Srećko Latal / 1 Sep 2020
The paper identifies and analyses opportunities and challenges, which the EU is facing in the region as it tries to regain its leverage there. It starts from the oft-repeated premise that of all foreign actors, only the EU has the capacity to gradually stabilize and normalize the Balkans, examines the roots of the acute misunderstanding and miscommunication between EU and Balkan officials and outlines possible recommendations that could help the EU in tackling Balkan challenges.
Since early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a context for new escalation of regional tensions and geopolitical competition in the Balkans. As recent months saw the breakdown of the Chinese “mask diplomacy,” Russian-Serbian “historic brotherhood” and the interruption of the White House’s Serbia-Kosovo peace initiative, the European Union re-emerged as the region’s key ally and the only true stabilizing force. Nevertheless, as the policy paper shows, despite its extensive financial capacity and its enlargement perspective, the EU is still far from having secured its position in the region.
On the one hand, heightened regional and geopolitical tensions still provide numerous opportunities for new Balkan crises in the coming months. On the other hand, the EU and the Western Balkans do not see eye to eye on a number of issues related to the enlargement process, which has been the foundation of their relationship. Their divergent views and interests have in recent years caused many misunderstandings and in some cases mistrust between the EU and Balkan countries.
The EU position in the region is already being tested by the lack of cooperation and coordination between the EU and US-led initiatives for Belgrade-Priština dialogue, which is continuing in early September with separate meetings having been scheduled in the White House and Brussels. This discord within and between the EU and US spells new trouble not only for the dialogue itself, but for the entire Balkans, as it further weakens EU and US influence and creates new space for self-serving Chinese, Russian, Turkish or other interests.
If the EU wants to strengthen its position in the region and aid in its gradual stabilization and normalization, it will have to fundamentally change its perception of and approach to the Western Balkans – something that Brussels itself and EU member states have been desperately avoiding for the past decade. Such a move may go against the EU’s conventional political wisdom, especially since its attention is currently focused on much more urgent and critical challenges – from the COVID-19-related internal health and economic crisis to the situation in Belarus and fragile relations with the USA, China and Russia. Yet all other global actors are already including the Western Balkans into their geopolitical games. It would be prudent for the EU to do the same, to consider the Western Balkans not only a liability, but also an asset – one which can, for better or for worse, affect the stability of the continent, as it occasionally has in the past.