The supporters, the critics and the shockers – 10 MEPs who made the Western Balkans more European

Resolving the long-lasting dispute between Greece and (North) Macedonia, advocating for EU integration of the Western Balkans, ensuring freedom of movement without visas for the citizens of the region and dedication to a more developed region with stronger institutions, media freedom and rule of law, are some of the main goals that the members of the European Parliament responsible for the Western Balkans have been striving to reach.

As the term of the 2014-2019 European Parliament ended last week, we have decided to make a list of those who have made a significant impact on the Western Balkans region in the past five years. It is very important to note that this list does not imply any ranking among MEPs, but rather serves as the platform where people who, by their engagement, have made Western Balkans more European, are presented to our readers.

Our editorial board has made the selection and it exclusively represents the stance of our newsroom. We picked those who have wielded tangible political influence, set the agenda and stood out from their peers, driving trends both within the legislative arena and in the wider EU political debate.

1Tanja Fajon, S&D, Slovenia

Tanja Fajon; Photo: European Parliament

In her two terms as a member of the European Parliament, Tanja Fajon has been S&D’s point woman on the Western Balkans. Vice President of S&D Group, Fajon had the strongest MEP track record in dealing with enlargement in the EP.

Youth, media, civil liberties and vulnerable groups were among Fajon’s main interests. She has raised attention on decreasing freedom of speech in some Western Balkans countries. She even showed on the EP plenary session a cover page of Serbian pro-government weekly magazine Ilustrovana Politika that labelled critical independent media as “hounds which have been released”. Having always had harsh and critical rhetoric towards political elites in the region, some media called her an “MEP that sees what others do not want to see”.

Previously rapporteur on visa liberalisation for several Balkan’s countries, she achieved a visa-free regime for Balkan citizens and was strongly advocating for Kosovars to also get an opportunity to travel around Europe without visas. Slovenian opinion polls showed her to be one of the most popular political figures in the country.

2Eduard Kukan, EPP, Slovakia

Eduard Kukan; Photo: European Union

One of the most senior members of the European Parliament, Eduard Kukan has been really sensitive to Western Balkan issues, especially normalization between Serbia and Kosovo, Macedonian political crisis, media freedom, protection of journalists, rule of law, and fight against crime and corruption in Albania.

Chairing the Western Balkans Working Group, comprised of EP Rapporteurs and Chairs of the EP Delegations for Western Balkans Countries, Kukan become involved in resolving different pressing issues in the region.

Being a part of “EP Troika” during the Macedonian political crisis in 2015, Kukan chaired the famous eleven-hour meeting of Nikola Gruevski and Zoran Zaev that took place in Strasbourg. He facilitated the dialogue between the ruling party and opposition in order to overcome the political conflict and set the necessary conditions for holding fair and free elections. This dialogue ended with Pržino Agreement witch lead to free and friar elections in Macedonia.

P.S. With Kukan set to retire from European politics, what we need to say here is: Thank you for all Mr Kukan, and best of luck!

3David McAllister, EPP, Germany

David McAllister; Photo: European Union

Seen as eyes and ears of Chancellor Merkel during this term of European Parliament, the former Minister-President of Lower Saxony is for sure the most influential MEP on this list. Starting as an EP Rapporteur for Serbia and Chair for Delegation for the United States, in 2017 McAllister became a Chairman of AFET -European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.

While Tanja Fajon has always been seen as an MEP who often criticized the Serbian government, McAllister was seen as more moderate in his public speeches, especially regarding the Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, who multiple times described McAllister as a “close friend”. Vice president of the EPP and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung board member, McAllister visited Belgrade on several occasions, including the 2016 election victory celebration in the SNS headquarters.

Together with Knut Fleckenstein, McAllister was responsible for the platform which ended the political deadlock in Albania in 2017.

4Ivo Vajgl, ALDE, Slovenia

Ivo Vajgl, Photo: European Union

The best from the old Yugoslav diplomacy, briefly the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Slovenia, Ivo Vajgl become a prominent ALDE Member of European Parliament. In the term from 2014, he succeeded his UK colleague Richard Howitt in the position of EP Rapporteur for FYROM (which finally become known as North Macedonia in 2019).

Vajgl was part of the “EP Troika”, responsible for dealing with the Macedonian political crisis, achieving the Pržino Agreement that led to fair and free elections in this country. Together with Eduard Kukan, he attended the eleven-hour meeting between Nikola Gruevski and Zoran Zaev in 2015.

With his Swedish colleague from ALDE, MEP Jasenko Selimović, he hosted two leaders of the Serbian opposition on a conference in the European Parliament, which presented the first opportunity for the new Serbian opposition coalition to present itself in front of EU institutions.

5Knut Fleckenstein, S&D, Germany

Knut Fleckenstein; Photo: European Union

While at the beginning of the EP’s term in 2014 Fleckenstein was seen as the new Serbian Rapporteur, he took the position of being the EP Rapporteur for Albania. Together with his countryman David McAllister, Fleckenstein was in charge of creating a platform regarding the end of the political deadlock in Albania at the beginning of 2017.

They met Albanian leaders several times trying to find modalities to end the boycott of the parliament, opposition street protests and set the date for new elections. According to him, constitutional reforms, together with the vetting process, become the most important topics in the process of Albanian EU integration.

He was one of the speakers at the biggest opposition protest held in Skopje in May 2015 and replaced his colleague Richard Howitt in the “EP Troika” group that helped resolve the Macedonian political crisis.

As a Chairman of the federal board of Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund, he was dedicated to helping Balkan countries in dealing with the migrant crisis in 2015.

6Richard Howitt, S&D, UK

Richard Howitt; Photo: European Union

We haven’t forgotten this old chap. Among the people on the list, Richard Howitt had the longest period of membership in the European Parliament, as the first time he entered the plenary session was 20 years ago.

In the previous term, he was the EP rapporteur for North Macedonia (FYROM back then) and then was replaced in 2014 by his ALDE colleague Vajgl. As a great supporter of the accession process in the Western Balkans, Howitt has always tried to underline the importance of starting membership negotiations with North Macedonia. He was a part of “EP Troika” for resolving the Macedonian political crisis in 2015, which lead to the Pržino Agreement and free and fair elections in this country. Together with his colleagues Kukan and Vajgl he attended the eleven-hour meeting in Strasbourg with main Macedonian political leaders.

Soon after the UK referendum in 2016, he also “Brexited” from the EP and took up leadership of the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC).

7Ulrike Lunacek, Greens-EFA, Austria

Ulrike Lunacek; Photo: European Parliament

Others will maybe remember this Vice President of the European Parliament as a person who offered the rainbow-coloured scarf to Pope Francis, which he graciously accepted.

Being the EP rapporteur for Kosovo, she was in favour of resolving the demarcation issue between Kosovo and Montenegro so the process of visa liberalization could move faster. She was very active during the negotiations and ratification of Stabilisation and Association Agreement for the “Newborn” country.

That was just one among various reasons why she annoyed the Serbian pro-government media too much. Because she was constantly repeating that Serbia could only join the EU after it recognizes Kosovo as an independent state, Serbian pro-government tabloids usually labelled her as an “Albanian lobbyist”.

After returning to the national politics of Austria (replaced by Igor Šoltes as Rapporteur on Kosovo), she was the Greens’ top candidate for the Austrian general election, in which the party was defeated and failed to win a single seat in the parliament for the first time since 1983. Subsequently, Lunacek stepped down from all Austrian and EU political functions.

8Cristian Dan Preda, EPP, Romania

Cristian Dan Preda; Photo: European Union

Among all EP rapporteurs on Western Balkans countries, experienced Romanian professor Cristian Dan Preda seemed to be the most critical to his portfolio country – Bosnia and Herzegovina. He urged BiH to do its utmost to become a candidate for EU membership during this EP mandate, repeatedly asking BiH government to answer the questions from the Questionnaire of the European Commission. He also warned that in BiH “demons of the past have been awakened and that country could not implement further reforms because all decisions were ethnically based.”

But to be frank, the relationship between the two was everything but not a honeymoon. Preda has been heavily criticised since the very beginning of his term by almost all political actors in BiH – authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, leaders of Republika Srpska, all political parties, his own colleagues from Croatia, and even the “Mothers of Srebrenica”.

In defence of Dan Preda, we should keep in mind that having political actors from all sides in BiH against him probably means he did his job fairly and independently. Therefore, we can only congratulate Mr Preda for managing the chaos.

9Andrej Plenković, EPP, Croatia

Andrej Plenković; Photo: European Union

Before he was elected as a member of the EP, the Croatian “diplomat tiger”, as media referred to him, Andrej Plenković worked at different positions within the Croatian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tightly connected to the European integration process.

Even though the last plenary of the European Parliament in Strasbourg made Biljana Borzan the most successful MEP form Croatia in this EP term, we should not forget the fact that, by becoming the Prime Minister of the youngest EU member state in 2016, Plenković won the biggest promotion as an MEP.

During his time as an MEP, he initiated the Resolution on Serbia regarding the accused war criminal Vojislav Šešelj. He was urging that the Hague Tribunal (ICTY) should have rethought its decision to temporary release Šešelj before the first-instance verdict was announced.

10Anneliese Dodds, S&D, UK

Anneliese Dodds; Photo: European Union

Anneliese Dodds was one of the UK members of the European Parliament which made a significant impact on Montenegro. Brits were mostly in charge of the smallest, but the most advanced country in the EU integration process in the region.

She will also be remembered for bringing her baby daughter Isabella to all the meetings she had with state representatives in Montenegro. By this gesture, she delivered a significant lesson to a society that still predominantly functions through a patriarchal pattern, where everything related to motherhood should remain within the range of private space.

The integration process is not just about the political transformation, but far more about societal. That is why Ms Dodds finds her place on this list.

In 2017 she resigned as an MEP in order to take a role in national politics, becoming a member of the Parliament in Westminster. At the position of the Chair of Delegation on Montenegro, she was replaced by her compatriot David Martin.

P.S. Isabella is 2 now.