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Monday 17 May 2021

Challenges and opportunities for the Biden Administration in South East Europe

On 13 May, SEESOX hosted, jointly with the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard, a webinar on Challenges and Opportunities for the Biden Administration in South East Europe. Speakers were Thomas Countryman (former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State with responsibility for the Balkans), Valerie Hopkins (former South East Europe Correspondent for the Financial Times), and Ivan Vejvoda (Head of Europe’s Futures Programme, Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna). Othon Anastasakis (SEESOX) and Elaine Papoulias (Minda de Gunzberg Center) co-chaired.

Countryman began by underlining that the aims of US policy in the region had remained unchanged across different administrations since Dayton: to support the aspirations of West Balkan countries to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic structures (NATO, EU) and prevent any recurrence of conflict. Thus, while there would be no significant policy change from Trump to Biden, the new administration would seek to restore US credibility with its allies and in its alliances. He pointed out that, even under Trump, and despite frictions with Richard Grenell, the US and EU had in fact worked well together and achieved results – the North Macedonia name issue, Montenegro accession to NATO, and Albania’s progress towards EU accession. However, the EU accession perspective had lost credibility (Kosovo non-recognition by some EU member states, hesitations over opening accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia), while Hungary’s Potemkin democracy did not encourage reform in SEE. He suggested that possible common actions by both sides could include:
  • Continued public opposition to suggestions for border changes,
  • Support for a continued Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, with the clear goal of mutual recognition,
  • US support for Lajcak and Brussels in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, with a focus on measures to achieve a more normal life for all communities, in parallel with movement towards meeting EU accession criteria.
All this was linked to a credible EU accession perspective, however, without which Serbia would halt reform and Kosovo give lower priority to the bilateral dialogue. He hoped that the Kurti government, which had fewer links to the conflict, could focus on anti-corruption and Rule of law; was Kurti capable of a Mandela-style reconciliation among citizens?

He found it hard to be optimistic about Bosnia. The only positive element was that there were no elections in 2021; perhaps politics could focus on governing, not campaigning? EU and US support for small steps to respond to citizens’ needs and to support civil society could help.

Hopkins warned against excessive expectations about US engagement and EU accession. Biden’s views on illiberalism inside the EU were unknown, and he had to battle the loss of US credibility in western Europe. At the same time South East Europe represented an opportunity to repair the EU-US relationship; the EU should take it, as the US continued to be seen, in the SEE region, as a more honest broker. The departure of Merkel would be an important element in the appointment of a replacement for Lajcak. The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue was also another area for US-EU joint action, but EU needed to address Kosovar frustrations over visas and Lajcak’s gaffes. Kosovo sought a degree of equality with Serbia in the dialogue process, and rejected what it perceived as “orders” from Washington. US should encourage confidence building measures within the dialogue, and press for the early bilateral agreements, now 10 years old, to be fully implemented.

On North Macedonia, US needed to press Bulgaria to agree to the opening of accession negotiations. A joint US-EU response to China’s activities in the region would also be helpful.

Vejvoda noted that the post-Dayton unfinished business debated 17 years ago remained much the same. He highlighted the fact that members of the new administration, from Biden downwards, were well versed in the Western Balkans; there was need for engagement, both geopolitical and geo-economic. The EU had taken its eye off the ball, opening the door to “third actors”. From this point of view, the recent statement by the G7 Foreign Ministers was welcome, as were the declarations by Borell. Bulgaria’s position regarding North Macedonia’s accession was untenable, and extremely detrimental to EU credibility in the region (even if France had started this particular ball rolling). The Kosovo visa regime was also a troubling issue – even Moldova and Ukraine had passed this milestone.

The ensuing Q & A raised a number of issues:
  • In a context where the fragility of democracies was the defining challenge of this era, Russia acted as a spoiler, rather than a major player, delaying progress towards EU accession and encouraging Serbian backsliding on Rule of Law and media freedom.
  • In the same context, illiberalism was growing inside the EU, with Hungary having gone even further than Poland and Slovenia, setting a bad example to those in SEE who sought more normality. There was some hope that Slovenia’s elections in 2022 might halt the process, but damage had already been done. The challenge was not merely to establish democratic institutions, but also to allow a genuine culture of democracy to develop. Demographic developments did not help, with the young leaving the field open for older, more conservative populations; external support for those fighting democracy was needed.
  • Should not the EU investigate media freedom in Hungary and Slovenia, and the role of public broadcasters? The EPP had finally rid itself of Orban’s Fidesz Party, but was it ready to do the same for Slovenia’s governing party?
  • Rule of law was of paramount importance, and G7 and EU emphasis on them was welcome. Parliaments needed to show leadership, with failure risking a new Kashmir in the Western Balkans.
  • EU and US needed to follow a rule of “no surprises”, where EU and US did not make moves not previously communicated to, and discussed with, the other. In particular, on Kosovo, they needed to work hand in hand, and combine their efforts to support reforms favouring Rule of Law, both at governmental and civil society levels.
  • Infrastructure funding was vital, but should be linked to Rule of Law reforms, with priority funding going where this was being promoted; the EU needed to be more pro-active in this respect. Funding from China, and other countries, was not in itself the issue, but rather the linked trade agreements that lacked all transparency. Citizens needed to be empowered to insist on transparency.
  • Bosnia was described as a “mini-Yugoslavia”, with all the consequent problems; it would inevitably constitute the last issue to be resolved.
Looking to the future, Countryman advanced a prediction that, by 2050, the European Union would include every country west of the Black Sea, including Switzerland, Scotland and Wales, with the exception of England, Bosnia and, perhaps, Hungary!

Jonathan Scheele (SEESOX Associate)

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