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The Year of Chance for the Balkans: The 5 key events of 2018

While 2016 was a year of challenges and despair when it comes to the future of the EU and its enlargement in the Western Balkans, 2017 brought some much-needed positive news. Even though 2016 was marked by the BREXIT referendum, victory of Donald Trump in the US and the rise of populism and Euroscepticism, 2017 raised new hopes with some positive outcomes.

Eurosceptics lost in successive elections in Austria, the Netherlands and France, and failed to make a significant impact in Germany. In the Western Balkans proper, change of regime in Macedonia brought a new dynamic after a decade of democratic backslide and stagnation on the Euro-Atlantic path. The EU itself recognized the importance of the moment and gave hope to Western Balkan states through a change of narrative, famously expressed in the State of the Union speech by Jean-Claude Juncker in September 2017, where he stated that the there must be a ‘credible enlargement perspective’ for the Western Balkans.

The year ahead of us is widely considered to be of great importance for the EU enlargement process in the Western Balkans, and expectations are much higher than only a year ago. From the announced European Commission Enlargement Strategy, through the scheduled EU – Western Balkans Summit, the first in 15 years, to the possible resolution of the longstanding name dispute between Macedonia and Greece – the year 2018 promises to bring significant changes.

European Western Balkans presents some of the key events and processes which should be eagerly anticipated in 2018.

European Commission Enlargement Strategy

European Commission’s EU Strategy for successful integration of the Western Balkans, which is expected to be presented on 6 February 2018, will most likely include all the countries of the Western Balkans.

Notwithstanding the earlier announcement of the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, that the new strategy would pertain to the prospective accession of Serbia and Montenegro, the frontrunners in the process, by 2025, the draft of the Strategy includes the rest of the WB6 as well – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia.

The new strategy will also focus on the rule of law, fundamental rights, fight against corruption and organised crime, and the overall stability in the region, areas of major concern for the EU. The draft of the document also envisages the conclusion of a legally binding agreement between Belgrade and Pristina by the end of 2019, as reported by Koha Ditore and Tanjug.

Commenting on the prospective strategy, Srđan Cvijić, Senior Policy Analyst on the EU external relations at the Open Society European Policy Institute, considers it to be the ‘key document in this process’.

Cvijić believes that there are five elements that have to be covered by the strategy in order to “make the EU ‘carrot’ more appealing and thus the ‘stick’ used to assure a successful reform process in the candidate and potential candidate countries”.

According to him, these are transparency and predictability of the process, introduction of new mechanisms to monitor progress, more funds available for the Western Balkan countries, socialisation of the political elites, and the integration of the Western Balkan citizens into the European Union through different mechanisms.

EU – Western Balkans Summit and the Bulgarian EU Presidency

There is an atmosphere in both the European Union and the region that the upcoming Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU will be a great opportunity for the Western Balkans 6 (WB6) to move forward in their individual accession processes and make significant progress.

Bulgaria has already expressed its ambition to push forward the EU integration of the WB6 and rendered it one of the priorities of the upcoming presidency. It also aims to push for more funds, more infrastructure, energy and other projects.

Lilyana Pavlova, the minister responsible for Bulgaria’s EU presidency, told Reuters that the “integration is a natural process, which needs to continue and now is the time if we don’t want to miss the moment”.

“The peace, the calm, the stability and the future of Europe pass through the Western Balkans. The European project will not be complete without them”, said Pavlova.

In addition, it has been announced that, on 17 May 2018, Sofia would host an EU – Western Balkans Summit which is to be attended by the six Western Balkans leaders.

“The summit is an important symbolic gesture and it is also a positive note that Bulgaria has taken an active interest in promoting the EU accession of its neighbours”, notes Florian Bieber, professor at the University of Graz, and reminds that “a Summit itself, without a content, will have a limited impact”.

“However, with a new EU strategy for the WB6 there is an atmosphere that the summit organisers could draw on, focusing on resolving bilateral disputes, making enlargement more engaging, looking more critically at shortcomings in democracy and rule of law in the region”, concludes Bieber.

According to Vedran Džihić, Senior Researcher at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, “the big looming question for the Balkans is whether the EU with the new Enlargement strategy and with efforts undertaken by the Bulgarian and subsequent presidencies will manage to turn the wheel from ‘business as usual’ towards more pro-active and even offensive policy beyond the stabilitocracy approach. Enlargement has to be placed high on the agenda of a more ambitious EU”.

According to Džihić, “Bulgaria will undertake a huge effort by organizing the Sofia Balkans Summit”.

“If the Summit is to become a success it needs to kick-start a new process of strengthening incentives for successful reforms while being strict and clear on red lines (e.g. in terms of media freedoms, rule of law, widespread democracy and reform faking practices)”, he said.

Džihić points out that “another crucial issue for Bulgaria but also for Austria will be to save the positive democratic ‘Macedonian moment’ and to undertake everything that is needed to make Macedonia a new regional success story and certainly also a role model for democratic changes in the Balkans”.

Austrian EU Presidency

Austria is due to take over the presidency of the Council of the EU on 1 July 2018 and, owing to its traditionally resounding interest in the Western Balkans and the support for the region’s integration into the EU, it has been widely discussed that the country’s presidency will have a positive impact on the WB6 EU prospects.

However, Austria has recently got a new government and a coalition partner of the ruling People’s Party is the right-wing Freedom Party, which has staunchly advocated for inward-looking politics and whose members have been criticized for their extreme rightist and often racist remarks.

According to Vedran Džihić, Senior Researcher at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, “Austria has very competent diplomats working on the region and a huge expertise on the Balkans in the society”.

Džihić believes that even though the Austrian presidency will be preoccupied with Brexit debate and discussion on the new budget of the EU, the Balkans will be on the agenda.

“The new chancellor leans more toward emphasizing security, migration management and stability of the region. This will be not enough, and this is not what is expected from one of the most proactive promoters of the region and the Enlargement”, he said.

Džihić believes that Austria “should and is already liaising with Bulgaria and Romania to create a broader time-frame of three presidencies to upgrade the Enlargement process. It should put an extra effort to try to place the Balkans on the map of larger EU reform debates, which will definitely culminate in 2019”.

In his article for European Western Balkans, Džihić pointed at how little interest the new Foreign Minister, Karin Kneissl, has so far expressed for the Balkans, although it is not excluded that she will show more interest in the future.

“It is then questioned essentially how she will behave towards Strache’s open support for Milorad Dodik’s policy and the position of the Freedom Party towards Kosovo, whose independence has already been openly criticized by Strache”, added Džihić.

“Of course, this is not the final decision, a lot will still be changed in the coming months, but it would definitely be fatal for the Balkans that, in the ‘Year of Chance for the Balkans 2018’ and, say, after Bulgaria, which has announced the grand summit dedicated to the Balkans, Austria returns to the ‘business as usual’, which, for the EU integration, would mean a new and potentially fatal waste of time for some countries”, concluded Džihić, thus referring to primarily to BiH and Kosovo, “which are far behind other countries in the region and can only move forward with a very strong, explicit and continuous support from the EU and important countries such as Austria”.

London Summit of the Berlin Process

The upcoming Western Balkans Summit will be held in London on 10 July 2018. It is perceived by the UK’s officials as an expression of a will of the UK to maintain its commitment to the Western Balkans even after BREXIT.

For instance, British Minister of State for Europe and the Americas within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Alan Duncan, stressed in his recent talks with Kosovo Prime Minister Haradinaj that, even though the UK was about to leave the EU, they would not leave Europe or the world.

It has been envisaged that the London Western Balkans Summit, the fifth meeting of the WB leaders, EU officials and representatives of several EU member states, would be the last conference organised within the framework of the Berlin Process, launched in 2014. However, it is not quite certain what will ensue following the conclusion of the meeting.

According to Marika Djolai, an International Development Consultant and Social Inclusion Policy Analyst for the Western Balkans and Head of Eurasia Programme at International Alert, “BREXIT and withdrawal from the EU membership shouldn’t be interpreted as the UK’s diminishing interest in the Western Balkans, particularly after twenty years of direct engagement in region’s stabilisation”.

As she states, “commitment to holding the Western Balkans Summit in London in 2018 in the Berlin Process framework is a telling gesture from the British Government, which is also aware that it has to motivate bilateral relations with the region’s counterparts”.

“Currently, the most credible path for the UK’s engagement in the region is the security and stability agenda, where it is already providing support and cooperation to Western Balkans organisations and institutions, particularly in the areas of fighting corruption and organised crime”, said Djolai.

When it comes to topics which will be present on the Summit, Djolai believes that “connectivity agenda is likely to be prominent at the London Summit agenda alongside digitization as well as commitment to youth and, hopefully, more emphasis on the civil society direct involvement”.

Resolution of the Macedonia – Greece name dispute

A long-lasting name dispute between Greece and Macedonia, which has been obstructing the former Yugoslav republic’s EU bid for almost a decade, could finally reach an epilogue in 2018. Many refer to the coming year as a crucial one with regard to the dispute, mostly owing to the current political momentum in Macedonia.

Matthew Nimetz, the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General for the talks between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, too, said that the name dispute could be resolved next year, stressing that the climate for the settlement of the dispute had improved both in Macedonia and Greece. However, there is still no new name to reflect on.

Florian Bieber and Nikolaos Tzifakis share the impression that the year 2018 offers an opportunity to finally resolve the name dispute, which “has been undermining the credibility of Greece in the Western Balkans and the EU and held back Macedonia for years”, according to Bieber.

“The next year is an opportunity to resolve the dispute, and short of that to transform the atmosphere and prepare the ground for the future”, notes Bieber.

“Decision makers in both Athens and Skopje have repeatedly stated their willingness to resolve the conflict without any further delay. Considering that they know well each other’s negotiating positions, a compromise deal should be within reach”, adds Tzifakis, Professor at the University of Peloponnese.

In addition, Bieber emphasizes the importance of the dispute settlement for the region in total.

“It would not just increase the number of countries which are in a position to compete about joining, but it can also help stem the cynical mood in the region that takes neither the EU seriously, nor the commitment to reform in the region itself”, he adds.

However, both of them point out at some of the challenges both countries have to face.

Bieber stresses that the process of resolving of such an issue is “always difficult and sensitive and the risk of failure is great” and adds that any solution, irrespective of the moment it is reached, “will need to build mutual trust and broad support”.

Commenting on the stance of Macedonian public, Tzifakis warns that “if the leadership of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia takes the path of organizing a referendum on the name issue, it is uncertain whether it will manage to convince the majority of people to approve the deal”.

“As for Greece, SYRIZA should find a way to persuade its junior coalition partner, the populist right party of Independent Greeks, to support a compromise solution that would definitely include the term Macedonia. If both coalition partners in Greece do not stand behind a deal, the mainstream centre-right and centre-left opposition parties of New Democracy and Democratic Alignment will not offer their support and will request early elections”, he adds.

Therefore, Tzifakis points that the domestic affairs both in Athens and Skopje may eventually be “more crucial than the UN-mediated international negotiations” and that this may lead to the delay of the dispute settlement.

Zoran Nechev, Senior researcher and manager of the Center for European Integration at the Institute for Democracy ‘Societas Civilis’, expects “concrete actions from both sides that will pave the way for eventually resolving the name-dispute and unblocking the Macedonian accession path”.

According to him, “it is essential to sustain the positive momentum created and the relationship developed between two sides in recent times”.

“The expressed willingness on the Macedonian side to close this issue is definitely a positive thing. Incentivizing Greece to agree on opening accession negotiations with Macedonia might be missing piece of the puzzle and could lead towards a breakthrough in the negotiations in the year to come”, notes him.

Nechev sees the impact of the resolution far beyond the Macedonian borders. As he states, “the resolution of the name issue will have an acceleration effect on resolving other bilateral issues in the Western Balkan, particularly within the framework of the accession process”. /European Western Balkans