Tuesday

22nd Jan 2019

Juncker to go on 'geopolitical' Balkans tour

  • Commission chief (r) normally prefers to work the phone from his Brussels office (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is to visit Western Balkans capitals amid wider efforts to counter Russian and Chinese influence there.

His trip, from 26 February to 1 March, will take in Belgrade, Podgorica, Pristina, Sarajevo, Skopje, and Tirana before concluding in Sofia, which currently holds the EU presidency.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Spain's non-recognition of Kosovo more sensitive than ever due to Catalan separatism (Photo: Tsui)

A senior EU source said Juncker was going because "the Western Balkans is strategically very important, it will sooner or later join the EU".

"The geopolitical influence of Russia, China, Turkey there is growing, and it is very important that the EU's influence remains there and stays predominant," the source said.

Juncker started his mandate in 2014 by saying there would be no more EU enlargement in the foreseeable future.

But on Tuesday (6 February), his commission plans to say that Montenegro and Serbia ought to join by 2025 in a new Western Balkans strategy paper.

The senior EU source said the date was a "perspective, not a deadline".

"The process will remain merit-based, if the merits have been met, 2025 can be a realistic date," the source said.

They added that all territorial issues, such as Serbia's non-recognition of Kosovo, "would have to be solved" by that time.

The source also said that a border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia, which are already EU members, would have to be solved.

"The issue between Croatia and Slovenia is a heavy burden on the Western Balkans. If not solved soon, the whole Western Balkans momentum is killed," the source said, adding that "there is nothing [the commission] can do legally" to intervene.

Hungary, for one, welcomed Juncker's initiative.

"If you take a look at the US, Russia, they all have a Balkans strategy, but the EU doesn't have a Balkans strategy … the EU should be a stabilising force there," Zoltan Kovacs, the Hungarian government spokesman, said on Monday.

He said Montenegro was "ready to join" the EU and that Serbia "should be taken in as soon as possible - 2025 would be nice".

Spanish problem

The diplomatic push is to see the 28 EU leaders meet their six Balkan counterparts at a special enlargement summit in Sofia in May.

Spain, which does not recognise Kosovo's independence from Serbia, has threatened to spoil the show.

It said in an informal paper last month that the new Western Balkans strategy should "draw a clear distinction" between Kosovo and the five other Balkans aspirants.

"The concept of 'WB6' [Western Balkans 6] does not fit the enlargement dynamic. Kosovo is not part of the enlargement process," it said.

Four other EU members - Cyprus, Greece, Romania, and Slovakia - also do not recognise Kosovo.

But they have not rallied round Spain at this stage, while EU diplomats played down the importance of Madrid's lone intervention.

Greece came the closest to backing Spain.

"Athens supports the European perspective of the whole Western Balkan region, as stated in the Thessaloniki Agenda", a Greek diplomat told EUobserver.

The agenda, an old EU policy, was adopted at a special EU summit before Kosovo had declared independence in 2007, with Greece adding that "the principle of unanimity must be ensured regarding any change in the participation at these meetings".

Creative language

Other sources said EU Council chief Donald Tusk would have to compose an artful invitation letter and conclusions for the Sofia summit, which did not mention "states" or "heads of states" with regard to Kosovo, in order to keep Madrid happy.

But a diplomat from a central European EU state said: "We take this Spanish document as one of [just] many contributions to the discussion".

"The summit in Sofia will be about the future of the whole Western Balkans and its relations with the EU. We perceive the participation of Kosovo in this context," the diplomat said.

Another EU contact said Madrid's paper had been drafted before Catalonia, a Spanish region, voted to split from Spain in a referendum in December, and that it contained "nothing new".

A third contact said that unless the Catalonia crisis flared up before May, Madrid was unlikely to make a big fuss on Kosovo.

Turkey not invited

Spain's informal paper, seen by EUobserver, also mentioned the need to make nice with Turkey - the only other place with an EU membership perspective.

"Despite the current circumstances, Turkey must not be forgotten", Madrid said, referring to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's authoritarian crackdown.

"It is our oldest enlargement partner, joined to us in a strong multidimensional relation. It is also both a key player in the region and a basic strategic ally of the EU," Spain said in its own geopolitics.

Erdogan has voiced interest in attending the Sofia summit.

But EU officials felt his coming would overshadow the event, with Tusk and Juncker aiming to meet him in a smaller "institutional summit" in February or March instead.

EU sets date for next wave of enlargement

The EU is preparing to pledge a 2025 deadline for the next wave of enlargement, a leaked paper says, but Balkans disputes could hold things back.

Opinion

Western Balkans: A new start for Europe

The European Commission is rarely praised for bold action these days - but the EU Strategy for the Western Balkans deserves applause.

EU divided over Western Balkan enlargement

After the European Commission presented its Western Balkans strategy last week, with a view of possibly integrating the region by 2025, some EU ministers were less enthusiastic after their first discussion of the new policy.

News in Brief

  1. EU hits Mastercard with €570m fine
  2. Romanian minister prepares to cancel corruption cases
  3. Sefcovic: no gas supply problems this winter
  4. Report: Commission warning on passport-sale schemes
  5. France summons Italian ambassador over colonial remark
  6. May U-turn on fee for EU nationals in UK
  7. French data watchdog gives Google €50m fine
  8. EU hits Russians with sanctions over Salisbury attack

Opinion

EU should brace for a more authoritarian Erdogan

The new blend of religious nationalism will be more anti-West and anti-EU, as Brussels has anything but leverage on Turkey. The first signs of this strong rhetoric are already visible.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General

Latest News

  1. France and Germany hope to revive EU with Aachen treaty
  2. May pushes defeated Brexit deal, offers no Plan B
  3. European Parliament targets 'fake' political groups
  4. What is fate of non-euro EU states after Brexit?
  5. Turkish NBA star takes on Erdogan
  6. 'Meme ban' still on table in EU copyright bill, says MEP
  7. Brexit power grab by MPs hangs over May's 'Plan B'
  8. Polish mayor's funeral marred by Tusk TV dispute

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  2. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  3. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  5. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  6. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  8. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  10. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us