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Tag: Western Balkans

A Baptism of Fire: Croatia’s Council Presidency

  • January 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Negotiating Brexit, the Budget and the Balkans simultaneously is an unprecedented baptism of fire for Croatia.

Source: Pixabay

 

Only six and half years after joining the EU, on the 1st of January 2020, Croatia took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. This is a chance for Zagreb to strengthen its EU and diplomatic credentials. Yet, many difficult files have fallen on the Croatian presidency’s desk. These include Brexit, the EU budget, migration and asylum, and the Western Balkans.

 

The Croatian government has defined 4 main priority areas: a Europe that develops, a Europe that connects, a Europe that protects, and an influential Europe. The official Presidency agenda goes into more detail about these overarching priority areas.

 

‘A Europe that develops’ entails a focus on regional development and supporting cohesion. In impending budget debates, countries like Croatia will defend cohesion funding against others seeking cuts. This heading also encompasses the European pillar of social rights, acting on negative demographic trends (a key Croatian priority), strengthening competitiveness and skills, and protecting the environment/fighting climate change.

 

‘A Europe that connects’ deals with European transport infrastructure, data infrastructure, establishing and integrating the energy market, and building stronger connections between European citizens through mobility, cultural heritage and dialogue with young people. These subheadings include some controversial and complex files such as advancing standards for new Artificial Intelligence technologies and increasing energy security. The former will have to be balanced against European technological competitiveness. The latter, largely, involves reducing dependence on Russian gas.

 

Russian power politics, based on being an essential energy supplier in Europe, have particular geopolitical importance for Croatia. Russia values influence over other countries, and eyes Croatia to have access to the Adriatic Sea. Croatia has European Commission funded Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals as an alternative form of gas provision. As of now, these are not commercially viable (LNG imported from overseas is more expensive than Russian gas) and so their full capacity is not being used.

 

The energy question could be a springboard for discussing renewables and would provide the Commission with an opportunity to exercise its ‘geopolitical’ credentials.

 

‘A Europe that protects’ also has the potential to be a controversial priority area. Croatian civil society has raised concerns that the Presidency has classed migration and refugees under this heading. Doing so suggests that people seeking sanctuary are a threat to the European Union. This heading also includes counter-terrorism measures online, the rule of law, democratic principles and fundamental values, and combatting intolerance and disinformation. The counter-terrorism proposals have raised concerns among civil society activists. They fear the use of upload filters and false-positive deletions of legitimate content.

 

The Croatian presidency’s aim to reform the Common European Asylum System is ambitious. It was impossible to find an agreement over the last few years. Croatia itself faces accusations of violating migrants’ rights. Allegedly, it used illegal and violent pushbacks to Bosnia, in the service of its key goal to join Schengen.
Finally, ‘an influential Europe’ involves upholding multilateralism and the rules-based global order, international development policy, crisis response capacity, and the European future of the Western Balkans. The Western Balkans and enlargement is the biggest challenge, bar the EU budget, facing Croatia’s presidency. Most of these countries (apart from Albania) recently used to be part of Yugoslavia alongside Croatia. They now look to the Croatian presidency to speed up the enlargement process. The European future of the Western Balkans was put at risk by the French veto, in an attempt to refocus the EU’s efforts on internal reforms. Zagreb will need strong diplomatic skills to progress reform files while keeping enlargement at the top of the EU’s agenda. The EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May will have symbolic value as the 20th anniversary of the initial Zagreb Summit. This will not be enough. To hold value for the people of the Western Balkans, the EU must commit to and follow through on accession within the next decade.

 

Overall, Croatia’s programme for the Council of the European Union presidency is rather ambitious. The presidency holds an opportunity for the country to show diplomatic skill and increase its value as a partner in the EU. There is also a risk of failure to carry out such an ambitious programme. The twin challenges of internal divisions and geopolitical developments are not unique to the Croatian presidency. However, the experience of negotiating Brexit, the Budget and the Balkans simultaneously is an unprecedented baptism of fire.

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Everyday I Love You Less and Less: Here’s what you missed at our Western Balkans event

  • December 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

 

 

The Centre for European Progression held a panel discussion on Monday 9th December entitled The EU and the Western Balkans – An End of a Romance? Our panellists shared some vital insights for the future of the EU and for the Western Balkans.

 

CFEP’s CEO István Szekeres began the event with a brief introduction to the topic.

 

The first speaker was one of the few MEPs to hold a Serbian passport, Andor Deli MEP (EPP), a dual national of Hungary and Serbia. For him, the EU accession of the Western Balkan states is personal. He knows people who have been waiting two decades to become part of the European Union.  He spent his younger years in Vojvodina, Northern Serbia, which were marked by travel bans, embargoes, and NATO bombing. These experiences make him want integration even more.

 

For Mr Deli, keeping Serbia on the European path is essential, but the pace of the process is too slow. The October veto has also led to a loss of trust between the EU and the Western Balkan states. However, he sees a chance for a reset and rebuilding of trust with the new Commission. The Western Balkans can serve as a litmus test. If Member States can reach an agreement on that, they may yet be able to tackle thorny policy problems in other areas.

 

Andreas Schieder MEP (S&D), the Chair of the Delegation to the EU-North Macedonia Joint Parliamentary Committee, spoke next. Before becoming an MEP, he was the Chair of the Austrian-Serbian Parliamentary Delegation. For Mr Schieder, the Balkan states are part of Europe and, by extension, should be part of the EU. He believes that the Balkan states must work with other countries to solve their regional problems. In that regard, North Macedonia fulfilled all the conditions. The promise that Western Balkan countries will be rewarded for solving tricky issues no longer works after Macron’s veto.

 

The whole European Parliament, possibly bar the Identity and Democracy group, supported accession talks. Mr Schieder met North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev on the same day they found out the answer was No. He learned there is a risk of nationalist grievance-based resurgence surrounding the name change.  After the EU’s decision, early elections in North Macedonia will take place at the end of April. At this point, Mr Schieder noted there was a chance to approve the talks in a March summit. For him, as the talks do not begin immediately, it is possible to reform the enlargement process (as Macron suggested) and open accession talks at once.

 

Alexandra Stiglmayer, of the European Stability Initiative think tank, was the third speaker. She presented a variety of statistics on the Western Balkans and discussed several problems with the accession process. The first was its lengthy nature, which results in painful reforms for a distant future benefit. Another problem relates to the EU institutions. There are over 70 veto possibilities. Member States have to approve progress at each stage (application, official candidacy, negotiations). These vetoes often have little to do with the country’s actions, but with domestic views on enlargement.

 

She also noted that even if certain countries are ahead in the accession process, it doesn’t necessarily reflect their readiness to join the EU. North Macedonia, which has not yet begun negotiations, is ahead of Serbia in Commission assessments. Secondly, Commission reports are also vague and lack concrete details which could guide foreign investors or NGOs. Thirdly, she added that these countries lag far behind the EU average and do not get much help to catch up.

 

She noted the Commission often argues that the Western Balkans do not have the absorption capacity to spend their allocated EU funding. Romania and Slovenia do not spend their entire allocation either, and yet they have seen dramatic improvement. Committed governments, such as North Macedonia, would make use of the money. The monitoring mechanism also needs reforms to include merit-based and detailed key requirements. These would aid comparison between states and remove the potential for political vetoes. Her third, and final, proposal involves pre-accession single market access. This would involve the implementation of 60-70% of the acquis. It could also motivate politicians who otherwise think in electoral cycles.

 

Dr Isabelle Ioannides, a Senior Associate Researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and a Europe’s Futures Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, was the final speaker. She was cautiously optimistic about the chances of enlargement to the Western Balkans. It was not just any Member State that blocked the talks: it was France, which holds big sway at EU level and whose preferences cannot be overlooked. However, she noted that experts have had long-term concerns about enlargement policy and that there is a case for reform. These include ineffective development conditionality, double standards, and poor performance in Common Security and Defence Policy missions.

 

The risk, according to Dr Ioannides, is coupling enlargement reform to internal reforms. This could potentially push enlargement off the agenda. Shared responsibility is needed: willingness from below and pressure from above. She remained optimistic as a result of the continued pro-European and pro-enlargement majority in the European Union, and the re-election of MEPs with experience on the Western Balkans. The Commission should be given a chance, although she remains concerned not just about France, but other Member States which have questioned Albania’s readiness (such as Greece). Others still are happy to hide behind France’s veto. In light of the Commission resulting from backroom manoeuvres, she wondered if it would be able to stand up to the Member States on enlargement. For Dr Ioannides, enlargement was never a romance. It is a long-term process of hard work and sacrifice. Western Balkan countries need to understand it is a road of sacrifice, and the EU needs to be more understanding of the sacrifices made.

 

Audience questions touched on Macron’s non-paper ‘Reforming the European Union accession process’, the role of non-EU states in the region, Turkey, Ukraine, and, finally, the future of the region in 2030. Dr Ioannides did not think any of the Western Balkan countries would be members by that date. Ms Stiglmayer was more optimistic, perhaps seeing North Macedonia and Montenegro as members by 2030. For Mr Schieder, 2040 was a more realistic time schedule. By contrast, Mr Deli felt something had to happen by 2030 for the enlargement policy to remain workable.

 

The region’s future may be uncertain, but what is certain is that the EU-Western Balkans debates are here to stay – whether the Member States like it or not.

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Our Sisters: Serbia, Kosovo and UN Resolution 1325

  • November 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Our Sisters: Serbia, Kosovo and UN Resolution 1325

Women’s voices are not being heard in the Belgrade-Pristina normalisation dialogue

Source: Pixabay

In Kosovo and Serbia, gender inequality is highly persistent in the political sphere. The 2018 Kosovo team selected to negotiate the normalisation of relations with Serbia was all-male, despite the Minister of European Integration being a woman at that time. Women are also underrepresented in Serbia’s negotiation and reconciliation processes: all three Vice Directors of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija are men, and only two of the eight directors’ assistants are women.

 

Last week in Brussels, the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office held a roundtable discussion on women’s activism in Kosovo and Serbia. It became clear that, although women were highly active in civil society peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts, they had been excluded from official dialogues.

 

The UN’s Resolution 1325, adopted some 19 years ago, was designed to end such inequalities in peacebuilding. Its aims include women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution, considering gender issues in peacekeeping and peacebuilding missions, and ensuring women are protected in areas of armed conflict. Women’s rights activists have mobilised around Resolution 1325 to ensure that all peacebuilding actions assess what impact they will have on people of different genders: also known as gender mainstreaming. Gender mainstreaming helps secure women’s rights, but it is not only about women. Instead, it encourages states and international organisations to end gender-blindness and adjust their policies to take account of how they may affect people differently, based on their gender.

 

Both Kosovo and Serbia have produced National Action Plans on the Resolution. Kosovo’s already expired in 2015 and is not available in English. Lack of availability of up-to-date information is one of the key issues in analysing gender equality in peacebuilding across the Western Balkans. Serbia’s Action Plan, however, is available via the OSCE. It does have a goal to include more women in the information process and the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. However, Serbia does not plan to invest its own state funds in this, despite seeking to involve partners from the civil society. Independent women’s movements the world over generally struggle with funding, while Serbian political parties’ Women’s Forums lack influence and are judged by what they can do for the party rather than for women as a whole.

 

On the ground, the stories of local activists surrounding Resolution 1325 are particularly revealing. Exclusion is not just a national practice, but an international practice. In the early 2000s, women had to consistently battle to meet UNMIK delegation leaders. Where they succeeded in doing so, it was often as an afterthought. The leaders also attempted to pigeonhole the women into focusing on ‘women’s issues’.  Women on both sides wanted to be heard on the final status of Kosovo, and cited Resolution 1325 as giving them the right to be heard.

 

When they are included, women are often seen as a ticket to peace. Due to their role in raising families, they become cast as the mothers of the nation. They are seen as inherently peaceful by nature of their gender. This, of course, is not the case. Women can be as guilty of perpetrating atrocities as men. Inclusion of women is not a box to be ticked in a recipe for peace. It is a necessary condition – women forming roughly half the population of any country – but it is not a sufficient condition.

 

What needs to happen in Kosovo and Serbia – and in all other peacebuilding missions – is not merely increasing the presence of women. Indeed, the 30% gender quota in Kosovar local and national parliaments has not improved the situation much. It has got women into politics, but they continue to face a glass ceiling in terms of accessing real decision-making power. For true improvements in gender equality, Kosovar, Serbian and international actors have to be fundamentally committed to the principles of gender mainstreaming in all contexts.

 

In conflict situations, gender-blindness tends to resurge in an effort to fix an immediate crisis. Solutions are found, but they are solutions found among men. If they do not work for all the constituencies, including women and relevant minority groups, they will not be sustainable. ‘Hard’ issues such as democratisation, security, and Europeanisation cannot and should not be detached from gender. That is why women’s civil society needs to be involved in all stages of peacebuilding processes. Not because they are uniquely peaceful, but because they have unique perspectives.

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Une erreur fatale: France and the Western Balkans

  • October 2019
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Une erreur fatale: France and the Western Balkans

Source: Pexels

France’s short term political calculations store up serious trouble for the future of Europe

 

Ursula von der Leyen spoke of a ‘geopolitical Commission’ while setting out her future objectives. Emmanuel Macron may have just killed that vision off before her Commission even begins. His decision to block starting the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania makes it difficult to take the EU seriously as a foreign policy actor in its own right.

In terms of foreign policy, there are two main schools of thought: the liberal internationalist school, and the realist school. A simplified explanation of the difference is that realism is about the importance of state power and interests above all else, liberal internationalism highlights compromise and cooperation as an alternative to pure power politics. Whichever theory you subscribe to, Macron’s action is damaging.

Firstly, liberal internationalism. The EU itself is a key example of this theory: states fight for their different interests in meeting rooms instead of battlefields. For many European states emerging from authoritarian governance, the fledgling European project meant peace, democracy, and prosperity. That is still the case today, with aspiring members having seen the EU’s transformative effect and so willingly making sacrifices and reforms to join the club. North Macedonia and Albania have made radical, dramatic changes to reach this point: the former even changed its name, and the latter has agreed to have all its judges vetted by an independent panel. Both states have normalised their relations with other countries in the region, which is of paramount importance in the Balkans, the “powder keg” of Europe.  As of yet, they have little to show for it.

 

Rewarding other states for ‘good behaviour’ only works if they believe the rewards will materialise. If you are promised cake as a child for doing your chores well and then the cake never comes, why would you keep making the effort? More importantly, your parents would not be able to convince you with incentives ever again. Macron’s decision does not just alienate North Macedonia and Albania. He has also signalled to every other country in the enlargement procedure that their reform efforts may have been in vain. Partners beyond the Western Balkans also have no way of knowing whether any commitments made will survive contact with the Council. Macron has not just seriously jeopardised the EU’s enlargement strategy: he has dealt a blow to the concept of liberal internationalism as a whole. For the  Balkans, that means a potential resurgence of nationalist forces. North Macedonia’s rescheduled elections could end up being the canary in the coal mine. For the EU, that means a serious loss of credibility overall. Liberal internationalism is its lifeblood, and if that theory cannot bear fruit in the real world, the EU cannot be an effective international actor.

From a realist perspective, perhaps France has its own interests that would make such a risk worth it. When questioned by Euractiv, Macron’s close ally Natalie Loiseau MEP cited concerns about Brexit and the resulting EU budgetary gap as needing to be resolved before opening enlargement processes, but claimed that France was still committed to closer relations with the Western Balkans. Unofficially, their motivation lies in the fear of public opposition to enlargement, and an attempt to secure compromise from Germany on other EU-related files. Franco-German transactional deals are a key example of how persistent power politics can be. Although France may have legitimate problems with the enlargement process, reforms could be enacted even when North Macedonia and Albania are in the process of their accession negotiations. In reality, France is seeking a figleaf to cover its naked indulgence in power politics.

However, it’s not just the existing members of the EU who may be drawn to the allure of power politics. Serbia, which has already been drifting off the European path, has taken this latest decision as vindication of that move. President Vucic’s statement to the FT that “We need to take care of ourselves. That’s the only way, that’s the only approach. Everything else would be very irresponsible[.]” is the epitome of power politics. For the Western Balkans, “caring for themselves” involves decisions that will drastically undermine EU influence in the region.

This is where Von der Leyen’s ‘geopolitical Commission’ will run into difficulties. Geopolitically, the EU is not the only fish in the sea. There are other places that Western Balkan states can look, as they grow frustrated with unmet promises. China, and its Belt and Road initiative, is only too happy to step into the economic investment gap left by the EU. Again, it is  not only EU foreign policy and enlargement goals that have been sacrificed at the altar of French power plays. China just provides finance without the conditions: it will happily fund energy and transport projects, some of them environmentally damaging, while the EU tries to push in the opposite direction. Turkey is eyeing the region, building its influence not only with the predominantly Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians, but also the key player in the Balkans, Serbia. Russia – as usual – will react to such developments with thinly disguised glee. Ending the presumption that all roads lead to Europe is Moscow’s key Western Balkan policy aim. It seeks to become one of several ‘managers’ in the region, and so will happily take advantage of the EU’s lack of political will.

What may have seemed like an effective political strategy for France in the short-term will come back to bite it in the future. Even if it ends up securing the internal reforms it has demanded, it will have done so at great cost externally. The EU will face a loss of credibility, and a loss of stability in its neighbourhood. Any future promises it makes to countries in the Western Balkans would be met with a simple “Thank you, but we know the French will sabotage us in the end – we will stick with our reliable new partners in Moscow, Beijing, and Ankara.”

 

It is not France who faces the brunt of the consequences of its actions. The people of the Western Balkans will be put at risk by resurgent nationalism, and the European project will be blamed for failing to meet citizen demands. Together, those two risks are the potential sparks for the next big crisis.

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