Session Summary: Geopolitical Europe at Crossroads: Western Balkans in the Post-COVID-19 Era

H.E. Anže Logar, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Slovenia  

H.E. Gordan Grlić-Radman, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Croatia  

H.E. Bujar Osmani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of North Macedonia 

Miroslav Lajčák, EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues, Brussels  

Led by: Maithreyi Seetharaman, Founder, Facultas Media Limited, London

 

The Western Balkan is back on the agenda. Surrounded by the EU member states, it is rather a courtyard than a neighbourhood of the EU. However, recent intensified communication and meetings mean that the region is reaching a critical point. 

The stability and prosperity of the region is the goal of the EU as well as of Croatia. Croatian Foreign Minister, Mr Grlić-Radman, clearly stated that “the Western Balkan belongs to the EU and belongs to Europe”. However, the EU seems not to stick with its promises, especially when it comes to North Macedonia (and Albania). Mr Osmani emphasized that the Macedonian public prioritizes access to four freedoms, to grants, loans and education in the EU over the seat on the EU Commission or European Parliament. Yet, “the fuel for reforms and glue of different narratives” that have been keeping the integration process alive, weakens and “the engine slows down” as Mr Osmani puts it. He believes the enlargement needs a restart, especially for North Macedonia and Albania and that would be the start of the accession negotiations. The EU Special Representative for Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, Mr Lajčák thinks the EU is running away with the carrot of the membership every time the candidate countries get a little bit closer. This undermines the credibility of the enlargement process and of the EU itself, said Mr Osmani. How can the EU be a global player if it cannot deal with its own courtyard? The future of enlargement is according to Mr Logar, in the hands of the EU 27, rather than in the hands of the candidate countries. He stressed that too much attention and importance is given to intergovernmental conferences, however, the political step on the North Macedonian accession was made already in 2020. Elaborated further by Mr Grlić-Radman, North Macedonia and Albania fulfilled all the conditions and made big progress since 2005, now it is up to the EU to show the strength and start the negotiations. 

The debate also touched upon the role of the third parties in the region, mainly China. Both, Mr Lajčák and Mr Grlić-Radman agree that the China myth is overrated. The financial instruments provided by China do not work, the economies of the WB countries are tied to the EU, not to China or Russia. Moreover, the WB countries may have relations with third countries, it is their legitimate right, however, Mr Logar expects the candidate countries’ foreign policies to be more in line with the CFSP. On the other hand, Mr Osmani is more worried about China from an ideological and hybrid threat perspective that might destabilize the region even more. 

The last topic discussed was Kosovo-Serbia relations. Here, the expectations of both countries are different, but both committed themselves to the process of normalization of their relations. But, as usually stressed by Mr Lajčák, they do not have any other alternative than the EU integration process. What would help according to Mr Grlić-Radman is, nevertheless, a common and unified approach of the EU towards the recognition of Kosovo. All the panellists agree that WB needs a new approach and new language to move it to the 2020s.