The European Union is set to radically re-consider its enlargement strategy. This could somewhat soften the criticism coming from the eurosceptics who are dissatisfied with the backlog of political and economic “gaps” within the EU. On the other hand, the Balkan states, which have become disillusioned over the prospective outcomes of their entry into the EU, could, in turn, re-direct their own policies towards strengthening cooperation with other globalplayers, including Russia.
According to sources in Brussels, the EU is planning to offer the Balkan candidate countries a new entry model – a gradual, step-by-step economic integration in the format of “privileged partnership” which should replace institutional membership. This new mechanism of bulding relations with the Balkans is to be adopted within six months, before a EU-Balkan summit due to take place in May 2020.
The revision of the EU’s expansion policy was initiated by Paris, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. At the last EU summit in October this year French President Emmanuel Macron blocked the start of negotiations on giving EU membership to North Macedonia, although it had met all the requirements for joining the Union. Denmark and the Netherlands came up against negotiations with Albania. Simultaneously, the French president made it clear that the EU enlargement process would continue only if the integration model was changed, which gave rise to the corresponding discussions in Brussels.
According to the European Stability Initiative (ESI) international research center, instead of EU membership, the Balkan states will be offered membership in the European Economic Area (EEA) by analogy with a membership model for Norway, Switzerland and Iceland.
The leading European countries reacted to the proposal with restraint, particularly Germany, which has been keeping a close eye on what is happening in the Balkans and considers this region a priority area. The German Foreign Ministry said in an obscure manner that Berlin “is open for discussing specific reforms that would streamline the expansion process and provide yet greater support to candidate countries as they strive for EU membership.”
The leaders of the Balkan countries themselves sound more to the point. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has acknowledged that “some European circles have been contemplating a new model of negotiations with EU candidates.” “The game began in 2003 at the summit in Thessaloniki, when the EU clearly outlined the platform on which its expansion policy in the Balkans hinged. For Montenegro, this platform was formulated in 2012. To change the rules of the game after 16 and 7 years, respectively, is not the right thing to do,” – he said.
According to the Montenegrin president, “the policy of EU’s further expansion and whether this policy is set to continue should be discussed with the participation of not only EU members, but also the Balkan countries, which are part of Europe”.
His Macedonian counterpart, Stevo Pendarovsky, openly announced that at the recent talks in Brussels his country “was presented with a compensation for EU membership in the form of the European Economic Area.” “We don’t need an alternative to EU membership, as it has nothing to do with a united Europe or a common European home. If they offer the EEA, it has nothing to do with membership. We must say no, thanks. There are no alternatives to membership, even if this membership happens in 20 years, ” – the Macedonian leader emphasized.
Other Balkan capitals have also expressed disappointment. “The European Union has assumed certain commitments regarding the Balkans, so changing this approach and sending the Balkan countries to the waiting room would cause more instability in the region. In addition, some in the region will begin to look for an alternative in China, Russia, and Turkey,” – Dragan Djukanovic, head of the Belgrade Center for Foreign Policy, said expressing hope that “the currently proclaimed new approach to EU enlargement may not see light. ”
“Since the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, Western leaders have consistently maintained that there are no problems on the European continent that could not be resolved through interaction with the European Union or expansion of the European project. But this approach seems to have undergone changes due to the mixture of EU’s internal problems and the American indifference,” – writes the American edition of The Project Syndicate:“ Disappointment, or even anger, over the decision made by Emmanuel Macron is strongly felt in Tirana and Skopje. ” According to the publication, the main reason is that the French president “is concerned that the continuing expansion of the European bloc will impede the reform of European governance structures.”
The Balkan countries have agreed to work out a joint response to the new EU model. As they gathered in the North Macedonian city of Ohrid on November 10th the prime ministers of Albania and North Macedonia, Edi Rama and Zoran Zaev, and also the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, signed a joint declaration on the “Balkan mini-Schengen”, which envisages the removal of barriers to free movement of people, goods, services and capitals on the territory of Western Balkans. The document attaches top priority to the development of Balkan regional cooperation pointing out that the purpose of all the signatories is membership in the EU, and not in the European Economic Area.
Reports of the weakening of EU interest in the Balkans come at a critical time for the region. In particular, the victory in Kosovo elections of the radical politician Albin Kurti, who upholds the idea of creating “Great Albania”, has already fuelled tensions in the Serbian-populated areas of the region. Serbian Minister of Defense Alexander Vulin does not rule out the possibility that Kosovo Serbs may “mount an insurgency” if the candidate for the post of prime minister of Kosovo continues to sow discord among them.
What is meant is Pristina’s decision to exclude the Kosovo Serb ballots which had been delivered from Serbia from the final election results,
A similarly critical situation is unfolding in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A BosnianSerb representative in the collective Presidium of this former Yugoslav republic, Milorad Dodik, in an interview with International Affairs said that the West is trying to direct Bosnia and Herzegovina along the path of Euro-Atlantic integration. “But we assert that for us the EU is not the only alternative, just as being in Bosnia and Herzegovina is not the only alternative that the Serbs. We have other alternatives that we are considering and I want everyone to know this, ” – said the leader of the Bosnian Serbs.
Given the situation, we can expect a broader split within the European Union on the Balkan issue, in particular, between Paris and Berlin, and we observe the Balkan capitals demonstrating a particular interest in alternative integration projects, including with the participation of Russia, China and other world powers.
From our partner International Affairs
China, Central and Eastern Europe in 2021: BRI and the 17+1 Initiative during vaccine times
When the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19 spread in March 2020, China played a crucial role in the global supply of critical medical goods such as face masks and disinfectants as their main exporter. According to UN Comtrade (2020) data, 44% of the world’s exports of face masks originated from China in 2018, whereas the next largest exporters such as Germany (7%) and the US (6%), play a comparatively minor role. Due to China´s a track record of using trade to pursue its foreign-policy goals, Beijing´s donation of medical equipment to other countries has been called as a mask diplomacy as the officials and politicians in many Western European countries as well as the European Union have viewed it as a Chinese influence-buying campaign that seeks to divide the EU.
Similar scenario is nowadays taking place under new magical keyword – a vaccine. Hungary was the only European Union member state to decide not to wait for the European Medicines Agency to approve the vaccines and began negotiating supplies of COVID vaccines from China and Russia. This so called Chinese vaccine diplomacy is no surprise. Last May, President Xi Jinping indicated that China would want to use vaccines to strengthen its position in the world. The “Health Silk Road” is together with winning the COVID-19 vaccine race one of the Beijing´s top priorities in 2021. President Xi Jinping is also expected to offer a Chinese vaccine to participants in the online 17+1 Central and Eastern European Summit on February 9.
The ninth 17+1 Central and Eastern European Summit is being postponed since the first half of 2020 where was supposed to take place before the hit of pandemic. Already before the COVID-19 outbreak, the Central and Eastern European countries have been increasingly dissatisfied with the outcome of their economic engagement with China and thus the upgrade of the economic cooperation and shaping the relations is in long-term plan. Moreover, when the U.S.-China confrontation has turned the Central and Eastern Europe into a new ground of great power competition for influence. This summit would break a deadlock over holding a meeting and show new signs in relations between China and Europe.
The transregional cooperation between China and Eastern Europe, the so-called “17+1” initiative, began in April 2012 in Poland where Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, and representatives of 16 CEE countries, including 11 EU members, hold a meeting. Wen promised investments and infrastructure development to boost the regional economies. China puts an emphasis on its connectivity with Europe and regards railways, ports and FDI as the foundation for achieving balanced development and social cohesion in Europe. For China, the region promised cheap access to European markets. The initiative was quickly co-opted into China’s wider Belt and Road Initiative, which launched the following year. When Greece joined as the 17th member in 2019, it elevated the political significance of the now 17+1 alliance even further. Before the onset of 17+1 cooperation, Chinese investment and trade were spatially unbalanced, and concentrated in north-western Europe. Because of the weak condition of transport infrastructure, the trade between China and Central and Eastern European countries heavily relied on the infrastructure networks of Germany, the Netherlands and France.
Despite voices about the decreasing power of the 17+1 Initiative, the COVID-19 pandemic does not bring an era of active Chinese engagement in the European region to the end. It contrary shows Beijing´s flexibility and adaptation to the world circumstances, including the competition imposed by U.S. interests in bilateral cooperation with the Central and Eastern European countries that could contribute to regional development as well.
UN Comtrade (2020), “UN Comtrade Database. Export data at country level”
EU playing a zero-sum game in Kosovo
When it comes to Kosovo settlement, the European Union is clearly trying to regain the initiative. It was with poorly concealed jealousy and irritation that Brussels watched the delegations of Belgrade and Pristina sign an agreement to normalize their bilateral trade and economic relations in early September in Washington, and with the current change of guard in the US, is now trying to get back its levers of influence. Therefore, Brussels wants to organize a new high-level meeting between Serbia and Kosovo.
Miroslav Lajcak, the European Union’s Special Representative (EUSR) for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, made this intention clear on December 2, when speaking at the European Parliament event marking the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement on Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to him, preparations are now underway for a new high-level meeting to be held as part of the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade.
Tellingly, according to a report by the Albanian news agency Telegrafi, citing sources in Brussels, the upcoming talks are expected to focus on resolving property rights in Kosovo. This means that Brussels is looking for an agenda that the sides can agree on and one that would differ from what they discussed in Washington. This is all the more important now that the negotiating process has virtually ground to a halt since September. According to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Belgrade will not agree to have a new summit unless the Kosovar authorities are prepared to create an Association of Serbian Municipalities on the territory of their province (primarily in the north). This provision is part of the accords signed by Belgrade and Pristina in Brussels under the auspices of the EU, but since then the Kosovo authorities have actually blocked its implementation. However, because the European Union hasn’t got any really ambitious initiatives to come up with, the planned parley (if it takes place any time soon) looks bound to be less effective than the September talks in Washington. This, in turn, will deal a new blow to Brussels’ ambitions in the Balkans.
Realizing this, the EU leadership has been ramping up its criticism of the United States, essentially accusing Washington of trying to phase Brussels out of the Kosovo negotiation process. Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, recently said it loud and clear that the solution of problems in the Western Balkans is entirely the EU’s patch, and that the bloc’s global role depends on the success of its policy in this region.
“If we are unable to solve the problems in the Balkans, then we can’t be a significant global player,” Borrell said.
Russia insists that the problems of Kosovo and other Balkan disputes can only be solved on the basis of international law through talks to achieve mutually-acceptable compromises. During a December 14 visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that there is no alternative to ensuring peace and stability through political dialogue and respect for national interests, based on international law and pertinent UN Security Council resolutions.
“It is principally important to help the countries of this region settle their problems via national dialogue and avoid attempts to drag any of these countries into serving somebody else’s unilateral geopolitical interests,” Lavrov emphasized.
Interaction between Russia and Serbia is all the more important amid the ongoing negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, as it serves as a political and diplomatic counterbalance to the Pristina- Brussels-Washington “axis.” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic confirmed the invariable nature and timeliness of such interaction during a December 14 joint news conference in Belgrade with Russia’s visiting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Vucic also underscored his country’s desire to expand friendly and partnership relations with Russia.
When speaking about the possible outcome of the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, one should also keep in mind Turkey’s growing interest in this issue. Ankara is trying to play an increasingly active role in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean region. As the Serbian daily newspaper Informer rightly noted, “One thing the Turkish president can’t be denied is the consistency and frankness with which he is implementing a strategy to bring back a big and mighty Turkey on the territories once occupied by the Ottoman Empire.”
In this situation, it is in Russia’s best interests to expand its partnership with Serbia, while simultaneously working with other key international players to ensure stability and security in the Balkans and counter the nationalist and destructive forces that can still be found in the Balkan capitals.
From our partner International Affairs
Talking Turkey With Greece: Turkey and Israel’s Marriage of Convenience
On January 25, Graeco-Turkish talks begin, at which Turkish claims to Greek island territories will be high on the agenda. Before we briefly consider the Israeli position, herewith a spot of recent history.
Scorned countries sometimes seek out other scorned countries, for reasons of self-interest. Thus Germany, humiliated after the First World War, co-operated with the Soviet Union, first with secret military agreements, and then more openly after the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922; both countries also had problems with the same country, Poland. Both were considered international pariahs at the time, whether rightly or wrongly.
Israel co-operated closely with South Africa when the latter, under its apartheid regime, was internationally blackballed, with most of the balls being black. The co-operation was largely military, overt and covert. Links between the countries’ external security services, Boss and Mossad, were close. Both countries ignored numerous UN resolutions.
The most recent example of the scorned seeking the scorned is, or course, that of Israel and Turkey, who revived a military co-operation agreement in 1996, that goes back to the late Fifties. Again, both states are hardly a paragon of international virtue, supported only consistently by the USA and its strategic acolyte, Britain, but also by Germany, for atavistic business reasons in the case of Turkey, and a contrived feeling of guilt in the case of Israel.
Both Israel and Turkey ignore numerous UN resolutions; both fear Russia; their respective security services exchange information on Syria; and both have a common enemy, also Syria. Both countries occupy parts of other countries, illegally, Cyprus and Palestine, and Syria’s Golan Heights. An interesting quirk is that Syria has territorial claims on its former coloniser, Turkey: with the connivance of France, Hatay (Alexandretta) was stealthily ‘acquired’ by Turkey in 1939, despite the fact that Syrians were in a majority.
The question is whether this is just another ephemeral unholy alliance, an alliance of pure self-interest, that works in spite of deep-seated historico-cultural differences, or something more significant. The evidence suggests that it is more than a simple marriage of convenience. Anyone who knows about the plethora of secret meetings between the two states, that has gone on for years, of the deep-seated mutual disdain between much of the Arab world and its former coloniser, Turkey, will realise that the military co-operation agreement is but the tip of an iceberg, an iceberg being pushed by hoards of American frogmen, with the avowed objective of achieving firm control over the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. In this way, Russian influence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East can be contained, á la Kennan, and Israel can be subtly inserted into the de facto NATO fold, with Jordan perhaps being brought into the equation for good measure, while the Turkish mercenaries continue to kill Kurds and Israel conveniently buries the Oslo accords, continuing its ethnic cleansing and illegal settlements.
The U.S. Embassy in Athens has justified Israeli-Turkish co-operation with the following words: ‘US military co-operation with Turkey and Israel is a matter of long-standing policy and practice. As a NATO ally and friend with Turkey and as a special ally with Israel, both democracies and key regional players, the United States shares core values and mutual security and political objectives in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel and Turkey have likewise found that they share common objectives, in part from confronting the same set of neighbours which have pursued weapons of mass destruction programmes, have been sponsors and supporters of terrorism, and which have been inimical to democracy, the rule of law and regional stability.’
These neighbours are not actually named, but are obviously Iran and Syria, not to mention some others. There is no mention of Israeli terrorism at home and abroad (vis. Vanunu) or of the treatment of innocent and unarmed Kurdish villagers, no mention of Israel’s nuclear arsenal and chemical and biological weapons programmes, nor of its disregard for international law. Above all, the core values and common objectives shared by the USA, Turkey and Israel are difficult to locate, unless it is to help the U.S. contain Russia.
A few years ago the essentially pro-American Economist wrote that Syria’s concerns about Turkish-Israeli military co-operation were ‘fairly well grounded.’ The article undoubtedly embarrassed the Pentagon and angered the Turkish and Israeli governments. It represented one of those very occasional but authoritative Economist warnings that things had gone too far. The last time the Economist had said anything so risqué was just after the abortive American attempt to rescue the American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, by printing a front-page cartoon of President Carter dressed as a cowboy, with his six-guns at the ready. Cruel stuff, and exaggerated criticism, maybe unjustified, even, yet nevertheless telling.
Turkey has in the past threatened to attack Syria. Today it occupies part of it, claiming that Syria supports the Kurds in Turkey. Israel also bombs Syria periodically. In 2008, published Israeli-Turkish military co-operation involved a 1998 $ 700 million contract for Israel to upgrade 54 Turkish F4’s, a $70 million one to upgrade 48 F5’s, and joint manufacture of 1000 tanks and ‘some helicopters.’ Israel also hoped to sell Turkey an early warning system, and also used Turkish territory for low-flying exercises.
Then came a sudden deterioration in Turkey-Israel relations, with Israeli commandos killing of nine Turks on a vessel trying to break the Gaza blockade. Military co-operation between Israel and Turkey was suspended. Backstage American pressure on its two key allies, however, along with an American sponsored joint military love-in between Greece and Israel is leading to new Turkish diplomatic pirouetting: relations between Israel and Turkey could be improving. Bilateral talks are in the offing, and full diplomatic relations could be restored by March, meaning re-activating Turkish-Israeli diplomatic and military relations.
For Greece, the unholy alliance could become more than an irritant, because of Cyprus. However far-fetched it may sound, Turkey could easily encourage the Israeli air force and navy to train in occupied Cyprus, with the Pentagon publicly tut-tutting, but privately sniggering. It could even offer a home in northern Cyprus to would-be Jewish immigrants, as it did in the sixteenth century. There is even a small minority of extreme Zionists in Israel that claims Cypriot territory as part of the Jewish heritage. Thus, an already overcrowded Israel could find more Lebensraum. When one looks at the extremist elements in Turkey and Israel, such plans are not beyond the bounds of possibility.
Greece is now part and parcel of the “new” Cold War, co-operating with Israel and the U.S. militarily more than ever before, in the naïve hope that Turkey will drop its claims on Greek territory. But despite irritation with recent Turkish behaviour, the U.S. and Israel are unlikely to be of much help when it comes down to diplomatic detail: in 2003, the U.S. Embassy wrote the following to me: ‘We recognize Greece’s border with Turkey, but not all the territorial waters implications which Greece asserts. We have not taken a position on sovereignty over Imia/Kardak, in part because of the lack of an agreed maritime boundary.’
When I asked about Greece’s twelve mile nautical and ten-mile airspace limits, the reply was: ‘We recognize the six [!]-mile territorial sea claim and a claim to the superjacent air space. We do not recognize Greece’s claim to territorial air space seaward of the outer limit of its territorial sea.’ I doubt that their position has changed. Similarly, the Israel Embassy refused to answer my question about Greece’s air and sea limits.
Clever Turkish diplomacy currently involves balancing itself between the U.S. and Russia, in the knowledge that neither the U.S. nor Israel will do more than protest diplomatically – á la Cyprus invasion – if Turkey snatches a small Greek island. The U.S.’s main aim is to keep Greece in the anti-Russian camp by not agreeing with Greece’s position on its Aegean borders. For if the U.S. – and Israel – came out in support of Greece’s position, this would push Ankara more towards Moscow.
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