acts of corruption in Bulgaria. The US thus dared to do what the EU so far didn’t.

DEFENCE CORNER

FUNDING WOES. Shortly before a crucial summit on 14 June in Brussels, NATO members remain divided about a proposal for higher community spending.

Despite some internal battles, it is now very likely that members will in principle declare their readiness at the summit to back the proposal to fund deterrence and defence measures at least partly from a community budget. How much remains the question.

SPY DEAL. Also, just ahead of the crucial EU-US summit on 15 June, another surveillance scandal threatens to dampen the transatlantic reset mood: German politicians have reacted with shock to revelations that Denmark’s foreign intelligence unit partnered with US National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on senior officials of neighbouring countries, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

UKRAINE AID. On Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas rejected a request for weapons from Ukraine, which has been fighting Russian-backed separatist rebels in the east of the country since 2014.

SOUND-CANNON. Greek police said on Thursday they plan to send out a high decibel message designed to deter migrants after setting up two controversial “sound cannons” at the Evros border post with Turkey.

But while the controversial step was widely decried as an ‘inhumane’ solution, the European Commission was quick to point out that this ‘sound cannon’ is not a European project, but a national one.

MALI EXIT? French President Emmanuel Macron warned earlier this week that France will pull its troops out of Mali if it lurches towards radical Islamism following the second coup in nine months.

ENLARGEMENT LATEST

SOFIA-SKOPJE. North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said he is ready to beg for a solution in Sofia but is not prepared to sacrifice the Macedonian identity and language.

LEAKED PAPER. The print media in Serbia that most often violate the journalistic code of professional conduct continue to be the beneficiaries of public funding, warned an internal EU paper obtained by EURACTIV that painted a bleak picture of the EU candidate country’s democratic record.

In an open letter published this week, the Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI) calls on 20 public service broadcasters, including France Télévisions, Italy’s RAI and Ireland’s RTE, to review their relationship with Euronews following the company’s decision to enter problematic partnerships in Bulgaria and Serbia. In a second letter, they expressed concerns that Euronews’ chosen partners do not operate in line with the strong editorial standards expected.

SURVEILLANCE TOWN. And speaking of Serbia, the European Parliament is taking a close look at China’s high-tech present to Serbia, a mass surveillance system that involves the installation of thousands of smart surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition features, MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield (Greens/EFA, France) told EURACTIV in an interview.

The system is widely used in China, while Europeans have serious concerns toward such an Orwellian novelty.

EURASIA DIGEST

BELARUS CASE. EU ambassadors on Friday adopted a plan to ban Belarus airlines from flying over EU territory or landing in EU airports, and prohibiting EU airlines from flying over Belarus, diplomats said. The decision is due to take effect at midnight Central European Time (CET).

The decision is part of broader economic sanctions against Belarus in response to Minsk scrambling a warplane to force the landing of a Ryanair flight carrying an opposition journalist last month.

Asked if EU sanctions can change Lukashenko’s current rogue course, experts seem to be largely sceptical.

At the same time, detours taken by airlines to avoid entering Belarusian airspace following the forced landing of a Ryanair jet are responsible for around an extra 250,000 kg of CO2 emissions per day, air traffic management estimates show.

BOYCOTT ENDED. Georgia’s main opposition party has announced the end of a months-long parliamentary boycott that has plunged the Caucasus nation into a spiralling political crisis, following disputed elections last year.


WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 

ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS…

Europe’s everyday business is still stuck in lockdown reality, until further notice. We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as Europe is slowly moving towards an opening after the pandemic.

  • European Parliament plenary session
    | Mo-Thur, 7-10 June 2021 | Strasbourg, France
  • EU interior ministers hold talks, with focus on migration
    | Tuesday, 8 June 2021 | Luxembourg

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