The EU enters the Balkans as a fast player
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rally in Sarajevo—the only one to be held in Europe—ahead of the snap Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections has drawn a lot of attention among local and international media. Yet, the Turkish president also had other business in Sarajevo, which involved holding talks with Bakir Izetbekovic, the Muslim member of the three-member Bosnian Presidential Council. The purpose of the talks were to promote bilateral relations between Turkey and Bosnia in view of the recent developments in the Balkans.
Erdoğan has been one of the leaders of the Muslim world who has shown a keen interest in developing his country’s relations with the Balkans, especially countries with a significant Muslim element, like Bosnia and Albania.
But, he is not the only one. All of Europe has recently turned its attention to the once war-torn peninsula.
Specifically after Romania and Bulgaria’s entry to the EU in 2007, the attention of the EU increasingly focused on the Western Balkans region, a neologism of a term coined to describe the countries of former Yugoslavia except Albania; in other words, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), and Albania. Since then, all these countries have been rushing into speeding up their accession processes to be included in the European club.
A cartoon by well-known British cartoonist David Perkins captures this atmosphere beautifully. It shows the tall dark castle of the EU with its gate closed and aged cars around it, each with the insignia of a Balkan country frantically racing and trying to enter first.
From that point of view, the summit in Sofia, Bulgaria, on May 17, between the EU and the countries of the Western Balkans, was particularly interesting. It demonstrated how much Brussels sees the Western Balkans as the next area of its trade and economic expansion, as well as a crucial geostrategic region in its future policy plans towards Russia. Brussels seems keen to establish a firm presence in an area where the United States, Russia, China, and Turkey want to become key players as well.
There is also an air of urgency to deal with age-old, unresolved bilateral disputes in order to convert this area of turmoil and political instability into an area of peace, trade, economic investment and western military might.
Last week’s summit in Sofia brought together the heads of state and government from the EU states and leaders from six Western Balkan partners (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, the FYROM, and Kosovo).
The remarks by EU President Donald Tusk indicated the urgency with which the EU sees its involvement in the area. “We reaffirmed our mutual commitment to the European perspective for the whole region … The EU is and will remain the most reliable partner of the entire Western Balkans. And in very concrete terms we discussed how to improve connections with and within the Western Balkans region.”
The “concrete terms” were transport links, energy security, digital economy, business climate, and opportunities for youth. A new perception of “connectivity” among the Western Balkan countries was added to deal with common security challenges, which include cooperation in stemming illegal migration flow, and increasing cooperation to counter terrorism and extremism. Also included in the agenda were cooperation in fighting corruption and organized crime.
Tusk was very open on where the Western Balkan countries should look for their future.
“I don’t see any other future for the Western Balkans than the EU. There is no other alternative, there is no plan B. The Western Balkans is an integral part of Europe and they belong to our community.”
But an interesting “stipulation” of this urgency by the EU and NATO to accept the Western Balkan countries in their camp, is their demand to work fast on finding solutions to their bilateral disputes.
Hence, after more than two decades, Greece and the FYROM have been immersed in their first tough pro-solution negotiations in the decades-long dispute over the use of the name “Macedonia” by the small Balkan country, as Greece claims the name can only be used by the Greek geographical district of the same name. Despite strong reactions in Greece, especially from the Greek Orthodox Church, nationalist circles, and opposition parties, the Greek government appears to be behind the belief that a solution to the name-problem would pave the way for further economic and strategic benefits in the region at a time when the Balkans are about to become a land of multiple opportunities.
A last note about Bosnia-Herzegovina: While non-EU members of the Western Balkan countries have more or less set their schedule towards their entry into the union, Bosnia appears to be the most difficult case. Relations between its three communities are still problematic and although the country has applied for membership in 2016, it still has a long way to go. However, since 2010, Bosnian citizens can travel to Europe without a visa, something Turkey has not yet achieved.