Global Europe Brief: Western Balkans – Lukewarm or too hot to handle?

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EDITOR’s TAKE

As we predicted last week, more phantom non-papers emerged on Western Balkans in the wake of a mysterious document that kicked up a storm by proposing a radical redrawing of borders in the region.

Reportedly authored by Germany and France, a leaked document proposed that Kosovo and Serbia recognise each other while agreeing to create and an autonomous district in Serb-populated northern Kosovo.

This time though, the alleged authors promptly denied having anything to do with the document.

The highly unusual flurry of activity over documents whose authenticity everyone seemed eager to deny was made that much more peculiar by the fact it came just before visits to Brussels of the heads of state of the countries involved: North Macedonia, Serbia, and Kosovo.

There are two possible scenarios regarding the non-papers.

First, the documents were genuinely written by a concerned party, be it one of the mediators (read EU or US) or the countries involved to test the waters. Alternatively, the papers were written by a third country, an external actor, seeking to upset the delicate balance and wreak havoc in the already troubled region.

Either way, de novo, things are on the move in the Western Balkans.

One aspect worth highlighting relates to the ongoing struggle to reach a legally binding agreement between former arch-foes Serbia and Kosovo. Specifically, the reaction of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who holds one set of keys to its resolution.

Vučić decidedly rejected even seeing the first paper, whose proposed border changes would greatly benefit Belgrade.

It was all the more interesting in light of his reaction to the second document, for which he cryptically said it had been ‘written by a very clever woman’, without elaborating.

Meanwhile, during his Belgian visit, he was all too happy to shift the conversation to relatively inconsequential infrastructure projects.

Bottom line is, the papers have raised the working temperature across the Western Balkans and, while the region is hot, it’s high time for an EU push. If, however, Brussels opts to pour cold water on the region instead of shifting into higher gear, ambitions of this corner of Europe may just begin to rust.

Already, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti said he would not attend a meeting with Vučić in May, proposed by EU top diplomat Josep Borrell to relaunch the Belgrade-Pristina talks.

Ultimately, if Brussels decides not to strike while the iron is hot, someone else just might pick up the hammer.


EU IN THE WORLD

RUSSIA TIT-FOR-TAT. Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed as “absurd” Prague’s accusations against Moscow that the Russian secret services had been behind a deadly arms depot blast in 2014. But the investigative website Bellingcat connected the dots back to Russia.

The Visegrad countries approved an official statement condemning the recently revealed Russian military covert operation in Czechia, but Hungary blocked a harsh version of the V4 declaration, accepting a softer one.

So whose turn was it this week? The Russian foreign ministry has expelled two diplomats from the Lithuanian embassy in Moscow, as well as one employee each from the embassies of Latvia and Estonia, “based on the principle of reciprocity” after the Baltic countries expelled several Russian diplomats last week.

In a resolution, EU lawmakers reflected hardening attitudes to Moscow and called on the EU to impose anti-corruption sanctions on Russians.

TURKISH CONDITIONALITY. All aspects of the EU’s relationship with Turkey should introduce the question of democratic conditionality, a leading MEP has told EURACTIV, according to whom civil society in Turkey felt completely abandoned by the EU when the Council offered a positive agenda to Turkey without mentioning the crackdown on pro-European and pro-democratic groups. Ankara, meanwhile, is visibly unhappy with the EU involvement.

WATER COOPERATION. Decentralised cooperation for sustainable water management and sanitation between European regional, local authorities with their counterparts across the globe is key to help localise sustainable development goals, stakeholders say.

TRANSATLANTIC LINK

SLEEPY JOE? In his re-election campaign, Donald Trump tried to hurt his rival by alluding to his age and presumed lack of stamina. He called him “Sleepy Joe”. But Trump lost and 100 days after Joe Biden took office, not many think that the 46th President of the United States lacks stamina, writes Georgi Gotev.

APPOINTMENTS, FINALLY. US President Biden is leaning toward nominating Mark Gitenstein to be his ambassador to the EU and Julie Smith as his envoy to NATO. Some Biden advisers, Axios reports, want to have the EU and NATO ambassadors announced ahead of Biden’s first foreign trip as president, when he heads to the United Kingdom for the G-7 and then Brussels for a NATO summit in June.

RIGHTS & VALUES. A central question when looking ahead to the EU-US encounters in the next few summit months will be whether Biden will pursue a more consistent rule of law and values agenda than his predecessor.

This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced alarm at a deterioration of press freedom in Hungary and vowed to press Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to respect pluralism.

DEFENCE CORNER

DEFENCE FUND. After the European Defence Fund’s (EDF) financial power had become somewhat of a pandemic casualty, EU lawmakers this week approved the controversial €7.9 billion EDF, clearing the way for the bloc’s first-ever dedicated programme for military research intended to bolster military cooperation between EU member states. But criticism is likely to continue.

ENLARGEMENT LATEST

TWO-EDGED. Serbian President Alexandar Vučić has deflected criticism from the EU on the worsening situation for rule of law and media freedom in his country, with the help of docile media which preferred to focus on an uneventful infrastructure project. EURACTIV takes a closer look here.

PHANTOM PAPERS. The United States voiced full support and pledged to help the Western Balkan countries’ efforts to join the EU this week, after an unofficial diplomatic note suggesting border changes in the region raised fears of renewed ethnic tensions in the south-eastern corner of Europe. But the stream of new phantom documents seems not to have dried up.

ALBANIA VOTE. Albania’s prime minister Edi Rama declared victory in parliamentary elections earlier this week and claimed a record third term in office, but the opposition has refused to accept the result.

EURASIA DIGEST

PEACEFUL SEAS? Only a week after unveiling its shiny Indo-Pacific strategy, the EU called out China for endangering peace in the South China Sea and urged all parties to abide by a 2016 tribunal ruling which rejected most of China’s claim to sovereignty in the sea, but which Beijing has rejected.


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.

  • G7 foreign and development ministers meet
    | Monday, 3 May 2021 | London, UK
  • Poland hosts summit with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine in light of Russia threat
    | Monday, 3 May 2021 | Warsaw, Poland
  • European Commission unveils industrial strategy for Europe
    | Wednesday, 5 May 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • Foreign Affairs Council on defence issues
    | Thursday, 6 May 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • Informal EU summit
    | Friday, 7 May 2021 | Porto, Portugal
  • EU-India leaders’ summit
    | Saturday, 8 May 2021 | virtual

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