*The European Union wants to show it still cares about the Balkans, but not everyone is feeling the love.
EU leaders who favor enlargement argue that bringing the Western Balkan countries into the fold is in the bloc’s own interests. The six countries are surrounded by EU members to their north, west and east. The 2015 refugee crisis, during which hundreds of thousands of migrants made their way to Western Europe via the Western Balkan route, demonstrated the region’s importance to the stability of the EU.
If the Western Balkan countries adopt reforms to join the EU, the theory goes, those countries themselves will become more prosperous, more stable and more closely aligned with the EU’s interests.
“If we do not somehow embrace these countries, they will feel abandoned by the EU and they will seek other allies,” said Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar, whose country was the first former Yugoslav republic to join the bloc, in 2004.
In his Sorbonne speech on Europe, French President Macron warned Western Balkan countries would turn toward Russia or Turkey, “or towards authoritarian powers that today do not defend our values” if they do not have a clear perspective of EU membership.
Although China and the Gulf states have also become increasingly active economically in the region, it is the role of Russia that has EU governments most alarmed — even as Moscow insists it is not destabilizing the Balkans.
Montenegro has accused Russian agents of being behind a failed coup last year — a claim senior Western officials believe is credible. Russia has also donated MiG fighter jets to Serbia and encouraged the separatist ambitions of the Serb region of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“It’s not easy to sell new membership to voters in Germany” — David McAllister, German Christian Democrats MEP
Yet EU officials acknowledge it is hard to win support among the public for bringing relatively poor countries with a recent history of war and instability into the bloc, especially with right-wing populism still a force to be reckoned with. To many Europeans in older member countries who have struggled to absorb immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, the idea of more migration from east to west is unwelcome.
“It’s not easy to sell new membership to voters in Germany,” said David McAllister, a German MEP from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats who chairs the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
“But you can win the argument if you deliver concrete reasons why this is beneficial, not only for the country joining the EU but also to the EU in general.”
For regional governments keen to move closer to the EU, the renewed focus from Brussels is very welcome.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said “it was a very different atmosphere” back in 2014 when Juncker said the EU needed “to take a break from enlargement.”
Brnabić said she could “completely understand why [the enlargement agenda] was left aside a little bit,” and argued Serbia had used that period to prove its commitment to EU accession.
Countries had less reason to fight corruption if they were not going to be joining the bloc any time soon, like Macedonia, which became increasingly authoritarian under leader Nikola Gruevski | Robert Atanasovski/AFP via Getty Images
But officials and analysts are divided over whether Juncker’s statement was a good idea. Regional governments had less reason to adopt EU standards in areas such as fighting corruption or defending media freedom if they were not going to be joining the bloc any time soon.
Macedonia, for example, became increasingly authoritarian under longtime leader Nikola Gruevski and tension between his government and its opponents led to violence in the parliament earlier this year. Gruevski eventually stood down and a coalition of Social Democrats and ethnic Albanian parties took charge.
“We had been kept in the waiting room for several years with the doors locked … Probably to some extent this influenced the negative dynamic in the country,” said Nikola Dimitrov, Macedonia’s foreign minister. He did not lay the blame entirely on the EU, saying he didn’t “want to justify our own shortcomings.”
Despite the new mood of openness toward enlargement, the challenges to bringing any of the Western Balkan six into the EU are formidable. Some are unique to each country, some apply to all of them.
Support for EU membership is weak in a number of Western Balkan countries — most of all, ironically, in “frontrunner” Serbia.
Macedonia’s biggest problem when it comes to getting closer to the EU — and NATO — is as fundamental as its name. Greece, which has a northern province of the same name, has blocked Macedonia starting accession talks, first recommended by the Commission back in 2009, because it believes the country’s name applies a claim on its territory and heritage.
A common problem across the region is the strength of organized crime and its close links to a political elite, in which corruption is widespread.
“The leaders are thoroughly corrupt and have an incentive not to go down the EU track,” said Fredrik Wesslau, a senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations.
Wesslau said the EU had “a massive credibility problem” in the region, with a strong sense that it “doesn’t really care that much.”
Support for EU membership is weak in a number of Western Balkan countries — most of all, ironically, in “frontrunner” Serbia, where only 26 percent of people think it would be a good thing, according to the latest annual Balkan Barometersurvey.
* The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at : http://politico.eu
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