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Stranger Document: Is the EU Losing its Grip On the Western Balkans?

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Followers and fans of Balkan politics were startled by the news that Slovenian PM Janez Janša has delivered a non-paper to the European Council, advocating the repartition of Bosnian-Herzegovinian territories between Serbia and Croatia, and the union of Albania with Kosovo. Janša denied any link with the matter and journalists from the Balkans and abroad expressed opposing views on the authorship and the place of origin of the document. On April 15, the Slovenian website necenzurirano.si, published the full version of the document titled “Western Balkans – A Way Forward”.

After some initial comments following the publication of the non-paper, the whole affair is now fading in the depths of the cyberspace from where it came without causing much regret for the unsolved mysteries that it is leaving behind. Western European media pay attention to the Balkans as long as they are a source of sensational facts such as a secret border exchange between former “enemy” countries. In the Balkan media, border exchange is usual business and the news did not create much turmoil. In this article I will take a closer look at the details of the document in order to understand the logic of the policies that it prescribes. The analysis of the non-paper enables a reflection on the popularity of the EU in the Western Balkans (WB) and allows to explore current political tendencies in the region.

A Way Forward?

Unless it turns out to be an internet meme, the content of non-paper clearly shows that it was addressed to the highest ranks of EU diplomacy. The authors of the document outline a strategy for the EU to reinforce its influence in the WB. In the first part, titled “Situation”, the document claims that the main political setbacks in the region are linked to the national issues of Serbs, Albanians, and Croatians. The Dayton Agreements of 1995 and the tense situation between Serbia and Kosovo are considered the main obstacles for the EU integration process. Turkey is designated as EU’s main competitor because of its extended influence in the region, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia.

The second part of the document titled “Solutions”, is divided in six paragraphs (from a. to f.) and provides a series of objectives aimed at accelerating access to EU and NATO memberships (f.). According to the program, the first and seemingly easier objective would be to unify Kosovo and Albania (a.). The authors claim that 95% of Kosovo wants to unite with its “Albanian nation of origin” and that the situation is similar in Albania. The data is certainly not extrapolated from statistical evidence, but by the transposition of the accepted figure of the Albanian population in Kosovo which is above 90%. The passage “want to unite with their nation of origin” is quite bizarre because it seems as if Kosovo Albanians were not from Kosovo but migrated from present day Albanian territories.

The non-paper (b.) promotes the annexation of the territory of Republika Srpska to Serbia. This process will hypothetically sort out the “Serbian national issue” and will lead Belgrade to accept the union of Kosovo and Albania. The solution of the “Croatian national issue” is open to different options (c.). The authors recommend either to unite predominantly Croatian cantons of Bosnia-Herzegovina with Croatia; or to grant a special status to the Croatian part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, similar to the one that South Tyrol enjoys in Italy. South Tyrol, which is also indicated as a model for the status of the “Serbian part” of Kosovo (a.), is probably mentioned to provide the readers with a familiar example. Bosniaks should accept the dismemberment of their state for the sake of EU interests. They would thereby “gain” (d.) an independent state and would have to organize a referendum in order choose “between EU and non-EU (Turkey)”. The authors believe that this solution will prevent the spread of further Turkish influence and radical Islam.

State-building based on national or religious grounds is against the sense of the EU integration process and is probably conceived to put an end to it. The formation of a Bosniak independent state based on a “national” principle would (legitimately)lead Bosniaks to claim the Sanjak territories in Montenegro and in Serbia. National and religious tensions will increase Turkey’s influence in the region. The union of Serbia and Republika Srpska would bring eurosceptics living on both sides of the border to join ranks, thus hindering the region’s integration in the EU. Similar outcomes would be generated by the union of Albania and Kosovo where eurosceptics have become more numerous in the last years.

With and Against the EU

The document is anonymous, but its content allows us to make a hypothesis on its commissioner. In the penultimate paragraph of the “Solutions” section, the authors lay down the areas of intervention on which the EU should focus in order to increase its influence in the Balkans. In their view, the EU should launch a “comprehensive economic programme for the stabilisation, better infrastructure and energy connectivity of the region, and environmental rehabilitation.” The authors believe that the EU should not act alone, but with the support of regional actors such as the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). The 3SI was founded in 2015 in view of enhancing collaboration between EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe. One of their official papers argues that the organisation aims at reducing the “civilisation gap” that separates Eastern from Western European countries. In order to fulfil this objective, the 3SI has devised a series of projects for improving the mobility, energy and digitalisation infrastructure of the region on a vertical axis that runs from North to South.

The policies recommended by the non-paper for the WB seem at least in part inspired by the objectives of the 3SI. For instance, the endeavour to achieve a “better infrastructure and energy connectivity of the region, and environmental rehabilitation”, falls in the organisation’s commitment to improve energy security (objective number 3) and reach climate goals (objective number 6). The 3SI and the non-paper share some conceptual analogies. The 3SI documents use the historically controversial term “nation” to refer to European states. A nation-centric perspective informs the authors of the non-paper who believe that regional problems will be solved by supporting nationalist drives instead of opposing them. WB countries which are not members of the 3SI are cited as partners in a series of projects for the development of the transport, digitalisation and energy infrastructure that were discussed during the organisation summit in Slovenia in 2019.

The non-paper and the 3SI pay attention to political stability and economic growth, but they do not seem very concerned by issues related to the rule of law, human rights and corruption, which are at least formally at the core of the EU action in the area. In the third and last section of the document, titled “Steps”, the authors draw out the strategies through which the “Solutions” can be reached. In their view, the plan should be checked and carried out with international and regional decision-makers in a “silent procedure”. According to the document, it seems that the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the union of Kosovo and Albania could be achieved without popular vote. The non-paper expects the EU to endorse a project that will radically alter the borders of the region without taking into consideration the will of the communities that will be affected by the changes.

Return to the Old Path

The non-paper was perhaps never received by the office of the European Council. However, the mere fact that it was addressed to the EU shows that the latter is exposed to the lobbying of groups operating in contradiction with the EU agenda in the Balkans. Rather than consolidating EU interests, the non-paper exploits EU diplomacy to the benefit of its commissioners. The3SI – like the non-paper- promotes a top-to-bottom governance approach that aims at attaining political stability and economic growth at the detriment of democracy and justice. This old political strategy is the outcome of a widespread feeling of distrust in the future of the EU.

The constitution of the 3SI is a sign of this feeling. Another manifestation of this political course is the mini-Schengen initiative that was started by Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia in 2019. Both 3SI and mini-Schengen are presented as complementary to the EU. But they might also become alternatives or competitors to the EU, especially for non-member states that do not want to have too close links with Russia or/and the Atlantic Alliance. The EU is one of the main investors in the connectivity sectors in the WB, but it is not the only partner available to regional politicians who are constantly on the lookout for financial assets. Many citizens of the WB believe that their countries have no chance to access the EU in the next decade. Their opinion toward the EU has been negatively conditioned by the euroscepticism in Eastern and Western European neighbouring states. The inability of the EU to conduct a common vaccination program has also damaged its image of in the eyes of regional actors.

The EU is facing a credibility crisis that is turning former EU-enthusiast countries such as Albania into eurosceptics. Local politicians have promptly exploited this mood. In a recent interview on Vizion Plus, Albanian PM Edi Rama spoke about the EU membership of the country with realistic tones. Rama affirmed that the matter does not depend on Albanians, but on the attitudes of the European politicians who are conditioned by the public opinion of their countries. He cited the case of Bulgaria’s veto on the accession talks of North Macedonia in order to claim that Sofia’s decision was determined by internal pressures. Rama affirmed that Albania can enter “Europe” by either improving its infrastructure, economy, and digitalisation or by doing its “homework”. However, according to the Albania Premier, doing “homework” is not a guarantee of success because Albania will be subject to the incoherent judgment of EU politicians. Rama, who hopes to win the imminent general elections and obtain the third mandate in a row, praised the works undertaken by his government to improve mobility infrastructure such as airports and touristic and commercial harbours.

The policies advocated by the non-paper and by the 3SI circles that might have commissioned it reflect the overall course of WB politics. Regional actors aim at changing the configuration of the area either by redrawing the state territories or easing border regimes. However, they still want to preserve and even reinforce the idea of “nation” and the cultural boundaries that it entails. Balkan politicians are less and less concerned with inequalities, corruption and human right protection, which are the cause of some of the biggest issues in the region. The top-down strategies adopted for improving the connectivity sectors do not always take into account the ecological impact, notwithstanding the formal declarations about the protection of the environment. The way in which investments will affect the economy is uncertain because foreign and regional speculators are likely to profit from them at the detriment of small and medium local businesses and communities. The conceptual frame that is guiding WB politics and connectivity projects, suggests that the EU might be destined to a more marginal role in the area if it’s not able to regain its lost charisma.

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Europe

Europe tells Biden “no way” to Cold War with China

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Amidst the first big transatlantic tensions for the Biden Administration, a new poll shows that the majority of Europeans see a new Cold War happening between the United States and China, but they don’t see themselves as a part of it.

Overwhelmingly, 62% of Europeans believe that the US is engaged in a new Cold War against China, a new poll just released by the European Council on Foreign Relations found. Just yesterday US President Joe Biden claimed before the UN General Assembly that there is no such thing and the US is not engaging in a new Cold War. So, Europeans see Biden’s bluff and call him on it.

The study was released on Wednesday by Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev at the European Council on Foreign Relations and found that Europeans don’t see themselves as direct participants in the US-China Cold War. This viewpoint is most pronounced in Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Portugal and Italy, according to the study. The prevailing view, in each of the 12 surveyed EU member states, is one of irrelevance – with respondents in Hungary (91%), Bulgaria (80%), Portugal (79%), and Austria (78%) saying that their country is not in a conflict with Beijing.

Only 15% of Europeans believe that the EU is engaged in a Cold War against China. The percentage is so low that one wonders if there should even be such a question. It is not only not a priority, it is not even a question on the agenda for Europeans. Even at the highest point of EU “hawkishness”, only 33% of Swedes hold the view that their country is currently in a Cold War with China.  Leonard and Krastev warn that if Washington and Brussels are preparing for an all-in generational struggle against China, this runs against the grain of opinion in Europe, and leaders in Washington and Brussels will quickly discover that they “do not have a societal consensus behind them”.

“The European public thinks there is a new cold war – but they don’t want to have anything to do with it. Our polling reveals that a “cold war” framing risks alienating European voters”, Mark Leonard said.

The EU doesn’t have the backing of its citizens to follow the US in its new Cold War pursuit. But unlike the views of the authors of the study, my view is that this is not a transatlantic rift that we actually have to be trying to fix. Biden’s China policy won’t be Europe’s China policy, and that’s that, despite US efforts to persuade Europe to follow, as I’ve argued months ago for the Brussels Report and in Modern Diplomacy.

In March this year, Gallup released a poll that showed that 45% of Americans see China as the greatest US enemy. The poll did not frame the question as Cold War but it can be argued that Joe Biden has some mandate derived from the opinion of American people. That is not the case for Europe at all, to the extent that most of us don’t see “China as an enemy” even as a relevant question.

The US’s China pursuit is already giving horrible for the US results in Europe, as French President Macron withdrew the French Ambassador to the US. The US made a deal already in June, as a part of the trilateral partnership with the UK and Australia, and stabbed France in the back months ago to Macron’s last-minute surprise last week. Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that it is Macron that is actually arrogant to expect that commitments and deals should mean something: “Back in February, Macron rejected the idea of a U.S.-E.U. common front against China. Now he complains when America pursues its own strategy against China. What’s French for chutzpah?” What Boot does get right is that indeed, there won’t be a joint US-EU front on China, and European citizens also don’t want this, as the recent poll has made clear.

The US saying Europe should follow the US into a Cold War with China over human rights is the same thing as China saying that Europe should start a Cold War with the US over the bad US human rights record. It’s not going to happen. You have to understand that this is how ridiculous the proposition sounds to us, Europeans. Leonard and Krastev urge the EU leadership to “make the case for more assertive policies” towards China around European and national interests rather than a Cold War logic, so that they can sell a strong, united, and compelling case for the future of the Atlantic alliance to European citizens.

I am not sure that I agree, as “more assertive policies” and “cold war” is probably the same thing in the mind of most Europeans and I don’t think that the nuance helps here or matters at all. Leaders like Biden argue anyway that the US is not really pursuing a Cold War. The authors caution EU leaders against adopting a “cold war” framing. You say “framing”, I say “spin”. Should we be in engaging in spins at all to sell unnecessary conflict to EU citizens only to please the US?

Unlike during the first cold war, [Europeans] do not see an immediate, existential threat”, Leonard clarified. European politicians can no longer rely on tensions with China to convince the electorate of the value of transatlantic relations. “Instead, they need to make the case from European interests, showing how a rebalanced alliance can empower and restore sovereignty to European citizens in a dangerous world”, Mark Leonard added. The study shows that there is a growing “disconnect” between the policy ambitions of those in Brussels and how Europeans think. EU citizens should stick to their sentiments and not be convinced to look for conflict where it doesn’t exist, or change what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears in favor of elusive things like the transatlantic partnership, which the US itself doesn’t believe in anyways. And the last thing that should be done is to scare Europeans by convincing them they live in a “dangerous world” and China is the biggest threat or concern.

What the study makes clear is that a Cold War framing against China is likely to repel more EU voters than it attracts, and if there is one thing that politicians know it is that you have to listen to the polls in what your people are telling you instead of engaging in spins. Those that don’t listen in advance get the signs eventually. At the end of the day it’s not important what Biden wants.

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Germany and its Neo-imperial quest

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In January 2021, eight months ago, when rumours about the possibility of appointment of Christian Schmidt as the High Representative in Bosnia occurred for the first time, I published the text under the title ‘Has Germany Lost Its NATO Compass?’. In this text I announced that Schmidt was appointed to help Dragan Čović, the leader of the Croatian HDZ party, to disrupt the constitutional structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina and create precoditions for secession of the Serb- and Croatian-held territories in Bosnia and the country’s final dissolution. I can hardly add anything new to it, except for the fact that Schmidt’s recent statements at the conference of Deutsche Atlantische Gesellschaft have fully confirmed my claims that his role in Bosnia is to act as Čović’s ally in the latter’s attempts to carve up the Bosnian Constitution.

Schmidt is a person with a heavy burden, the burden of a man who has continuously been promoting Croatian interests, for which the Croatian state decorated him with the medal of “Ante Starčević”, which, in his own words, he “proudly wears” and shares with several Croatian convicted war criminals who participated in the 1992-1995 aggression on Bosnia, whom Schmidt obviously perceives as his ideological brethren. The question is, then, why Germany appointed him as the High Representative in Bosnia? 

Germany’s policy towards Bosnia, exercised mostly through the institutions of the European Union, has continuously been based on the concept of Bosnia’s ethnic partition. The phrases that we can occassionaly hear from the EU, on inviolability of state boundaries in the Balkans, is just a rhetoric adapted to the demands by the United States to keep these boundaries intact. So far, these boundaries have remained intact mainly due to the US efforts to preserve them. However, from the notorious Lisbon Conference in February 1992 to the present day, the European Union has always officially stood behind the idea that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be partitioned along ethnic lines. At the Lisbon Conference, Lord Carrington and Jose Cutileiro, the official representatives of the then European Community, which has in the meantime been rebranded as the European Union, drew the maps with lines of ethnic partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, along which the ethnic cleansing was committed, with 100.000 killed and 1,000.000 expelled, so as to make its territory compatible with their maps. Neither Germany nor the European Union have ever distanced themselves from the idea they promoted and imposed at the Lisbon Conference as ‘the only possible solution’ for Bosnia, despite the grave consequences that followed. Nor has this idea ever stopped being a must within their foreign policy circles, as it has recently been demonstrated by the so-called Janša Non-Paper, launched a couple of months ago, which also advocates the final partition and dissolution of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Such a plan is probably a product of the powerful right-wing circles in the European institutions, such as Schmidt’s CSU, rather than a homework of Janez Janša, the current Prime Minister of Slovenia, whose party is a part of these circles, albeit a minor one. To be sure, Germany is not the original author of the idea of Bosnia’s partition, this author is Great Britain, which launched it directly through Lord Carrington at the Lisbon Conference. Yet, Germany has never shown a will to distance itself from this idea, nor has it done the European Union. Moreover, the appointment of Schmidt, as a member of those political circles which promote ethnic partition as the only solution for multiethnic countries, testifies to the fact that Germany has decided to fully apply this idea and act as its chief promoter.

In this process, the neighbouring countries, Serbia and Croatia, with their extreme nationalist policies, can only act as the EU’s proxies, in charge for the physical implemenation of Bosnia’s pre-meditated disappearance. All the crimes that Serbia and Croatia committed on the Bosnian soil – from the military aggression, over war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide, up to the 30 year-long efforts to undermine Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – have always had a direct approval and absolute support of the leading EU countries. During the war and in its aftermath, Great Britain and France were the leaders of the initiatives to impose ethnic partition on the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now Germany has taken up their role. In such a context, the increasing aggressiveness of Serbia and Croatia can only be interpreted as a consequence of the EU’s intention to finish with Bosnia for good, and Schmidt has arrived to Bosnia to facilitate that process. Therefore, it is high time for the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina to abandon any ilussions about the true intentions of the European Union and reject its Trojan Horse in the form of the current High Representative.  

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Should there be an age limit to be President?

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The presidential elections in Bulgaria are nearing in November 2021 and I would like to run for President of Bulgaria, but the issue is the age limit.

To run for President in Bulgaria a candidate needs to be at least 40 years old and I am 37. I am not the first to raise the question: should there be an age limit to run for President, and generally for office, and isn’t an age limit actually age discrimination?

Under the international human rights law standard, putting an age limit is allowed in the context of political participation under the right to vote and the right to run to be elected. Human Rights Committee General Comment No.25 interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that an age limit has to be based on objective and reasonable criteria, adding that it is reasonable to have a higher age requirement for certain offices. As it stands, the law says that having an age limit for president is not age discrimination, but is 40 actually a reasonable cut-off? National legislations can change. We need to lower the age limit and rethink what’s a reasonable age for President, and not do away with all age limits.

We have seen strong leaders emerge as heads of state and government who are below 40 years of age. Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, became Prime Minister at 34. Sebastrian Kurz, the Prime Minister of Austria, was elected at 31. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, assumed her position at 37. So perhaps it is time to rethink age limits for the highest offices.

The US has plenty of examples where elected Senators and Congressmen actually beat the age limit and made it despite the convention. The age limit for Senator in the US is 30 years old. Rush Holt was elected to the US Senate at 29. In South Carolina, two State Senators were elected at 24 years old and they were seated anyways. The age limit for US president is 35 years old.

In Argentina, the age cut-off is 30. In India, it is 35. In Pakistan, it is 45 years old. In Turkey, it is 40 years old. Iceland says 35 years old. In France, it is 18.

Generally, democracies set lower age limits. More conservative countries set the age limit higher in line with stereotypes rather than any real world evidence that a 45 year-old or 55 year-old person would be more effective and better suited to the job. Liberal countries tend to set lower age limits.

40 years old to be a President of Bulgaria seems to be an arbitrary line drawn. And while it is legal to have some age limits, 40 years old seems to be last century. Changing the age limit for president of Bulgaria could be a task for the next Bulgarian Parliament for which Bulgarians will also vote on the same date as they vote for President.

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