Why is the EU punching below its weight in the Western Balkans?

The EU has the leverage to resolve major Balkan issues, such as the Serbia-Kosovo dispute. Why is it holding back?

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    German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and leaders of Western Balkan nations pose for a group photo during a summit in Berlin on April 29, 2019 [Reuters/Michael Sohn]
    German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and leaders of Western Balkan nations pose for a group photo during a summit in Berlin on April 29, 2019 [Reuters/Michael Sohn]

    This week's mini-summit on the Western Balkans hosted in Berlin by German Chancellor Angela Merkel was indeed "mini" in terms of both output and format.

    As some observers noted, the only real outcome of this formal meeting was that a new one was scheduled to be held in July, hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris. In other words, there was no breakthrough on any touchy subject, including the worrying stalemate in negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo.

    To the disappointment of EU-philes in the Balkans, Brussels once again demonstrated that it lacks the political unity to push for a concrete solution to major regional problems.

    So, why is the EU failing to make headway on Kosovo?

    For a long time, after Pristina declared independence from Belgrade in 2008, EU members were divided on whether they recognised it or not. Today, another divisive subject is what the endgame of the EU-sponsored normalisation talks between Belgrade and Pristina should be.

    The EU's foreign policy head, Federica Mogherini, supports the broad idea for a land swap in exchange for Serbia's acceptance of Kosovo's sovereignty, which was proposed recently by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his Kosovar counterpart Hashim Thaci.

    Merkel is a sceptic and does not see anything good coming out of redrawing borders in former Yugoslavia; she appears to favour the 2013 Brussels Agreement, which envisions broad autonomy for Kosovo Serbs. Implicitly, this is a crucial step towards Serbia recognising Kosovo which would clear a major hurdle on its path to EU membership.

    Macron, for his part, appears non-committal. Without rejecting the Vucic-Thaci plan, he is trying to be on Merkel's side.

    To muddy the waters even further, the Trump administration - by way of National Security Adviser John Bolton - has also expressed support for the Vucic and Thaci's idea, and so has Russian President Vladimir Putin, albeit for a different reason. Putin has backed the idea because it is clearly at odds with hitherto Western policy on the dispute and could undermine the EU-sponsored talks.

    Meanwhile, Serbia and Kosovo have been at each other's throats for months. Belgrade's campaign to have countries worldwide de-recognise Kosovar statehood resulted in the imposition of punitive tariffs by Pristina and triggered a war of words. Normalisation talks have been one of the first casualties, and as the Berlin gathering proved, a restart is not imminent.

    Merkel and Macron have a good reason to fear that the deadlock serves competitors. That includes Russia and even China, whose economic footprint is growing, as the recent 16+1 summit between Beijing and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe demonstrated.

    "Maybe we underestimated China and overestimated Russia", Commissioner Johannes Hahn, in charge of EU's enlargement to the Balkans, observed in a recent interview.

    Yet fretting about geopolitical threats, immediate or more distant, is pointless so long as EU member states are at a loss on what their own goals are.

    The EU should have moved to kill territorial swaps and border corrections once and for all by doubling down on the Brussels Agreement and seeing it through. Sadly, it has failed to do so.

    The EU's inability to act is a reflection of its internal polarisation. Fearful of the rise of anti-immigration populists and unabashedly xenophobe parties, mainstream leaders are kicking the can down the road on the issue of enlargement. They are apprehensive that the far right could exploit the prospect of new members from the poorer Western Balkans joining the EU to stoke public fears of another wave of migration to make further electoral gains.

    Macron's France has emerged as the lead sceptic but there are others as well. In mid-April, the Dutch parliament voted to rescind the visa-free travel regime for Albania, in place since 2010. While the EU mechanism for suspending visa liberalisation for Albania has not been triggered, the move reflects the sombre mood across Western Europe.

    This defensive posturing is seriously hobbling Brussels' Balkan policy. Kosovo provides a glaring illustration. While it has fulfilled all technical conditions, its citizens are still being denied visa-free travel to Schengen countries, which, in turn, limits the leverage EU institutions can wield over the country, giving plenty of reason to Kosovar politicians to distrust the EU.

    Meanwhile, North Macedonia and Albania are also struggling along the path towards EU membership. Skopje expects to be rewarded with accession talks for the courage in tackling the long-standing dispute with Athens, but EU member states like France are arguing against starting the process this summer. For Macron and others, enlargement spells trouble.

    Yet no one really expects the EU to accept the Western Balkan Six (North Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia) tomorrow. This is neither realistic nor desirable. Brussels officials are right: The candidates need to show reform zeal, tackle corruption, fix the justice system, overhaul legislation, and enforce the rule of law to move forward on the accession path.

    At the same time, starting membership talks with more countries, beyond Serbia and Montenegro, need not be a moving goalpost. Experience shows that it is during accession negotiations that the EU's clout is at its peak. So, if North Macedonia and/or Albania make it to the next stage, they are likely to be exposed to much more pressure from the EU and more likely to undertake the necessary reforms and successfully implement them. This will affect the EU's internal cohesion, which is what Macron et al ostensibly care about.

    As it marks the 15th anniversary of the "big bang" enlargement of 2004, Brussels needs to realise the utility of accession talks and stop punching below its weight in the Western Balkans.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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