Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Agenda

Western Balkans, Iran, trade on the agenda This WEEK

  • Sofia's Palace of Culture, where EU and Balkans leaders meet on Thursday (Photo: eu2018bg/Flickr)

EU foreign policy will top this week agenda, when European leaders meet in Sofia, Bulgaria, for a summit that will touch upon the Balkans' stability as well as the global order.

The summit, organised on Thursday (17 May) by Bulgaria as part of its six-month presidency of the EU Council, aims to "inject new energy in the EU-Western Balkans relationship".

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  • EU leaders will discuss how to react to Trump's decision on Iran and trade (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Earlier this year, the European Commission said that the region's most advanced countries could hope for an EU accession in 2025 if they have made enough progress.

The Sofia summit, however, will not focus on accession - a topic that divides EU member states - but on issues of common interest.

The region's six countries - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo - will be represented for discussions on their economic and strategic relationship with the EU.

The EU will commit to develop infrastructure, digital and connectivity projects and several side meetings, organised by the Bulgarian Forum for Business Leaders, the World Economic Forum and the Vienna Economic Forum will take place to help economic cooperation.

EU and Western Balkans leaders will also discuss security issues, such as terrorism, and migration, as well as Russian meddling in the region.

Kosovo

The preparation of the summit was troubled by Spain's threat not to participate because of Kosovo, a former part of Serbia that is still not recognised by five EU states - Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Slovakia.

It was still not clear on Friday afternoon if Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who wants to avoid any legitimisation of Catalan independence claims through Kosovo's example, will attend the summit or if he will be represented by his foreign minister.

To alleviate Spain's concerns, the Kosovo flag will not be raised in Sofia, the summit documents will refer to "leaders" rather than to "heads of state and government", and it will be specify in documents that the use of the name Kosovo "is without prejudice to positions" on its status.

Rajoy is in any case expected in Sofia for a working dinner on Wednesday (16 May) ahead of the Western Balkans summit.

As decided by EU leaders at their last summit in March, the discussion will be over digital issues, from innovation to the taxation of internet companies, cybersecurity and data protection.

But digital will be overshadowed by Iran and trade, two challenges posed to the EU by US president Donald Trump.

Iran and tariffs

On 8 May, Trump announced the US was leaving the so-called JCPOA - a 2015 agreement brokered by the US, the EU, France, Germany, the UK, Russia and China to stop Iran's military nuclear programme.

The Sofia dinner, which will be also attended by EU diplomacy chief Federica Mogherini, will be the first opportunity for EU leaders to coordinate the bloc's reaction.

The EU has said it "will remain committed to the continued full and effective implementation of the nuclear deal" and called on Iran to do the same.

In a joint statement, France, the UK and Germany called on the US to "do everything possible to preserve the gains for nuclear non-proliferation brought about by the JCPOA, by allowing for a continued enforcement of its main elements."

The EU also insisted that it would "protect its economic investments" in the face of US sanctions that also apply to EU companies that deal with Iran, under a principle of extraterritoriality.

On Friday, French finance minister Bruno Le Maire called on the EU do "defend European economic sovereignty" and adopt regulations to protect EU companies from US sanctions.

Wednesday's leaders discussion will be prepared by two meetings in Brussels on Tuesday - the first between Mogherini and the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the UK, the second one between the four Europeans and Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

After dealing with the Iran deal issue, EU leaders will discuss the EU reaction to US tariffs on steel and aluminium.

Trump has exempted European products until 1 June and conditioned a permanent exemption to the EU accepting to set limits on its exports to the US.

 The European Commission, which is the EU trade negotiator, has so far said it would "not negotiate under threat" and insisted the bloc should be "fully and permanently exempted".

Some EU countries, mainly Germany and the Netherlands, have suggested however that they would be ready to open negotiations to avoid a trade war with the US. According to the German Chamber of Commerce, some one million jobs depend on trade with the US.

Catalonia and Italy

In two EU member states, this week could see a breakthrough in long-standing political crisises.

In Spain, Catalonia may see an end to the suspension of its autonomy by central authorities, if a new president of the regional government is elected on Saturday (12 May) or Monday (14 May).



Quim Torra, who is considered as a hardline separatist, was chosen to be the pro-independence candidate by former leader Carles Puigdemont, who has been in exile since October, in first Belgium and now Germany.

If Torra is elected, he will be able to form a government and thus fulfil the condition for the re-establishment of the autonomous institutions, which were suspended after the Catalan parliament declared independence last October.

The political crisis would however not be over, as Torra said on Friday that his plan was to "follow the mandate" of last October independence referendum, and to lead a "constitutional process" towards independence.

He said that he was ready to talk with PM Rajoy but said that Catalonia was going through a "humanitarian crisis" and that he would seek an "internationalisation" of the independence issue.

In Italy, after two months of uncertainty following an inconclusive election, the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement (M5S) and the right-wing League may be able to start negotiating a coalition government.

On Wednesday (9 May), Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of Forza Italia, the League's main ally, said he was ready to let M5S and the League govern together without his party. This was a condition set by M5S leader Luigi di Maio to start talks with the League.

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