Authors: ANDREW RETTMAN, ERIC MAURICE AND ESZTER ZALAN
Posted on: EUOBSERVER | February 5th, 2018
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.
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».
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».
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.