Last Tuesday, I had invited President Đukanović of Montenegro, Prime Minister Rama of Albania, Prime Minister Brnabić of Serbia, Chairman of the Council of Ministers Tegeltija of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Prime Minister Zaev of North Macedonia and Prime Minister Kurti of Kosovo for an informal dinner to discuss the situation in the region. Commissioner Várhelyí, in charge of the accession process, also joined our discussion.
Since 2017, it has been customary to hold such meetings twice a year, but since the beginning of my mandate, we have not had the opportunity to do so due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was all the more important to reconvene in this informal setting, as the region is currently once again at a crossroads in terms of European integration.
I wanted to exchange with the Western Balkans leaders openly and informally about their concerns and proposals for the region and its European future, as well as a more strategic approach to the European foreign policy. I am also keen to build a personal relationship with those leaders who need space to work on good neighbourly relations, with the European Union and amongst them.
It was important to demonstrate EU engagement with the region on a political level, beyond enlargement. However, the discussion showed clearly that enlargement is the topic, almost an existential topic, which unites the region. All leaders stated they have chosen to put EU integration at the top of their agendas and invested maximum political capital to move the people in the region closer to the EU. Coming from a country that started to thrive in the years when preparing for European Union membership, I know how the EU can serve as a magnet, and help countries recover, grow and prosper.
One only has to look at a map to understand how much the Western Balkans are engulfed in the EU, as one leader put it on Tuesday. The EU is the leading trade partner for all Western Balkans countries, with almost 70% of the region's total trade. Over the past 10 years, our trade has grown by almost 130%. Western Balkans exports to the EU have increased by 207%. In 2018, EU companies accounted for over 65% of foreign direct investment in the region.
However, it also takes little knowledge of European history to understand why the region remains fragile and its integration process into the EU complex. It was in the Balkans that the First World War started in 1914, and it was also in the Balkans that war and its trail of death and destruction returned to European soil in the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of former Yugoslavia.
These wars left deep wounds that are still far from being healed, despite the time passed since the 1995 Dayton Agreement for Bosnia and Herzegovina and the 1999 ceasefire between Serbia and Kosovar independence fighters. In addition to this difficult history comes also the game of the aspiring 'new empires', with Russia and China trying to increase their leverage and weaken the EU. Despite a more secure and stable environment now, the region is still far from resilient.
Recently the pandemic and its economic and social consequences have worsen the situation, despite the efforts of the EU and its member states, which have mobilised €3.3 billion to help the region’s recovery through the Team Europe initiative and will deliver 651,000 COVID-19 vaccines by August, with the help in particular of Austria. Identity politics are thriving in the region and with it, we see dangerous ideas about reshaping borders along ethnic lines. Such narratives are the very opposite of what European integration stands for. [Read my recent blog on Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I discussed this issue.]
In view of these developments, I put the Western Balkans on the agenda of the last Foreign Affairs Council. It was the first time since 2018 that such a discussion took place – about time. Foreign Ministers expressed their concerns about “losing the region” and stressed their determination to engage in bringing the Western Balkans closer to its European future. We agreed that when the Western Balkans deliver, we should deliver.
Tangible steps forward
Concretely, Albania and North Macedonia are expecting the first Intergovernmental Conferences on EU accession in June and so are Serbia and Montenegro. Kosovo’s visa liberalisation is long overdue: the country has met all related criteria and we now need to make progress on this issue. I will fully support this. I will also facilitate another High Level Belgrade Pristina Dialogue meeting in June. A comprehensive legally binding agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is also long overdue. Bosnia and Herzegovina need to use this year of non-elections to the full for difficult negotiations and decision on electoral reforms, the rule of law and the necessary constitutional amendments.
I appreciated the leader’s frankness on all these subjects. Their call to the Member States was clear: “make the effort to read the map and the history of the Balkans, try to understand us better and plan for a future together within the European Union”.
EU engagement with the region will continue during the June Councils, the Berlin Process Summit in July and the EU Western Balkans Summit in October. For my part, I will continue to be fully involved in and with the region and I plan to visit the region in July if the COVID 19 pandemic finally allows doing so. We need to make of 2021 the year of a breakthrough for the relations in all areas between the EU and Western Balkans.