The Brief, powered by ACCA – The Balkans’ moment of truth

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter.

The complexity of the Balkans, and its European path, needs no special introduction, yet it never ceases to surprise.

The German Bundestag gave its green light last Friday (27 September) for North Macedonia and Albania to open EU accession talks. The voice of Germany should be enough to appease the leading enlargement sceptics, France and the Netherlands.

But it’s not as simple as that. All (or most) member states seem to be in support of North Macedonia – saying its efforts to reach a name deal with Greece deserve to be rewarded — but they are a little less enthusiastic about Albania.

The idea of allowing Skopje to proceed while holding Tirana back has been floated for months. But with it goes the risk of angering all Albanians – many of whom live beyond Albania’s borders, primarily in Kosovo and North Macedonia – and thus destabilising the Western Balkans again.

Is it impossible to imagine that an Albania that’s angry with the EU might not be very constructive in helping a dialogue between Kosovo Albanians and Serbia? A dialogue that is central to resolving the lingering ethnic hostilities in the region.

Or that it could choose to be indifferent, at best, to efforts by the ethnic Albanians and Macedonians in North Macedonia to keep their multi-ethnic community intact?

But the outlook is not entirely bright for Skopje either, as it became evident that its EU neighbour Bulgaria might still have a dog in this fight. Bulgaria’s Deputy Prime Minister Krasimir Karakachanov said at the weekend he would resign unless Prime Minister Boyko Borissov blocked the opening of talks at the 17-18 October EU summit.

Karakachanov, who is also defence minister and the leader of the nationalist VMRO party, already threatened to block  Skopje’s NATO accession last December, citing a number of unresolved historical and language disputes.

Sofia and Skopje signed a bilateral agreement to clear outstanding problems, which was little noticed internationally, but was also a precursor to the much more publicised Prespa agreement with Athens. Karakachanov takes the view that Skopje is not delivering on the commitments it undertook.

It really looks serious. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev hastily organised on Monday a meeting with the country’s key players, including Borissov and his coalition partner Karakachanov.

It was decided that Bulgaria will support North Macedonia, but only on certain conditions, to be defined soon. The integration of Skopje should not be at the expense of Bulgaria’s history and identity, Radev said.

In the absence of big gestures from Skopje, it remains to be seen if Borissov will seek allies (again, France and the Netherlands) and piggyback on their opposition to accession talks, or stand up to Germany alone, or just back down facing a backlash at home.

Blocking both countries just before the new Commission takes over would mean the EU has come full circle and reinforce the message Jean-Claude Juncker sent in 2014: “There will be no enlargement during this Commission’s mandate”. Although he didn’t say “there will be no progress on the enlargement path”.

It will also be a wind in the sails for those who oversimplify and equate the start of accession talks with the accession itself, knowing full well that the negotiating process can take years and be blocked every step of the way. Outstanding issues can – at least in theory – be solved in the process.

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The Roundup

This week has kicked off with the long-awaited Commissioner hearings, during which the European Parliament will determine whether Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen’s team of candidates will be fit for the job.

In today’s ‘firing line’ are Commissioner-designates Maroš Šefčovič, Phil Hogan and Mariya Gabriel. Updates on the hearings are being posted on EURACTIV’s liveblog.

Two experienced socialist MEPs said it was likely that the long-awaited reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) would only be ready by 2022 or 2023. This would mean the CAP’s reform may not be ready by the time the still-discussed 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework is implemented.

All EU member states appear ready to accept the need to make EU funding conditional on democratic principles, according to Finnish PM Anti Rinne, who has set off to Hungary and the Czech Republic today to garner their support.

Newly-re-elected Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz came out victorious in Sunday’s snap elections despite the country going through political turmoil since his coalition government was ousted in May. With the Greens doing so well and Kurz stating he would refuse to strike an alliance with far-right party FPÖ, this may be the ultimate chance for the Greens.

Greta Thunberg is not alone. 15-year-old Kenyan footballer has been planting trees for every goal he has scored since 2018 and posting it to social media to raise awareness. His activism has earned him a spot at the UN Youth Climate Summit, following which he urged “world leaders to take urgent action”.

For the rest of the week, EURACTIV will be publishing articles in English, French and German as part of its special report on “European Winemakers grapple with environmental questions”, as well as articles as part of its special report on “Biogas in the EU”.

Today, we saw that France’s wine industry was still facing difficulties in making its practices more environmentally friendly and that although the EU’s biogas industry had good prospects moving forward, it would have to grapple the industry’s sustainability.

Look out for…

Parliamentary hearings of Commissioner candidates continue. Stay tuned for our live coverage.

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Georgi Gotev]

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