The Brief – EU keeps squaring the vicious Balkan circle

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Looking at 14 years of the EU’s attempts to determine once and for all what to do with the Balkans (since the first EU-Balkan Summit in Thessaloniki in 2003), one cannot help wondering whether wholehearted commitment on both sides might have been lacking all along.

Even with the EU’s growing internal headaches, the financial crisis, and the dwindling appetite among member states for taking in new, less-than-ready former communist countries, it is somewhat difficult to digest that the first of the batch of six Balkan countries (most probably Montenegro) might join the bloc in 2025 at the earliest.

The EU’s Balkans strategy has meandered over the past decade, from demanding compliance with the UN war crimes tribunal to insisting on regional cooperation among erstwhile enemies, combining a strictly individual approach with blanket efforts for the region.

And all the while hoping that economic cooperation could foster post-war reconciliation, as was the case in Western Europe after 1945, although human rights workers and NGOs in the region argue it should be the other way round – everyone should accept their part of the blame, apologise to everyone else and move on to doing business.

Take, for example, the latest remarks by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who commented on the ongoing Slovenia-Croatia border dispute on Monday, probably in the hope of introducing some order and clarity to the messy enlargement process.

He said that the dispute, which was allowed to fester on after Croatia joined the EU in 2013, sets a bad precedent for the Western Balkan EU hopefuls and that, learning from that mistake, the Commission expects the six Balkan states to resolve all outstanding issues before joining.

That could imply that Serbia should recognise its former Kosovo province, which became independent with Western backing in 2008. But Serbia has vowed never to accept Kosovo’s statehood and so far the EU has settled for facilitating a ‘normalisation dialogue’ between Belgrade and Pristina without addressing the elephant in the room, at least not publicly.

Contacted by EURACTIV, an EU official said the issue of Belgrade’s recognition was “up to the member states”. But five EU countries – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain – have refused to recognise Kosovo for their own internal reasons. This could obviously lead to confrontation in the EU council when it comes to approving Serbia’s membership.

Insiders in Belgrade say, however, that a compromise solution so typical of the EU is already in the works, whereby Belgrade would complete its membership talks and sign “a legally binding document” that will regulate all practical bilateral issues with its southern neighbour but stop short of saying “We recognise Kosovo”.

That just might do the trick.

But the fate of the other four – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia – remains in limbo.

A roundtable on Balkan reconciliation held in Brussels on Tuesday heard calls for a more active engagement by the EU.

But a Western diplomat who asked not to be named summed up the EU’s position in a sardonic remark:

“As long as there is no danger of a new war in the Balkans and not too much Russian meddling, the EU does not really care”.

Asked to take part in the debate, one of the few EU officials who attended the roundtable (a sure sign of dwindling interest in Brussels) said curtly:

“I am not in a position to take a position.”

The Roundup

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will attend the World Economic Forum in Davos later this month for the first time in two decades, as Europe wants to reclaim its role as a champion of multilateralism after years preoccupied with its numerous crises.

He is not a “great fan” of the forum, his chief spokesperson Margaritis Schinas admitted last year. But his participation would signal Europe’s confident return to the frontline.

Juncker will address businessmen and politicians on 25 January.The last time Juncker attended the forum was in 1997, when he was Finance Minister of Luxembourg.

Hungary and Poland have said they are ready to dig deeper into their pockets once the UK leaves the EU in 2019. Hungary’s finance minister even said “we would like to be net contributors”.

Leaders of online platforms met with Commissioners today for a high-powered pow-wow over the removal of hate speech from social media. Check EURACTIV later for the full story.

Bulgaria’s big moment at the helm of the EU Council has been marred by a spate of high-profile murders and accusations the country is not in control of its corruption problem. A top Bulgarian businessman was gunned down in broad daylight in the capital Sofia yesterday.

Coalition talks between Germany’s conservatives (CDU/CSU) and social democrats (SPD) will take a “more work, less talk” approach, according to Angela Merkel’s party, which says it has learned from the failure of the Jamaica coalition talks.

The would-be partners have allegedly agreed to scrap Germany’s 40% emissions reduction target, just two months after the country hosted the COP23.

A Norwegian court has ruled that the country can continue exporting fossil fuels without taking responsibility for their carbon emissions.

2018 is the final straight for several major pieces of energy legislation, including the carbon market reform, electricity market design, energy efficiency rules and renewables targets. Get up to date with the whole lot here.

Britain’s decision to leave the EU will not undermine NATO, the most successful military alliance ever, the US ambassador to Greece told EURACTIV.

A new rift has opened up in the EU-Mexico trade talks over Mexico’s right to continue producing Manchego cheese, a name Europe says should apply exclusively to products of Spain’s La Mancha region.

The Commission’s spokespeople appear to be getting ideas from the Thai prime minister’s cunning tactic for avoiding difficult questions.

Look out for…

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki will meet Jean-Claude Juncker for dinner in Brussels tonight to discuss the concerns of both sides. Juncker said the EU is “not in a state of war with Poland”.

Views are the author’s.

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