It is foolhardy to think Germany’s presidency of the EU or the bloc’s revival of Belgrade-Pristina talks signal a radical shift in enthusiasm for enlargement to the Western Balkans. Balkan states themselves must make concrete plans if they are to deepen relations with the bloc.
By Vesko Garcevic*
The Balkans has a problem with the management of expectations. Often, we expect that things will go a certain way whether we do something or not. Just take a look at how authorities are handling the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What all countries of the region have in common is a belief that the situation will somehow be under control by the middle of August, if not before. In the meantime, people’s behavior, the lack of coherent policy, or, for example, political protests in Serbia [without calling into question the justified motive behind the protests] make improbable the assumption that normality will return by then.
Something similar is happening with regional expectations for Germany’s presidency of the European Union that began this month. Despite the discouraging circumstances – COVID-19 and forecasts of a 4.7 per cent contraction in the EU economy – many in the region believe that Germany’s six-month presidency may revive dwindling EU enthusiasm for the Western Balkans.
Their expectations are rooted in the premise that not only is Germany interested in keeping enlargement alive but, more importantly, it is capable of revitalising the process.
It is true to say that, at a time when several EU members would rather have a contractual relationship with the region, a type of enhanced association, Berlin’s support for the EU perspective is of critical importance.
Those who wish to believe in the EU’s stronger political engagement in the region point to the renewed Belgrade-Pristina dialogue at the outset of the German presidency as supporting evidence. As positive as this is, however, the revived dialogue, which is supposed to pave the way for the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, will be a long and perplexing endeavour.
Yet, the EU’s sudden need to resurrect the negotiations should be seen in the context of the rivalry between the EU and the United States over the process. It has taken two years to get the leaders of two countries at the negotiating table, and it happened only when the US took the lead, providing oxygen to a dying dialogue.
Enlargement not on German priority list
The guiding principles of Germany’s Council Presidency as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech in the European Parliament this month leave no room for doubt that Berlin’s priority lies in the Union.
Before the pandemic, Germany was not particularly ambitious regarding its turn at the presidency, but views have changed over time.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is pushing for a “strong and sovereign Europe”, while Merkel titled her address to the European parliament Together for Europe’s recovery. She stressed that Germany wanted the EU to come out from the crisis unified and stronger.
The discussion in the European Parliament revolved around the issues put forward as the German priorities – fundamental rights, solidarity and cohesion, climate change, digitisation and Europe’s role in the world. Enlargement and the Western Balkans were not on the priority list.
The Belgrade-Pristina case at least tells us one thing: Germany will be involved in regional affairs when it is necessary and to a degree that will not derail Berlin from other, more critical issues. Germany does it anyway, whether it holds the EU presidency or not.
Huge economic challenges
Back to our opening argument: It is said that if you don’t manage expectations well, they will manage you. The best way to manage expectations is to not have them in the first place, but to come up with a plan to meet your goals. That brings me to a question pertinent to our EU aspirations. How can we have our high aspirations fulfilled if there is no clear plan on how to convert our ideas into action?
In an ideal world, at this moment, states from the region would be working on national, or even better regional, recovery plans with specific economic, social, and political components. They would concentrate on how to tap an EU COVID-19 recovery plan for the Western Balkans valued at 3.3 billion euros.
Given the unprecedented collapse of production, trade, services and employment as well as turbulence on the global financial market, governments should be working at pace on how to avoid an unnecessary rise in public debt that is likely to become a lasting consequence of the pandemic.
Although economic experts have different opinions on how much government debt matters, mixed with low economic output and weak state institutions, the debt may have devastating effects on the viability of the regional economies.
One may rightly say that several EU member states also have a problem with democratic backsliding, which became worse with the pandemic. At the moment when Montenegro became the first country in the Balkans to legalise same-sex civil partnerships, Poland, for example, is likely to re-elect a president who said that “LGBT ideology is worse than communism”.
But, this is not a reason to be complacent. A setback to reforms, distrust in institutions, problems of political legitimacy, the rise of nationalism, chauvinism, and the reinterpretation of history – all this has been haunting the region for years.
EU has interest in Balkan stability
It is difficult to imagine Germany changing the “strict but fair conditionality” approach. For countries wishing to develop constructive relations with the current EU presidency, it is of vital importance to have a plan and demonstrate a clear commitment to implementing – in EU jargon – the reform agenda. Unconditional, blank-check support has never been part of the game.
However, let us take a surprising twist in our reasoning. There are two sides to every coin. The EU must also do its bit.
Given the daunting challenges facing the EU, including the adoption of a comprehensive plan for economic recovery, Brussels will likely place a high value on stability in its immediate neighbourhood.
In the year(s) to come, during and after the German presidency, the EU will invest much energy and resources in preventing external shock-waves from reaching the bloc.
One of them may come from the Balkans.
Economic troubles on the horizon will further exacerbate the living conditions of ordinary citizens. It may deepen societal discontent and trigger civic unrest almost anywhere in the region.
With the influence of a third side, the region could again become a breeding ground for instability on a larger scale. The ongoing protests in Serbia send us two warning messages: they speak volumes about how frustrated people are, and they confirm how easily their righteous motives can be manipulated.
To act preemptively, Germany and the EU should not be involved only when it is necessary, and should not focus only on Belgrade and Pristina, but on Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania and North Macedonia too. A firmer political commitment to Bosnia and Herzegovina is needed to narrow the space for retrograde nationalistic narratives and unlock the EU perspective.
Political involvement beyond the technical nature of the enlargement process is not simply a symbolic gesture; it speaks to the commitment of Brussels to embrace the region as an equal and appreciated partner.
Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to better understand the importance of “the grassroots political work”. While leaders from the West rarely pay visits to the Western Balkans, Putin and Serbian President Alexandar Vucic have met fifteen times in the last several years.
*Vesko Garcevic is a former Montenegrin ambassador to NATO, the OSCE and other international organisations. He is currently a professor at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University.
The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.