Reform and Enlargement, Simultaneously?
By Genc Mlloja
Albanian Daily News
Published April 21, 2018
'I don't want a return to war in the Western Balkans." This serious warning was made by the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker on April 17, 2018 in a particular moment for the European Union, its enlargement policy and the Western Balkans itself.
"If we remove from these countries, in this extremely complicated region, I should say tragically, a European perspective, we are going to live what we already went through in the 1990s," said Mr. Juncker in a reply to the French President, Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday who ruled out any expansion of the block until it was reformed. "I will only support an enlargement when there is first a deepening and a reform of our Europe," Macron told EU lawmakers in Strasbourg on April 17, 2018 reviving the 'freezing' enlargement spirit in the block.
It is not by chance that Mr. Juncker's warning against threat of war in the Western Balkans came when the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, recommended the launching of accession talks with Albania and Macedonia. Serbia and Montenegro (the latter has recently joined NATO) have already opened the accession talks. Bosnia and Kosovo, two other countries in the region that want to join the EU, have more work to do before talks could start with them, said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini while announcing on April 17 the European Commission's proposal for Albania and Macedonia to begin membership talks.
The 28 EU member states must agree unanimously for any country to become a member and the European Council will meet in June to decide on the European Commission's recommendation for it to become official. The vast majority of the member countries consider the accession to the bloc as a powerful driver of political and democratic reform in the Western Balkan countries.
The move on Albania and Macedonia comes ahead of a major EU summit to be held in Sofia on May 17 to discuss the Western Balkan countries' relationship with the union. Bulgaria has the six-month rotating EU Presidency, and has made the union's enlargement towards the Western Balkans as one of its major four- point platform unveiled when it took over the Presidency on January 1 this year.
The agenda of the Sofia Summit does not include any invitation to any country in the region to join the EU, even though some are involved in membership negotiations.
Turkey is also a candidate for membership and has been promised fast-track accession negotiations in exchange for ensuring that tens of thousands of migrants, many of them Syrian refugees, don't enter Europe from its territory. However, the talks are at a virtual standstill. Countries like France, Germany and Austria would prefer some kind of "privileged partnership" with Turkey to letting it join.
Juncker's Change of Heart on WB Enlargement
Mr. Juncker's outright alarm on 'a return to war in the Western Balkans' seems to be more worrisome if we bring to the attention his position in the block as well as the fact that when he took over at the European Commission four years ago, he vowed that there would be 'no EU enlargement' during his term.
But what has transformed the past skepticism of Mr. Juncker from the EU enlargement 'fatigue' to the worry that the volatile Balkans could face a return to war like in the 1990s if countries in the region have no expectations of joining?
Mr. Veran Matic, Editor-in-Chief and General Manager at Belgrade - based B92, has his opinion on this answering a question put by Albanian Daily News.
"I believe that Juncker recognized the importance of integration of the Western Balkan's states into the European Union, as an important pre-condition for establishing stability in this region, and specifically in Europe. Yugoslavia was also back then in a position to avoid war conflicts if Europe had the then leaders of Yugoslavia a vision and responsibility to stop instability within the region with EU integration," said Mr. Matic in his comment.
The Balkans spiraled into conflict in the 1990s as former Yugoslavia broke apart, but ethnic and nationalist tensions continue to simmer more than 20 years on. In addition for years, Russia has worked to gain influence in south-east Europe, using Serbia as a foothold to establish a friendly pocket on a hostile continent. There have been mounting fears in the West that Russia is using Serbia to foment tensions in the Balkans by arming its ally with warplanes and tanks, while working to destabilize neighboring Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia.
"Paradoxically, the Russians and their policies in the Balkans have triggered alarm bells that woke up the European Union into action," Bosko Jaksic, a Serbian political analyst, was quoted by 'Independent' on February 24, 2018 as saying on the eve of a seven-nation Balkans tour of Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker to promote the EU's new eastward expansion strategy.
An overview of the situation in the Western Balkans shows that tensions and conflicts continue, sometimes burdened with harsh rhetoric. The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is far from peaceful. The relations between Serbia and Kosovo, despite the EU mediated dialogue, do not give reason for being 'calm'; any incident like the last ones during the recent months show that the threatening potential is there. Also, relations between Croatia and Serbia are marred by a rising arms race with both countries upgrading their military weaponry. Although there are rays of hope, the dispute on the name of Macedonia is not yet solved with Greece, which, on the other hand, is in the process of negotiations with Albania to resolve their problems.
'Something Is Wrong,' Says EU Rotating Head Bulgaria
"The mood is not optimistic, it is rather a feeling that something is wrong and a few months ago it was not like that," has recently said the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Boiko Borisov as quoted by 'The Sofia Globe'.
"I appeal to our brothers, Muslims, Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, the whole region - to show reason because the consequences will only be on the Balkans. We have lived through that. Bulgaria went decades back just because of the war. We should not be egotistical, think that a conflict will pass any of us by. Something can be ruined in a second, and take 20 years to recover," noting that Mostar was a "good place to say this".
Borisov attended an international forum on the economic development of the Balkans held in Mostar on April 10 this year from where he issued a call to all the leaders of the Balkans to show reason and to resist the "provocations" that have been arising recently.
Given the volatile situation in the Western Balkans where, sometimes, even small incidents can turn into a flare up Mr. Juncker has apparently arrived at the conclusion that it is better to keep the Western Balkans close and monitor the numerous extensive EU 'home works' in the ongoing accession process. An ample example of this 'hotheaded' temperament of the Balkan brand is what happened in Serbia on April 18. A Croatian parliamentary delegation has cut short a visit to neighboring Serbia after a far-right leader convicted of war crimes reportedly stamped on the Croatian national flag and shouted insults. The delegation says they decided to return home after the reported incident on 18 April 2018 in the Serbian parliament involving Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, reported Associated Press.
A U.N. war crimes court last week sentenced Seselj to 10 years in prison for instigating crimes against ethnic Croats, partially overturning his earlier acquittal of atrocities during the Balkan conflict in the 1990s. Seselj remains free because he had spent nearly 12 years in court custody during his trial at the tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. He is a lawmaker in Serbia's parliament.
Reforms First, Then EU Enlargement
Contrary to Mr. Juncker's alert, the above seems to be the motto of the approach of the French President, Emmanuel Macron when he ruled out any expansion of the EU until the bloc is reformed despite the anxiety expressed by many leaders of the EU member countries according to whom the troubled Balkans could face a return to war if its countries are not nourished with the expectation of joining the club.
"I will only support an enlargement when there is first a deepening and a reform of our Europe," President Macron told the EU lawmakers in Strasbourg. "I don't want a Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia, but I don't want a Europe that, functioning with difficulty at 28 and tomorrow as 27, would decide that we can continue to gallop off, to be tomorrow 30 or 32, with the same rules."
Mr. Jean-Dominique Giuliani, Chairman of the Robert Schuman Foundation and a regular contributor to Albanian Daily News with his opinions, justifies such a stance of Mr. Macron arguing that Europe has no other choice but to implement a new way of working and to reform some of its own policies. "Just a few weeks after his election the French President marked France's true return to the European scene, as he publicly delivered his analyses and proposals to his partners for a revival of European integration," said Mr. Giuliani on April 9, 2018. "There is a true consensus amongst observers to consider that Europe has no other choice but to implement a new way of working and to reform some of its own policies," Mr. Giuliani insisted.
But the analyst, Veran Matic considers 'irrational' Mr. Macron's 'freezing' of enlargement suggesting that EU reforms and enlargement towards the Western Balkan countries could proceed simultaneously.
"It would be important to lead and perform those processes simultaneously, in order to avoid Macron's idea of Europe facing the reforms first, and then consider enlargement. It is vital for the strategy 2025 to be filled with high quality content in order for those processes of EU accession to become more efficient and in order to really implement the vision of the Western Balkans in EU until 2025," noted Mr. Matic in his comment to Albanian Daily News.
'Awareness of Russia's Influence'
But how serious is the situation in the Western Balkans in the eyes of official Tirana having Mr. Juncker's warning as a background? As a matter of fact, since long Albania has pressed hard for the quickening of the EU integration of the WB under the claim that any vacuum could be filled in by other forces, particularly Russia.
The latest warning has come recently during the visit of the Defense Minister, Olta Xhacka to Washington where she offered US Defense Secretary James Mattis the option of establishing US military bases on Albanian territory, claiming that a US military presence was needed to counter Russian, Chinese, Iranian and Turkish influence in the Western Balkans.
At a meeting on April 17 in the Pentagon, on the same day when the EC made public the recommendation to open the accession talks with Albania and Macedonia, the Minister, Xhacka told Secretary Mattis that "apart from Russia's intention to expend its influence with destabilization actions, be that through their secret services or investments or other hybrid means or media propaganda, and scholarships, we also see an increase in intent and interest from other nations such as China or Iran."
"I very kindly invite you to consider having Albania as a contact nation in the region," Mrs. Xhacka said, and added that "we have different ideas for making available our land, air and naval bases, but also our other capacities either bilaterally with US or by NATO."
It is reported by news agencies that Secretary Mattis had not replied formally to the offer of bases but thanked Albania for its support for the Western alliance.
Albania joined NATO in 2009 and has participated in several coalition missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Apart from sending soldiers to Afghanistan, Albania had also donated 30,000 old Kalashnikovs to the Afghan government. Albania had also helped efforts to fight Islamic State, ISIS, by providing free Soviet-era weapons and ammunition to Iraqi Kurds.
"Albania had proven that the geographic size matters less than the size of its commitment," Mr. Mattis said and added that "Albania punches above its weight as a NATO ally," mentioning the high number of Albanian soldiers participating in foreign missions. "Albania's commitment to burden sharing comes at a time when Russia seeks to divide our alliance. Few nations have been more aware of Russia's malign influence in the region than Albania," Mr. Mattis told Mrs. Xhacka.
But the Russian Ambassador to Albania, Alexander Karpushin has repeatedly rejected any claims on Moscow's interference in the affairs of other countries, namely the Western Balkans. "This is applied even when it is spoken of Albania and the relations between the government and Albanian opposition. The fact that efforts are being made to play the Russian card unfairly for interests of the internal political fight in your country causes nothing but a pity," said the Ambassador in an interview with 'Fax News' TV on April 4, 2018.
Mr. Karpushin underlined that "the European aspiration of Albania, like that of the other Balkan countries, is not opposed by Russia and does not constitute an obstacle to the development of the cooperation in the mutual benefit."
However even the latest events in the frame of the Euro-Atlantic structures - the EC's recommendations for Albania and Macedonia to open the accession talks, and the 'real opportunity for Macedonia to join NATO soon' as US Ambassador to Podgorica Jess Baily said on April 4 this year - show that the Western Balkans countries remain strongly focused on the EU membership and NATO as well as substantially improved ties with the United States seeing them as crucial for a peaceful, stabilized and prosperous region free from the plight of the past awful wars.