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Monday, 23 April 2018

The Balkans in the wider European context; the Slovene view

On the first day of Trinity Term, SEESOX hosted a seminar given by Iztok Mirosic, State Secretary for European Affairs in the Foreign Ministry of Slovenia. He gave a wide-ranging overview of current and future developments in the Western Balkans, and their relationship with the EU, complemented by an extensive Q & A session. The seminar was chaired by Othon Anastasakis.

Mirosic began by stressing that, despite the Brexit vote, the underlying interests of the EU and the UK in the region remained the same – the preservation of stability. In geopolitical terms, the region was now at a crossroads. EU accession, as a process supporting stability, the rule of law and economic reform and development, alongside the region’s role as an energy transit route, meant that accession was in the mutual interest of both the EU and the countries of the western Balkans. This had been recognised at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, when the Western Balkan countries had been given a clear perspective of full membership, differentiating them from the EU’s eastern neighbours.Fifteen years later, where were we? Only Croatia had managed to accede, while the EU had faced multiple crises – financial, economic, terrorism and migration and now Brexit, together with the rise of nationalism and populism, and challenges to the rule of law. These had raised questions about the future of the EU itself, and hence of enlargement. Consequently, the EU perspective for the Balkans had changed; Brexit, and the fact that the celebration in 2017 of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome had made no mention of enlargement, were certainly not good signs. The Juncker declaration in 2014 that there would be no enlargement during his mandate had been a terrible political mistake.

Overall, there was the impression of a loss of EU interest in a region that was slowly slipping back into instability. Countries in the region also seemed to have lost interest in accession – and hence in their reform processes. This loss in credibility of the accession perspective reduced EU influence in the region, while growing migratory flows into the EU were a sign of the deep mistrust of the population and of growing instability. Regional cooperation was flagging, media freedom eroded, civil society ignored, and local politicians were no longer interested in political reform.

This situation, along with US withdrawal, created political space for other players – Russia, Turkey, China and the Gulf States. Merkel had recognised this and established the Berlin Process, to engage the countries of the region and give a renewed prospect of integration. Its aim was to establish regional cooperation as a complement to, but not a replacement for, EU accession; all the major EU Member States were committed to the initiative, and the recently adopted enlargement strategy confirmed this. Boosting infrastructure and energy connectivity, trade and economic cooperation, would preserve the EU’s leading role in the region and counter other actors. While none of them could ever become a true alternative to the EU, greater priority needed to be given to the region to preserve EU leverage.

Bilateral disputes and ethnic tensions also needed to be curbed, if they were not to be exploited by Russia, while failure of enlargement to the Western Balkans would be a clear Russian victory. The EU’s new enlargement strategy was intended to prevent this. More generally, the further the EU retreated from the region, the greater the influence gained by other large actors that might challenge the EU’s role. Recent events in several countries in the region gave evidence of Russian meddling. It was vital that, without neglecting the fulfilment of the Copenhagen criteria, the EU also offer a clearer perspective of membership to the region.

The economies of the countries of the region were growing slowly, the recovery was still fragile, and the lack of structural reforms gave no encouragement for FDI. EU support for “strong men” had neglected civil society; more emphasis was needed on democratic processes, media freedom and civil society in general. Above all, the demographic situation was worrying; the brain-drain of young people towards the EU reflected unacceptably high youth unemployment – 60,000 young people were leaving Serbia every year. The Western Balkans all remained poorer than any EU member state, at 30/40% of the EU average per capita GDP, compared with Romania and Bulgaria at 60% - a reversal of historic comparisons.

The political situation in some EU member states meant that enlargement would not happen rapidly, as populist pressures opposed freedom of movement of labour. Consequently, EU thinking was increasingly tending to see accession as requiring that economic convergence had already begun. In fact, the small size of the Western Balkans economies meant that their accession would have no significant impact in the rest of the EU. Rather, rapid accession risked destroying markets in the region, with consequent massive migration flows.

The political situation in the region was worsening, with growing nationalism in the face of an apparent EU retreat; increasingly, local politicians were not prepared to bet on a genuine accession perspective. Within the EU, and despite the new enlargement strategy, member states were divided among those who supported the process, those who opposed it, inter alia for reasons linked to the status of Kosovo, and those in the middle, who supported the idea, but preferred delay.

What message then could be expected – in form and in substance - from the Sofia Summit in May? Whatever emerged from Sofia would influence the outcome of the June European Council and hence of the London Summit of the Berlin Process. The latter had been established using the experience of the Brdo-Brijuni process –which had been set up by Slovenia and Croatia in 2010 to foster regional cooperation between the countries of the region and the EU. He noted that the UK would of course find itself in a paradoxical situation in London, promoting EU enlargement while leaving it. But, with its focus on economic stability, London would be an opportunity for the UK to demonstrate that it was a reliable partner, despite Brexit.

There was in any case need for a new narrative regarding the region, addressing the link between loss of credibility for the accession perspective and increased instability. Credibility on the Western Balkans side required political reforms, and EU credibility had to be based on a strengthened perspective of membership – enlargement needs to be seen as an investment in peace and stability in the region. Both the UK and the EU need once again to give the region political priority. The alternative was to create space for other players with the consequent risk of instability, reopening of old sores, such as the Albanian question, and encouraging radicalisation and the threat of terrorism.

In summary, he supported applying tough conditions for accession, while ensuring a genuinely credible prospect of membership.

During the Q & A, issues that came up included the future of the Berlin Process; whether Western Balkans accession needed to proceed state by state or in a group (the issue of national referenda in EU member states); the role of the Copenhagen criteria; the leverage of Slovenia within the EU; the credibility of EU-focused reforms in the face of apparent backsliding by some new EU member states; and the role of Turkey in the region.

Jonathan Scheele, SEESOX

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