European Council meeting; Photo: European Union

The year 2019 has left many unanswered questions. The most important processes in the region – opening of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, reform of the enlargement methodology, resolution political crises in the region – are still ongoing. Many people will get involved in them, but only a handful will make decisions and send messages that will be crucial for the future of the Western Balkans.

After taking stock of the most important events expected this year, here is the EWB list of the people from the EU that should be in the focus of the region in 2020.

Emmanuel Macron

Emmanuel Macron; Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France

The President of France has already made himself an unavoidable player when it comes to EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, first by sending several discouraging messages to those hoping for a swifter accession of the region, and then, of course, by opposing the opening of talks with Skopje and Tirana in June and October last year.

The latter decision, even though not solely made by France, was met with a significant backlash from every part of the continent. Paris has since kicked off the initiative for the reform of the enlargement process, even though its proposals have been criticized. All eyes will be on President Macron in the first months of 2020, as the EU debates the future of the enlargement and, most importantly, revisits the decision on North Macedonia and Albania before the Zagreb Summit in May.

Andrej Plenković

Andrej Plenković; Photo: European Union

One cannot mention Zagreb Summit without focusing on its initiator, the Prime Minister of Croatia. The country took over its first Presidency of the Council on 1 January, and the meeting between EU and Western Balkan leaders in its capital is expected to be one of the highlights of the first half of 2020.

Plenković will have an opportunity to organise a more successful event than the 2018 Sofia Summit, which was concluded without a breakthrough. To be fair to the Bulgarian Presidency, Zagreb Summit is coming at the seemingly more productive time for the enlargement process. Not only has the EU Council committed itself to revisiting the decision on Skopje and Tirana, but, by that time, preliminary conclusions of the debate on enlargement reform are expected.

Prime Minister of Croatia stated in November that the Summit will determine the next decade of EU-WB relations. He and his government should not let this opportunity slip through their fingers.

Olivér Várhelyi

Hearing of Oliver Varhelyi in AFET; Photo: European Union

The new European Commission is in the honeymoon phase, but this will not last long. Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi announced its proposals on the enlargement process reform for January, and they are bound to cause at least some criticism, for the process cannot satisfy everybody. European Commission will be a key player in the process, and this fact, in addition to its regular activities such as annual Reports on the Western Balkans, unsurprisingly ensures Várhelyi’s position on our least.

However, the year 2020 will also be a unique opportunity for the new Commissioner to establish a good working relationship and credibility with the pro-European forces of the Western Balkans. For the sake of the EU integration of the region, we wish him success.

Tonino Picula

Tonino Picula;
Photo: Sandra Simunovic / PIXSELL

What lands MEP Picula on our list is his position as the European Parliament Rapporteur on the recommendations of the Western Balkans. His job is to crystallize the position of the European Parliament on the enlargement process reform ahead of the Zagreb Summit. “I will integrate in the document the new proposals that should contribute to the new momentum of the now slow EU enlargement policy in the third decade of the 21st century”, he recently stated.

European Parliament strongly supported the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania as soon as possible just a few days after the failure of the European Council to reach the decision in October, and Picula highlighted the positive decision as one of his main goals ahead of Zagreb Summit.

In addition to this position, Picula is also the EP Rapporteur for the IPA III pre-accession assistance program for the years 2021-2027, Rapporteur for Montenegro and coordinator of the S&D group in the Foreign Affairs Committee, making him, without a doubt, the most influential MEP for the Western Balkans in 2020.

Tanja Fajon & Vladimir Bilčik

Vladimir Bilčik and Tanja Fajon; Photo: Tanjug / Tanja Valić

Two more MEPs enter our list, due to the important role they play in the resolution of the political crisis in Serbia. Following the three rounds of dialogue mediated by the European Parliament, Co-Chair of EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee Tanja Fajon and EP Rapporteur for the country Vladimir Bilčik stated that they will remain committed to Serbia as it enters the months of further political unpredictability and instability. Even though the opposition gathered in the Alliance for Serbia expressed its appreciation for the efforts of the two MEPs, it is still committed to the boycott of the elections, scheduled for the end of April or beginning of May.

This has not discouraged Fajon, who has announced the electoral observation mission of the European Parliament. The mediation of the EP has lead to certain reforms of the electoral laws and institutions, which most of the opposition finds insufficient.

EWB has already written about the similar state of affairs in Serbia, Montenegro and Albania, which also resembles what North Macedonia went through in 2014-2016 crisis. This gives additional importance to Fajon and Bilčik and their mediation between the government and the opposition in Serbia, as what happens in Belgrade may influence the developments in other countries.

Donald Tusk & Sergei Stanishev

Donald Tusk; Photo: Tanjug / Dragan Kujundžić

Let us not forget the role that the pan-European parties played and are expected to play in the Western Balkans – the past and current crises have shown that the associate membership of the political parties in the region can be influential in determining the political developments. Presidents of the European People’s Party and Party of European Socialists, Donald Tusk and Sergei Stanishev, might not be the party officials most focused on the Western Balkans, but they are the most visible faces of the two strongest political blocks in the EU.

Zoran Zaev, Sergei Stanishev and Alexis Tsipras; Photo: PES

European People’s Party has firmly supported the opposition Democratic Party of Albania, which has already boycotted the local elections in the country in 2019. In Serbia, the situation is not that clear, or at least not that public – but this might change as the election approaches. In North Macedonia as well, two biggest parties will once again be running to form a government in April, and it will be interesting to see how the support of EPP and PES will influence the race.

Josep Borrell / His Envoy

Josep Borrell; Photo: Flickr / Bled Strategic Forum BSF 2019

Another member of the European Commission that will have an opportunity to establish a good working relationship with the region in 2020 will be the new High Representative Josep Borrell, who has repeatedly stated that the EU-mediated Belgrade-Pristina dialogue will be one of his top priorities and that he will visit both capitals soon.

However, a possibility of a new EU Special Envoy in charge of the dialogue has been mentioned on several occasions in the second half 2019, especially since the President of the United States Donald Trump appointed his own Envoy for this issue, Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell. If the EU takes this step as well, there is little doubt that the person will have a high level of influence on the region.

Normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo remains the most challenging dispute of the Western Balkans. Some progress was made with the signing of several agreements in Brussels in 2013 and 2015, but there has been no high-level meeting since September 2018.

Mark Rutte

Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

He may not be the first person that comes to mind, but we believe that the Prime Minister of the Netherlands has an important role to play in 2020. The reasons are twofold – he is one of the few known leaders who has, albeit quietly, sided with Macron on the issue of North Macedonia and, especially, Albania. However, his country also debated to revoke visa-free travel to Albanian citizens and is seen as one of the opponents for granting the same arrangement for Kosovo.

Prime Minister Rutte is at the helm of a coalition that makes him very cautious about every new step towards further integration of the Western Balkans into EU. If, however, he changed his position on any of the issues above in 2020, it would be a clear sign of optimism for the Western Balkans. The Netherlands can be a bellwether Member State – will it be, remains to be seen.

Honourable mentions: Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen

Angela Mekrel and Ursula von der Leyen at EPP Summit in Brussels; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, it would have been impossible not to include the German Chancellor on this list. However, her influence in the region – once seen as the driving force behind Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and the deepening of the regional cooperation – has faded as her political career comes to a close. This was very obvious in 2019, as her attempts to revive Kosovo-Serbia normalistion process and convince President Macron to consent to positive decision at least for North Macedonia failed. On the other hand, Germany, through its sheer importance as the largest EU Member State, but also its Presidency of the Council in the second half of the year, will remain present in 2020, and so will Angela Merkel.

When it comes to Merkel’s former Defense Minister, now the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, it is hard to imagine her being closely involved in the Western Balkan issues in 2020, given the ambitious agenda of her administration. Other members of von der Leyen’s Commission, notably the High Representative and the Commissioner for Enlargement, will do most of the job. Her supportive messages on EU enlargement remain encouraging.