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Monday 27 January 2020

Western approaches to South East Europe: Engagement or neglect?

The Hilary Term 2020 Seminar Series – on Security Challenges in South East Europe in a changing geopolitical context – kicked off on 22 January with a session on Western Policy Approaches to South East Europe: engagement or neglect? Chaired by Othon Anastasakis (St Antony’s College), the speakers were Mirena Pencheva (St Antony’s College) and Jarek Wisniewski (Independent Analyst).

Anastasakis began with an overall introduction to the Seminar Series, which sought to look at geopolitics from a multidisciplinary viewpoint. He recalled the series four years earlier on a similar theme, wondering whether we were now seeing the return of geopolitics with a vengeance. This series would focus on three categories of concern: the role of external actors; new threats common to states; and, internal regional security threats. He highlighted three outdated assumptions: that actors were unified – this was no longer the case for the US, the EU or even within countries; that international security had to be based on territorially defined borders – challenges were increasingly transborder and shared; and that the actors were just states –in fact they now also included economic entities, non-governmental bodies, civil resistants and even migrants.
Pencheva began by reviewing the established platforms for engagement between the Western Balkans and the EU. The enlargement framework relied for progress on unanimity in the EU Council, but the October 2019 French veto on further enlargement – similar to the blockage on Schengen membership for Romania and Bulgaria since 2011 – risked, if prolonged, a slide towards neglect of the region, with the associated danger of activism by other, non-EU, players. In parallel, there were active sectoral policies for cooperation with the region, such as on terrorism, border management and disinformation. She saw neglect as unlikely in these sectoral fields of cooperation, given the interests of EU Member States in the continuation of such cooperation and the lack of the main disadvantages (real or perceived) associated with the enlargement process.
She also reviewed platforms for engagement outside the EU framework: the Berlin Process, and the Regional Cooperation Council. Both had the advantages of flexibility and a broader mandate, placing the Western Balkan states as equal partners, as well as focusing on cooperation between states within the region, rather than, as in EU accession, promoting competition between states.

This multiplicity of platforms posed challenges of duplication and overlap, with consequent waste of resources, and lack of coordination between platforms. Enlargement fatigue was present on both sides, as well as a lack of ownership by the countries involved of the consequent reforms, reinforced by external influences. The way forward lay, in her view, through:
  • The recognition of common challenges and the lessons to be learnt from them;
  • The need for the EU and the Western Balkans to be treated – and to act – as equal partners, taking ownership of reforms and developing common responses to challenges;
  • The possible expansion of a multi-speed Europe approach, formalising what already exists in fields such as Schengen and intelligence cooperation.
Wisniewski reviewed the engagement of NATO and the USA. He recalled that NATO’s initial hesitancy at involvement in the 1990s had developed into what many analysts call “NATO’s War” in Kosovo; gradual withdrawal of NATO troops had been accompanied by NATO enlargement, with its remaining military involvement increasingly European, even if under a NATO umbrella. Ad hoc actions, such as the November 2019 Counter Hybrid Support deployment in Montenegro, ran counter to this tendency however, while Brexit could lead the UK to push for greater NATO involvement and less EU focus.

For the USA, the overarching question was who actually ran US foreign policy – in general and in SE Europe in particular. The existence of two Special Envoys risked overlap and confusion. At the same time, the EU-US relationship was a broken line, with clear divisions regarding border adjustments; was the US itself divided?

His wishlist:
  • The appointment of an EU Special Representative to the Western Balkans: but how would he/she relate to the US Special Reps?
  • Increased NATO support to counter hybrid threats;
  • A common US-EU approach on the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue – neither had a clear position at the moment;
  • More public engagement.
During the Q & A Session, a number of issues were raised: state capture and the Rule of Law, together with the EU’s poor internal record and constraints in dealing with them (stalled Article 7 process); US-EU cooperation – more likely at sub-political level; the future of the Berlin Process after the Macron veto; the role of Russia and NATO’s continuing ambivalence within the region; the significance of EU and NATO economic levers; and, the thinking regarding Turkey within NATO and the EU, including on issues such as migration.

Jonathan Scheele (SEESOX Associate and Blog Editor)

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