“We have to deliver and keep our promises”, the new President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen made clear in talking to Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic at the launch of his country’s first presidency of the Council of the European Union. Her reference is to the summit in Thessaloniki of 2003, when the EU committed to enlargement to the Balkan region. In the meanwhile, much has changed, even the name of the region. Since 2013, when Croatia entered the Union, the Balkans became “Western”.
In 2020 the European Union (EU) and the Western Balkans (WB) have a new chance to address low levels of mutual engagement and grow closer together. Considering the shared problems and interests of the EU and the region, a deeper engagement is paramount. The pervasive effect of the issues at stake – from climate change and air pollution to economic opportunities and security challenges – makes the discussion about possible benefits of the region’s EU accession a matter of absolute necessity.
We are entering a new year and a new decade with more unknowns about the EU’s expansion to the Western Balkans, despite or because of the significant events in the last quarter of 2019. The key challenges for the region remain the hesitant EU stance about expansion in their direction, and an unresolved crisis between Belgrade and Pristina, reflected in a stalled EU-led dialogue.
For Croatia, 2020 is the year of Europe. For the first time since it joined the EU in 2013, the youngest member state assumes the six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union. It is pretty much a formality, but the Croatian government seems to be taking it very seriously. The reasons are different and range from the personal interests of Prime Minister Andrej Plenković in foreign and European policy to Croatia's ambitions to join the Schengen area as soon as possible. The year will also be marked by electoral events.
Is the promise made from Thessaloniki about the European perspective of the Western Balkans region lost? Is it worth it to accept painful compromises, as North Macedonia did, if EU membership is no longer an option? These are just some of the questions which have been going through minds of Balkan leaders after the French president, Emmanuel Macron, signalled a red light for opening negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Other member states, especially Germany, and most European officials, labelled Macron’s decision a “historic mistake”.
Thirty years ago, on the 22nd of January, the last Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia marked the begnning of the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation. Since then, the Balkans remain in a condition of high political, economic and social instability.
The beginning of the Syrian armed conflict marked the start of an unprecedented outflow of foreign fighters from the Western Balkans to the Middle East. As of the end of 2019, about 1,070 nationals of Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, and Montenegro had traveled to Syria and Iraq. Although arguably motivated by a variety of reasons, most of them ended up joining jihadist militias and designated terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra.
In May 2019, Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic and Chinese Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi signed a three-point memorandum of understanding in the field of security. Two of the agreed initiatives came into effect in September: joint police patrols and the installation of cameras with facial recognition technology. Together with Serbian colleagues, an undefined number of Chinese police officers will be deployed in Belgrade, Novi Sad and Smederevo.
Last April, a Bosnian court sentenced Munib Ahmetspahic to three years in prison after a guilt admission agreement with the prosecutor. From 2013 to 2018, Ahmetspahic fought in Syria with Jabhat al Nusra and returned to Bosnia with a serious leg amputation. He was detained at the airport in Sarajevo in November 2018. However, Ahmetspahic was not the first returning foreign fighter to be convicted in Bosnia.
Ever since the foundation of the 16+1 cooperation platform with Eastern European countries, China has become one of the most influential players in the Balkans too.
China’s Increasing economic presence in the region has led many analysts to focus on the effects of rising Chinese influence. While this is a sound observation, it must necessarily be followed by two questions – to what end is China building its influence in the region and why are Balkan leaders so keen to accept Chinese propositions?