5th Feb 2023


Can Greece work with Biden to solve the West Balkans impasse?

  • Joe Biden regularly visited the region in the 1990s and after 2000. There is even a street named after him in Kosovo (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

This year is the 200th anniversary of launch of Greece's national liberation uprising. The English poet, Lord Byron, came out to support the Greek struggle for independence. He died along with Greeks who were ready to assert their rights to their language, islands, traditions, and faith against Turkish overlords.

Sadly, the planned celebrations of Greek freedom and self-identity have been derailed by Covid-19.

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  • The fact remains that the EU member states which joined the EU 25 years ago are far more conscious of the gaping West Balkans hole in the EU than the stuck-in-the-mud EU 20th century EU member states (Photo: Google Maps)

Greece has always been Europe's outlier. It faces an implacably hostile neighbour in Turkey under its assertive authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Until Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, Greece had no European Union member state as a neighbour.

Europe north of the Aegean and the Alps continues to patronise Greece. In their new book La Valse Européene on the enduring EU crises since the crash of 2008, top French economist Élie Cohen and political scientist Richard Robert, analyse the punishment of Greece by the Dutch-German led eurogroup after the financial crisis.

The Greek economy has not got back to its level of the early 2000s even before the pandemic struck. Greek pensions were destroyed to meet the demands of the high priests of monetary orthodoxy in Brussels. Half a million of young, educated Greeks fled their country a decade ago as a result of the European Commission's punishment politics.

It allowed a win in 2015 for the far-left Syriza party whose populist demagogic economics spokesman, Yanis Varoufakis, did even more damage with threats to quit the euro. After he was fired some stability returned. In 2019 the Syriza firebrands were replaced by the modernised centre-right New Democracy party under Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

As a way of celebrating its own 200th anniversary of freedom and national independence can Greece take a lead in Europe in an area of the highest importance to president Joe Biden? Both as chair of the US Senate's foreign affairs committee and as Vice President, Biden took a strong interest in the Western Balkans.

Biden regularly visited the region in the 1990s and after 2000. There is even a street named after him in Kosovo. His son, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer aged 45, served as a US army lawyer in Kosovo helping to create rule-of-law structures after the small nation's liberation from Serb rule.

Like Greece after 1821 which partly but not completely freed itself from Turkish domination, Kosovo remains under pressure from Serbia, backed by Russia, which has mounted a worldwide campaign in the last decade to deny Kosovo full recognition as a UN member state.

Putin endorses the Serb nationalist view that Kosovo is just a breakaway Serb province much as the Ottomans refused to accept Greece had the right to exist except on Turkish terms in the 19th century.

The Greek leader, Mitsotakis, has turned his centre-right New Democracy party round to accept the existence of North Macedonia as a small West Balkan state. He faced down Greek rightwing nationalists who insisted the Skopje political leaders were trying to steal Greece's national identity rooted in the heritage of Philip of Macedonia who bequeathed his name to the giant Greek region of Macedonia, far bigger than the small province in the south of former Yugoslavia.

Putin tried to derail the Athens-Skopje deal as the Kremlin hates the idea of the small West Balkans nations like North Macedonia being fully incorporated into the EU, and in due course Nato, like the Baltic states or other former Soviet colonies in Europe.

Mitsotakis saw off both Putin and his own Greek nationalists on the North Macedonia question. Now he has an opportunity to take a real European lead on the West Balkans.

None of the big EU players like Germany or France have been willing to show any leadership. President Macron thinks if Francophile Albania let alone Kosovo get close to Europe his Islamophobe opponent Marine Le Pen will accuse him of letting in two majority Muslim nations.

Berlin indifference

Berlin has always been indifferent to the Balkans ever since Bismarck noted that the region was "not worth the life of a single Pomeranian grenadier". Germany, ever mercantilist, has just sold six advanced submarines to Turkey - which upsets the delicate balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean. A Germany that refused to lift a finger to help Greece during the euro crisis is unlikely to bother itself helping to solve the EU's Balkan question.

President Biden meanwhile has reversed Trump's withdrawal from the region with an executive order insisting US support for different international agreements since the Dayton accords of 1995 that stopped the Serb assault on Sarajevo.

The new executive order insists on the primacy of bringing to justice those responsible for mass slaughters and ethnic cleansing during the 1990s Balkan wars. Serbia prime minister, Alexander Vucic, served as Slobodan Milosevic's press spokesman and Serb media regulation whips up hate against its small neighbour.

State department officials have also briefed Washington wants to keep the West Balkans free from Russian, Turkish or Chinese influence.

The best way forward would be to start getting the small nations between the Aegean and the Alps into the EU. Greece has a key role to play here. Greece's deputy foreign minister, Kostas Frangogiannis, says that Greece's long-term strategic goal is the integration into Europe of the West Balkans region.

He is supported by Slovenia one of the two former Yugoslav nations forced by the Yalta agreement to live under communist rule after 1945 which was lucky enough to get into the EU in 2004. The other was Croatia. But the rest of the West Balkans was left swinging in the wind with the EU unable to offer any way forward as its member states, locked in their own national egoisms, could not agree a way forward.

'Poor man's Orban'

Slovenia now occupies the six-month EU presidency. Its eccentric prime minister, Janesz Janša, is regarded in the region as a poor man's Viktor Orban, but Slovenian officials and diplomats are smart and are committed to the completion of EU enlargement to include the territory between Slovenia in the Alps and Greece in the Aegean.

The Slovenian government is organising a summit on the Western Balkans in October.

The last thing the region needs is the model of illiberal authoritarian government with attacks on judges and journalists in the manner of Orban and Janša. But the fact remains that the EU member states which joined the EU 25 years ago are far more conscious of the gaping West Balkans hole in the EU than the stuck-in-the-mud EU 20th century EU member states.

In the 1990s, Washington had to step in an pull the EU's irons out of the fire in the West Balkans first with the Dayton Agreement and then in 1999 with Nato stepping in to stop more Srebrenica type massacres in Kosovo.

The US under George W. Bush mishandled the timing of Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008. Bush by then was so discredited in Europe after the disaster of Iraq, the US handling of the Kosovo independence question backfired and allowed Putin an opening at the same time as his invasion of Georgia put the West on the back foot.

So Greece and Slovenia have a role to play.

Athens has already taken a major step forward by normalising relations with North Macedonia. The next step and one that would be welcome in Washington would be to normalise relations with Kosovo.

This would command world headlines and win support from President Biden and most Nato governments. It would send a signal to Putin and Erdogan that the West Balkans was part of Europe.

Finally, it would be a signal to Serbs that it is time to turn the page on the West Balkans wars of the 1990s. There is a big future for Serbia as a dynamic European nation in partnership with its former associated nations in the communist-era Yugoslavia.

Working in partnership with Greece, and like France and Germany after 1945, offering the hand of reconciliation to Kosovo, Belgrade can become part of the solution to the West Balkans and no longer an obstacle to the region getting closer to Europe.

200 years after Greece began the process of becoming fully part of Europe, Athens working as a partner and ally of Washington can help its West Balkans neighbours achieve the same end.

Author bio

Denis MacShane is the former UK minister of Europe. His book on Kosovo’s future was published in 2011. He travels regularly in the region.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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