What did ECFR learn in Kosovo?

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Over the weekend ECFR rolled into Prishtina where we held a the inaugural Germia Hill forum on “South East Europe in a Multipolar Era” - a joint venture with Kosovo’s MFA. For two days, nearly a hundred of policymakers, diplomats, wonks of all shapes and colours debated the challenges and prospects for EU’s foreign policy at times of profound internal crisis. The question we grappled with was whether the EU’s troubles is turning the Western Balkans into an arena of competition. What to make of Turkey’s activism in Bosnia or Albania? Is Russia willing to reinforce relations with sympathetic South Slavs by assuming the mantle of protector? And how about the Chinese economic advances in a number of local countries? Or is the talk of power politics outdated, misleading, if not dangerous?

Petrit Selimi and Daniel Korski What did we learn at the conference? Well, for most speakers, the EU is still the only game in town for the Balkans. True, integration into the Union might be a liability as it imports economic crisis, which, for once, is not of the region’s making. Enlargement has been hijacked by bilateral grudges such as the dispute between Athens and Skopje. Entrenched illiberal democracies and rampant demagoguery tarnish the glossy image of “transformative power Europe” that is popular in Brussels. Yet, there is no one offering a narrative to rival the EU. And economy binds the Balkans closely with the Union’s core. As Kosovar officials, keen on obtaining visa-free travel to the EU, repeatedly pointed out 1/3 of their co-nationals already reside in Western Europe.

We learned that multiplicity differs from multipolarity. For Russia, the Western Balkans are a peripheral interest – making standoffs with the EU less likely (but of course, energy infrastructure is a different matter). Turkey has the ambitions and the historical depth but not the resources to play first fiddle. Its best bet is joining forces with the EU in pushing for conflict resolution. Of course, as our report What Does Turkey Think argues, the Union has to come up with creative ways to engage Ankara (but here’s a critical take from a Turkish participant). China is a newcomer driven by business opportunities.

But if the EU is the only game in town we are not sure what the name of the game is.  We are neither in the pre-1914 world nor in the golden era of enlargement ending with advent of global crisis in 2008. The EU is muddling through the fog in its policy towards the Western Balkans and the neighbours. Multi-speed Europe might well be the new paradigm emerging from the rubble of the ongoing Eurozone debacle. Such a development would perhaps facilitate the Balkans’ integration in the outer circle but will also raise further questions as regards the socio-economic development of the area.

Finally, this was a conference that went beyond the usual Balkan navel-gazing. The Bulgarian FM Nickolay Mladenov, who delivered the keynote address, quipped it was good to be in Kosovo and not to discuss Kosovo, for a change. Time to reinvent the Balkans by placing it into a larger context: EU internal reordering (excellent presentations by Slovene FM Samuel Zbogar, Hungary’s ex-PM Gordon Bajnai, and Jordi Vaquer from CIDOB),  transatlantic relations (kudos to Tomas Valasek of the CER for his stimulating talk), Europe’s ties with North Africa and Middle East (lively discussion on whether and how EU can use the experience of Balkan Muslim communities), or what ECFR calls  “Wider Europe” (EU+Western Balkans+Turkey+Eastern neighbours). Plenty to discuss at the next Germia Hill event in 2012!

PS As we adjourned the conference Belgrade and Prishtina embarked on a seventh  round of talks mediated by the EU. These are tough days in north Kosovo as Tim Judah (who moderated a panel at Germia Hill) reports.

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