On 20 June, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić met on the Serbo-Croatian border. After visiting both the Croatian and Serbian sides of the Danube and representatives of both national minorities, they have signed a declaration on improvement of relations and resolution of open issues. With several cases of bilateral disputes between the two sides arising during the last year, including the closing of the border on October 2015, yesterday’s event was welcomed as a “historic” one and attracted quite a lot of media attention. The importance of this meeting also shows the importance of open bilateral issues in the Western Balkans, both for stability and European enlargement in the region.Bilateral issues are generally considered to be one of the main problems plaguing Western Balkans states and hampering their EU membership ambitions. This stands true for bilateral issues between Western Balkans states aspiring for EU membership, but even more so for those issues between these states and neighboring EU member states which are capable of using their EU membership to temporarily or permanently block EU accession of their Western Balkan neighbors. Bilateral issues of Western Balkans states are mostly the consequences of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars, concerning territorial demarcation, succession of Yugoslavia, the status of refugees, national minorities, missing persons, and so forth. Some other, like the one between Macedonia and Greece, concern more fundamental issues such as the name of the former Yugoslav republic. This name dispute represents probably the best example of dangers expecting those Western Balkans states having bilateral issues with their EU neighbor: despite being granted EU candidate status in 2005, the same time as Croatia, Macedonia has not moved past that point due to a Greek veto. Recent controversy about the opening of the chapter 23 in the EU accession negotiations of Serbia, temporarily blocked by Croatia because of certain bilateral issues presented as demands for fulfillment of certain international legal and minority rights standards, has proven once again that the problems for EU enlargement in the Western Balkans arising from bilateral issues are highly probable.

Fortunately, these dangers were recognized within the so-called Berlin Process, a diplomatic initiative launched in 2014, which brings together representatives of the Western Balkans governments and the representatives of the EU and several EU member states: Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. On the 2015 Vienna Summit, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Western Balkans states have signed an agreement (Annex 3 to the Final Declaration by the Chair of the Vienna Western Balkans Summit) not to block each other on their EU paths. The civil society has had a major role in dealing with the questions of bilateral disputes. On a meeting concerning bilateral disputes in April 2016 in Vienna, Balkans in Europe Advisory Policy Group (BiEPAG), a policy research group of the European Fund for the Balkans and Centre for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz, has promoted a Toolbox for resolving bilateral issues which outlined specific steps and recommendations for resolution of bilateral issues. The author of this Toolbox was Marika Djolai, a member of the BiEPAG and a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies from Brighton, UK.

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Marika Djolai

Djolai, international development consultant with more than 15 years of experience in political activism and professional work in the Balkans, does not consider bilateral disputes in the Western Balkans to be a major threat for EU enlargement in the region, but still a significant obstacle. According to Djolai, “The problem with disputes is that they can be easily politicized and brought up promptly to achieve current political goals unrelated to bilateral disputes. One of the examples is the case of Macedonia and Greece. They are definitely one of the major obstacles, but they are also creating potential security threats, creating unfavorable conditions for Western Balkan countries”.

The role of the EU and the EU accession process seems to be very important for resolution of bilateral disputes, especially taking into account the importance of the EU facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. However, Djolai claims that “EU institutions, EEAS and EC see their role as a mediator, but not as someone who is requesting or scheduling resolution of disputes.” She believes that the problem is “that the EU has the power to both offer incentives and exert diplomatic pressure to resolve disputes and they are in the position to say that resolution of a certain border dispute is crucial, but they will not do it for certain political reasons.” According to Djolai, “The exception would be the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, where there is conditionality, the only such case in the Western Balkans. There are no consequences for not solving bilateral issues, there are no incentives. Except when a bilateral dispute is politicized, then they all start dealing with the problem.”

However, Djolai considers that it would be good to appoint an EU institution as a coordination body that would be able to incentivize and use diplomatic pressure to push Western Balkans states to resolve bilateral disputes. She believes that “The role of the EU is not crucial, but it should be. The Berlin process is certainly one way how EU is contributing to resolution of bilateral issues. On the other hand” – states Djolai – “we have to emphasize that the Belin Process involved only a few EU member states, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, others were not involved. Slovenia and Croatia are not just observers, but also participants, but there is no Greece, which is a big problem.”

The EU member states involved in bilateral disputes with Western Balkans states were invited to sign the Declaration in Vienna, but none have done so. Regarding the possibilities to encourage the participation of EU member states in a process envisioned by the Toolbox, Djolai states that “one way of dealing with this is certainly to keep offering to sign the Vienna declaration in which signatory countries have accepted not to block each other. Neither Slovenia nor Croatia have signed this.” According to her, “Diplomacy and using back diplomatic channels is a way how these thing are done.”

Another important obstacle for solving bilateral disputes lies in the lack of political will of the Western Balkans governments to make costly or unpopular compromises. These can be made because of the lure of EU integration, such as with the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, but this can hardly be a general expectation since the support for EU membership in certain Western Balkans states is continuing to fall. Djolai agrees that “people are becoming more and more disillusioned about this phantom idea about EU integration and that it may not be such a fantastic solution, especially with BREXIT.” She does not think that just EU integration is incentives enough, especially not like 10 years ago. According to her, “unpopular compromises will remain unpopular and will create problems unless governments have something concrete as a positive outcome for this costly measures”. Djolai believes that there certainly is a political will for joining the EU among Western Balkans states since all of them are actually fulfilling conditions and moving towards EU membership. Speaking about the possible negative backlash from unpopular decisions, Djolai claims that “one way of dealing with this is to actually discuss some of these costly compromises, to bring them into the public arena, to inform people about them, to have wide discussions and public consultations”. According to Djolai, involvement of the public might even make costly compromises less costly.  She believes that “the public needs to be involved in discussions about the specifics of each negotiation chapter. Many People are well informed and do have an opinion and they would like to be involved in the consultations about some of the crucial issues that need to be resolved in the near future in order to prevent escalation of conflicts between Western Balkans states”.

Bilateral issues in the Western Balkans were also one of the topics on the Belgrade Civil Society Forum, organized by the European Fund for the Balkans and ERSTE Stiftung in May in Belgrade. Chair of the thematic workshop on bilateral issues on the Civil Society Forum was Senada Šelo Šabić, Research Associate at the Institute for Development and International Relations from Zagreb, Croatia.

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Senada Šelo Šabić

Šelo Šabić, who specializes in Croatian foreign policy and the EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, believes that bilateral issues are not a threat for the EU integration of the region. She also does not consider the role of the EU and the potential EU membership to be crucial for solving these issues. According to Šelo Šabić, “EU is not and cannot be an arbitrator in solving bilateral issues between WB states. The enlargement process can, if there is enough goodwill, facilitate resolution of open issues between candidate countries or between a member state and a candidate state, but in essence the EU has no power to impose any solution. There are plenty of examples that corroborate this conclusion like Greece and Macedonia, Cyprus and Turkey, Slovenia and Croatia before.”

Bilateral issues between Serbia and Croatia have recently attracted a lot of media attention. Due to a blockade of the opening of chapter 23 in the EU accession negotiations of Serbia, the public is now familiar with disputes concerting the representation of the Croatian national minority in the Serbian parliament and the Serbian law on universal jurisdiction, which Croatia considered unacceptable. However, there is one more major hurdle awaiting Serbo-Croatian bilateral relations, the one concerning border demarcation on the Danube. However, Šelo Šabić argues that “according to official positions, a lack of border demarcation between Croatia and Serbia is not an issue that would impede Serbian progress towards the EU membership. Tense relations between the two countries can, of course, be further disturbed on different grounds, but that clearly should not be the goal.” Šelo Šabić believes that Croatia has interest to invest in good neighbourly relations with Serbia, just as Serbia needs to do the same with Croatia. According to her, “This does not mean that difficult unsolved issues between the two countries will not be put on the agenda, but it means that once they are on the agenda, they should be discussed constructively bearing in mind the interests of both sides.”

Croatia itself has had negative experiences with border demarcations impeding its EU accession process, when the opening of several negotiating chapters was blocked by Slovenia due to a maritime border dispute in the Gulf of Piran. Šelo Šabić believes that “the key lesson from this is that a candidate country is not on an equal position with an EU member state. Both sides are aware of this asymmetrical power relation. The blockade of the accession process was solved by Croatia making concessions.” On the other hand, Šelo Šabić believes that “another lesson is that an open border issue will not prevent a country from joining the EU if all other conditions are satisfied. The experience of Slovenia and Croatia also suggest that other member states have less patience and understanding when one member state uses a bilateral issue to intervene in the dynamic of the already complicated and demanding accession process.”

Should we then be optimistic about the future of resolving bilateral issues in the Western Balkans? Even if we do not consider them major threats for European enlargement in the region, they still offer huge potential for regional instability. Recent meeting between Grabar Kitarović and Vučić, mostly focused on bilateral issues between Serbia and Croatia, certainly gives room for optimism. However, we should be very careful with such a conclusion. As long as there are open issues and one or both parties have interests in standing firm and avoiding their resolution, much will depend on political will of current governments. The role of the EU in this regard is perhaps desirable, but is not expected to be decisive. The Berlin Process and the recent civil society initiative, culminating in the Toolbox for resolving bilateral issues, which puts the EU into the role of a mediator, but leaving the resolution of issues in the hands of the states themselves, are probably steps in the right direction.


This text has been produced with the support of the European Fund for the Balkans. The content of this text and the opinions expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the portal European Western Balkans and in no way reflect the views and opinions of the European Fund for the Balkans.