In his opening speech László Sinka, Head of the European Union Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Hungary, underlined that, after nearly a decade of predictable development, the Western Balkans are once again showing signs of instability. He recalled the words of Jacques Santer that “Yugoslavia is on Europe’s doorstep, so destabilization is not in anyone’s interest.” He recalled and supported Hungary’s interest in EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, while adding that what was happening with northern Macedonia and Albania would not steer the enlargement process at all in the right direction. Turning to security issues, he said that since the end of the Cold War, we are now facing the most serious security threat. Although progress has been made in regional relations, security threats remain. He then gave a brief assessment of the six countries involved in the enlargement process, saying that both the European Union and NATO should strive to remain a credible player in the region. In addition, he presented shocking figures from a recent UN report showing the continuing depopulation of the Western Balkans. In his view, the enlargement process should follow the following guidelines: respect, trust, will, perspective, financial support, predictability. Regarding Hungary’s role, he considered that Budapest remains one of the loudest supporters of enlargement and that the European perspective of the Western Balkans needs to be realized. It is therefore in the interest of the Hungarians to open accession chapters with the Albanians and the Macedonia as soon as possible, while negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro, which have begun so far but have since slowed down, need to be accelerated. In addition, it is important to promote economic development and the development of regional relations. As mentioned, V4 can serve as an example for the region in this respect, whilst in the future, the issue of security will be the focus again. In her keynote speech Jill Gallard, Deputy Political Director at the United Kingdom’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office highlighted the need for successful integration in the Western Balkans, as the region’s future security greatly depends on it. Speaking from the British perspective, she said that he agreed with the words of László Sinka and that the appointment of Commissioner Oliver Várhelyi was good news. In addition, she emphasized that after Brexit the UK would leave the EU, but not Europe. Therefore, they will continue to support Euro-Atlantic integration efforts in the Western Balkans. Adding that the key issue is that Germany should continue to support this process, and considers the following aspects to be a key priority:
1) Serbia and Kosovo to return to the negotiating table and the EU to continue to support the reconciliation process and to strengthen regional relations
2) Brain drain, organized crime and war victims should continue to be a priority
3) The early possible accession of Northern Macedonia to NATO
Concerning the upcoming London Summit, she highlighted that NATO should focus not only on its 70th anniversary, but also on responding appropriately to the challenges of the 21st century. As he said, NATO is responsible for the security of nearly one billion people.
The first panel discussion focused on the current realities of geopolitics and the fragile state of stability in the region. Jasna Dragović-Soso, Head of Department of Politics and International Relations at Goldsmiths University of London examined the current situation in the Western Balkans from a historical perspective. Regarding the challenges in the Balkans, she emphasized that the problem with regional relations is that the events of the 1990s still thematic political discourse and this has a negative impact on relations between states. Therefore, particular emphasis should be placed on areas such as economic development, state-building, addressing post-conflict issues, and dealing with war and hostilities.
Donika Emini, Executive Director of CiviKos Platform and Member of BiEPAG, speaking on the role of the great powers and on state-building, stated that there was twenty years of peace in the Balkans, an important achievement. At present, however, there is a break in US-European and German-French relations. On the one hand, this means uncertainty and, on the other, the EU missed an important opportunity that the positive events of 2018 would have made possible. The French veto and the intention to change the enlargement strategy made the process unpredictable again. She added that the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue is not progressing at present and that further problems are making regional relations more difficult. Recently, the US State Department showcased, with the delegation of two special envoys to the region, that it wants to re-engage its relations with the Balkans. Another major problem is that while NATO has been and will be expanding in the region, EU accession has stalled since 2013 (Croatia’s accession). With regard to Russian, Chinese and Turkish influence, Ms Emini considered that Russia had no major interest in Kosovo and clearly supported the Serbian side in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. China is increasingly an economic actor in the Balkans, but these are not investments but loans. In addition to that, Turkey is becoming an increasingly serious economic actor, whereas in the past, Ankara had rather a greater room for manoeuvre in the cultural sphere. Robert Pszczel, Senior Officer for Russia and the Western Balkans at NATO’S Public Diplomacy Division believes that it should be noted as a point of reference that the Balkans are no longer Europe’s back yard. Integration can help solve problems, and NATO has provided an important framework for the EU to expand. Concerning NATO’s role in the region, he emphasized that the Alliance did not want to force anything on the Balkans, as evidenced by the fact that this year Serbia had more military practice with NATO than with Russia. Western integration, he believes, has much more to offer this region than non-Western powers. He briefly explained that, in addition to Montenegro’s accession, northern Macedonia had also made important progress and recalled that Skopje had made considerable efforts to improve relations with its neighbours. He indicated that NATO had more than just interests in the region, investing a lot of resources in the region and playing a leading role in guaranteeing security over the past two decades.
During his input lecture Ralph Wilde, Member of the Faculty of Laws at University College London gave a presentation on different interpretations of international humanitarian law by the United States and the EU, such as the use of extraterritoriality by federal systems. The underlying idea of the presentation regarding NATO membership was that the greatest challenge for the Western Balkan countries was not their accession, but the ability to manoeuvre along the various interpretations and positions of international law within the federal system. The second panel of the conference aimed to give a deeper insight into the political realities of Euro-Atlantic integration. According to Jovana Marović, Executive Director, Politikon Network and Member of BiEPAG, Montenegro is performing well ahead of the rest of the region in terms of technical aspects of the EU accession process. She also criticized Montenegro’s lack of readiness for NATO membership, but Russian intervention following the 2016 elections has greatly accelerated the process. In connection with EU accession, she underlined Montenegro faces several problems. Internal issues are most of all about democracy, as Montenegro is a highly polarized society and therefore the French veto clearly believed that Paris was sending the wrong message to the region. For this reason, she considered it essential to make the enlargement process more predictable in the future. With regard to external powers, Ms. Marović stressed that Montenegro was troubled by the lack of transparency of both the government and the elite exercising power. As a result, Chinese investment is attractive to the country, but it will put a heavy economic burden on the long run. Anna Orosz, Research Fellow, Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade stressed that practical research also shows that aggressive political rhetoric and lack of respect for one another continue to stamp regional relations today. Thus, the development of political relations cannot take place without confidence-building. The EU perspective should consequently act as a motivator for reconciliation processes. The question, however, is whether the EU and EU membership are the right answer to these challenges. Speaking on regional relations, Ms. Orosz believed that it is worth examining this area in context. Also, the outcome of the Serbian-Kosovo dialogue is likely to have an impact on the Serbian-Bosnian (or Serbian-Bosnian) relationship. Tobias Rüttershoff, Head of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s Albanian Office accented – in reference to Albania’s geostrategic realities – that the country, like the other Western Balkan states, had no choice but to join Euro-Atlantic integration. An important element of this would be the development of regional cooperation, which he believes was greatly facilitated by the establishment of the Berlin Process. According to him, the meetings in Novi Sad, Ohrid and Durres were more vocal about the mini-Schengen, as no major progress has been made so far. The success of the initiative will also depend on the support of other countries in the region, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. In addition, each country faces different problems in the region. In Albania, for example, the religious issue does not appear as sharply as it does in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The panel discussions was followed by a closed workshop focusing on the interests and specific behavioural patterns of the great powers in the Western Balkans.
Text: András Braun (translation to English: Péter Dobrowiecki)