For two decades the Western Balkans have been in the spotlight of international politics. Wehave got used to the dramatic events after the dissolution of Yugoslavia: the rise of nationalism, ethnic conflicts and wars in the 1990s, NATO intervention, EU and UN missions, war crimes and trials in The Hague, (external) state-building in Bosnia Herzegovina, and finally the independence of Kosovo. The problems of the region used to be the problems of the world. But this is changing. Despite having a presence in the region, the international community seems to have lost interest. This vacuum is both a danger and an opportunity. It is dangerous because the various regional problems can easily escalate – and it is an opportunity as local ownership is desperately needed if any progress is to be made in the region.
The Germia Hill conference (organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo & ECFR) is a rare opportunity for the Western Balkans to engage with the rest of the world and look beyond its regional problems, and as one participant put it: ”The unique experience of the Western Balkans could well be an asset for its future foreign policy”. Traditionally, transatlantic relations are seen as important in the region, but with all the talk of the “US pivot to Asia” the emergence of a post-American Europe seems to be a real possibility. However, US officials stressed that Europe remains an indispensable partner for the US (60% of all documents that are read by the US Secretary of State are still related to Europe). But the message was clear: the US is still focused on Europe/Western Balkans, but it would prefer to talk with about common international challenges - and not about internal problems.
This year’s Germia Hill also provided an opportunity to discuss the future of EU-Turkey relations and the developments in the Middle East and North Africa: Highlights included a presentation by Pakinam Elsharkawy, an assistant of Egypt’s President Morsi, who argued that the West needs to develop new concepts to understand the “post-Arab spring” environment in Egypt – including a new understanding of the role of Islam. Another speaker that left an impression on the crowd was Wassim Al-Adel, a Syrian blogger who blogs at Masaloon http://www.maysaloon.org/ He described the response by the West to the war in Syria with three “I’s”: the fear of immigration, the fear of Islam and the fear of Iran.This all meant that there was definitely plenty to think about, not only for the foreign policy community of the Western Balkans – but also for the participants from the EU and US.
Regional problems = regional ownership?
Many officials from the Western Balkans stressed the need to develop regional ownership for regional problems. Washington or Brussels will not be able to solve all problems of the Western Balkans and many speakers called for a more ambitious approach by regional actors. This could be a chance for the Western Balkans to develop a new, more positive narrative. The recent visit of Catherine Ashton and Hillary Clinton seemed to have created a rather productive atmosphere in the Western Balkans. Especially Kosovo's dialogue with Serbia to normalise relations between both countries was seen as a major step forward.
The EU is also an ever present topic in the region. Croatia may soon join the club, while other countries have started accession negotiations. Butas Bernard Kouchner reminded the audience: enlargement is not popular in EU member states due to the current crisis. The EU's “enlargement fatigue” should encourage the countries in the Western Balkans to offer a success story. The EU has enough problems of its own, so the last thing that Europe needs is even more problems!
EU: Lessons learnt in the Balkans?
On the technical level of enlargement negotiations the EU has learnt from its mistakes in Romania and Bulgaria. Difficult enlargement chapters such as the rule of law are now a priority at the beginning of accession negotiations and are not just left to the end. This is good progress but it is not enough.
When it comes to EU foreign policy the picture looks rather different. There is a severe lack of EU leadership in the region. None of the big EU member states are particularly interested and the European Commission is not able to fill this gap. But if the EU does not want a politicised enlargement process it should be helping to solve bilateral diplomatic disputes between the countries in the region. Examples include the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece: At the moment Greece is effectively blocking EU accession negotiations of Macedonia. The Greek crisis could have been an interesting opening for EU - but it seems that nobody in Brussels (and Berlin) thought of linking the issue to the various bailout negotiations. Another example is Bosnia and Herzegovina: arguably, the biggest problem of the Western Balkans. The Bosnian constitution is not working, the federation is constantly in crisis - and with severe diplomatic disagreements between Germany and the UK regarding the future of the country the situation is deteriorating and the political dialogue.
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