As the European Elections are rapidly approaching, the fault lines between the outgoing European Commission and the heads of state of EU countries, forming the European Council, are becoming ever more visible.
While the European Commission, in particular Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, has launched a PR offensive to defend the impending European Commission’s advice to the European Council and European Parliament to open accession negotiations with Albania, it appears that major EU countries have explicit reservations against further enlargement of the EU.
At the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have organized a Balkan Summit that openly rejects the option of land swap between Kosovo and Serbia explored by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini.
In an op-ed for the Austrian Handelsblatt, Commissioner Hahn warns for “destabilization” in the Balkans if the EU continues to postpone the opening of EU accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. Hahn’s argument echoes earlier threats of Prime Minister Edi Rama, who has frequently raised undefined spectres of “Russian” interference or “radical Islam,” while actively courting support from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and recently paying a visit to Saudi Arabia.
Ironically, it is precisely the incessant good weather show the European Commission has put up for the last five years, ignoring the many warnings by independent journalists, experts, and civil society, that may now lead to the crushing disappointment leading to “instability.” In fact, two years ago Rama was already openly pessimistic about Albania’s chances:
What I can say very openly and directly […] is that the opening of negotiations no longer is an issue that depends on what we are doing better. […] [The opening] of negotiations next year is what Albania expects and deserves and it is unfair that this issue continues to be dragged along for reasons that have no relation to Albania, bringing up at every turn new reasons.
Now has come up – they don’t say it officially, I cannot say it – but it has come up and is going around, the phantasm of “ethnically Albanian crime.” Of course in certain media and urged on by certain sources and forces, but the issue is how and how much this also will turn into a sort of conditionality of the sort “first solve the problem of ethnically Albanian crime, then we’ll see.”
The situation has in no way improved. The recent decision of the Dutch Parliament to ask the Dutch government to request the European Commission to suspend the Albania’s Schengen visa exemption is a sign that this “phantasm of ‘ethnically Albanian crime'” feels very real to some of the EU member states. Furthermore, there is not a single bit of progress on one of the key conditions imposed in 2018 by the European Parliament, namely Electoral Reform.
Kosovo and Serbia
A second front of emerging contention between the European Commission and members of the European Council has been the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. In these talks, which so far have been conducted by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, and Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi the idea was floated of redrawing the borders or “land swap,” also supported by Prime Minister Edi Rama. This approach has been severely criticized by regional experts as destabilizing, and the Kosovar government led by Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj has refused to support President Thaçi in his attempts.
A recent report of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) on the background and progress of the Kosovo–Serbia negotiations describes the status quo as follows:
The US and Kosovo quarrel. The EU is divided. Germany and the US distrust each other in the Balkans. The EU High Representative [Federica Mogherini] and her team are considered reckless by the majority of EU member states. The Kosovo parliament passes a resolution against the Kosovo president [Hashim Thaçi]’s willingness to discuss changing borders. The Albanian prime minister [Edi Rama] quarrels with the prime minister of Kosovo [Ramush Haradinaj] about Kosovo’s future, and dismisses a respected foreign minister [Ditmir Bushati] who warned against the dangers of redrawing borders along ethnic lines. Meanwhile in Serbia a majority of people supports a president [Aleksandar Vučić], who restores Serbian military power to confront a looming Greater Albanian invasion. Newspapers are full of stories that arouse nationalist emotions. President Vučić is popular while his opposition is deeply divided on Kosovo.
The Balkan summit hosted today in Berlin by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron is supposed to reengage the Serbian and Kosovar parties to come to peaceful solution without any form of border “correction.” This summit is seen as a rebuke against both to the approach of the European Commission and the US, where National Security Advisor John Bolton has favored the partitioning of Kosovo, and, indirectly, to Prime Minister Rama’s foreign affairs approach, supposedly handled by Acting Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Gent Cakaj, whom President Ilir Meta refused to appoint as full minister.
From this marginalized approach, and on the side lines of the Balkan Summit, Prime Minister Rama had a brief meeting with Merkel to discuss Albania’s progress and expectations, without any concrete result. Nevertheless, Minister Cakaj claimed in a Facebook post after the meeting to have the “absolute support” of Chancellor Merkel who allegedly considered Albania “irreplaceable” as beacon of “regional stability.”
Nevertheless, reports have emerged that especially France is not particularly interested in opening accession negotiations with any Balkan countries until internal “stability” has been achieved. And Albania’s current political situation, where the opposition has left Parliament and holds frequent mass protests, cannot be described as anything close to being stable.
It is clear that the European Commission and the current EU heads of state, forming the European Council, are articulating significantly distinct approaches to the Western Balkans. The political motivations behind this divergence are rather obvious.
As far-right politics appears to be on the rise around the continent, EU enlargement has become a toxic subject for the established parties in European Parliament, less than a month before the start of the European elections. Furthermore, EU leaders are weary of the foreign policy decisions made in Washington, including the support for the Kosovo land swap.
At the same time, the outgoing European Commission has little to lose, and Commissioners are no doubt already planning their post-Commission jobs, perhaps as well-paid consultants and lobbyists for the semi-autocratic governments they currently support. Hence, Hahn touts his “accomplishments” with Albania and region culminating in yet another positive (and no doubt misinformed) Progress Report, in spite of widespread concerns about the region’s authoritative turn. Similarly, Mogherini continues to whip a dead horse while Merkel and Macron try to rethink an issue that cannot possibly end in a solution that stood at the basis of the Balkan wars in the 1990: mono-ethnic national territories.
In this divided dynamic, it appears Prime Minister Edi Rama is betting on the European Commission to somehow override individual heads of state such as President Macron, or the Dutch Parliament and German Bundestag, which can effectively veto any opening of the negotiations. This is as unrealistic as his idea that pushing through local elections in June will somehow make the opposition against his regime disappear.