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[EWB Interview] Tzifakis: EU lacks a plan for the region beyond immediate troubles

A recent publication of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) Geopolitically irrelevant in its “inner courtyard”? concluded that the non-Western countries have gained ground in the Western Balkans while EU influence continues to shrink, and its soft power evaporates.

“Despite the fact that the EU has committed unparalleled amounts of resources to the Western Balkans, its influence is not very highly assessed in the region. With the exception of Montenegro, nowhere in the region is the EU the most positively appreciated external actor. The roles of Russia in Serbia, United States in Albania and Kosovo, and Turkey in North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are more highly appreciated than the corresponding role of EU in these countries”, the publication concluded.

Nikolaos Tzifakis, Associate Professor at the University of Peloponnese and a member of BiEPAG, one of the co-authors of the brief, commented on its main findings for European Western Balkans.

European Western Balkans: BiEPAG publication Geopolitically irrelevant in its “inner courtyard”? shows that the EU is currently losing the public diplomacy battle against the third actors in the Western Balkans. How worrying should this be for the EU officials and what are the possible consequences of this situation?

Nikolaos Tzifakis: This is a very worrying trend. Not only does it show that the EU role (e.g. during the pandemic) is underestimated in the region, it also indicates that many Western Balkan citizens no longer view the EU as a normative power that radiates a power of attraction and inspires positive change with its ideas. If this trend is consolidated, the distance between the EU and Western Balkan societies will be increased.

EWB: The publication mentions the fact that regional strongmen are mediating the relationship between the EU and the Western Balkans, which is often negatively affecting the perception of the Union. Why is the EU tolerating this situation?

NT: I am not so sure that the EU has a consistent plan for the region beyond the containment of immediate troubles. Take for instance Serbia. On the one hand, the Commission’s 2021 progress report wrote that Serbia has made limited progress in the implementation of rule of law reforms (chapters 23 & 24) and cited a series of persistent deficiencies and weaknesses. On the other hand, the President of the Commission stated upon her visit to Belgrade that she welcomed Serbia’s ‘strong focus on fundamental reforms’, its ‘enormous’ steps, and its ‘hard work’ on that front. Not only Brussels fails to convey a clear message to Belgrade with such mixed signals. It also bestows the ruling regime with international legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. Therefore, the EU does not seem to be bothered by the mediating role that local leaderships play in the EU-Western Balkans relations.

EWB: Positive perception of China and Russia in Serbia is often interpreted as a leverage of the authorities, which they use to avoid harsher criticism of the EU for the state of rule of law and other crucial areas. Do you agree that this is the case?

NT: Absolutely. Serbia tries to balance between different international actors in order to get the most out of its relationship with each of them. Indeed, some EU officials avoid becoming too critical of Belgrade in order not to lose Serbia to China or Russia. However, the promotion of the Serbian citizen’s positive appreciation of China and Russia serves a domestic purpose as well. It helps the regime to avoid taking the blame from the citizens for its failure to carry out reforms and advance the country’s EU accession path. To illustrate it, if the Serbian citizens believe that China and Russia are the country’s most important partners, the slow progress in Serbia’s EU accession wouldn’t be such a big deal after all.

EWB: The publication also assesses that Serbia is on a path towards becoming a regional player on its own and that there is a “risk that it will encourage authoritarianism and Orbán-like Euroscepticism” in other Western Balkan countries. What are the examples that illustrate this risk?

NT: President Vučić has been very critical of the EU, while he has missed no opportunity to praise China and Russia for their support. While President Vučić is right to complain about the delays in the enlargement process, he neglects to mention his country’s democratic backsliding and failure to carry out rule of law reforms. He is also reluctant to align Serbia with EU foreign policy decisions on Russia and China. He seems to be interested in a relationship with the EU, in which he may cherry-pick the commitments that suits him most, much like Orbán tries to do inside the EU.

The best example of Serbian regional leadership is its vaccine diplomacy. According to our survey, the citizens of North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina believe that Serbia provided them more assistance during the pandemic than the EU or any other country. The citizens of North Macedonia are also placing most of their hopes on Serbia to help them overcome the COVID-19 crisis. If Serbia’s policies are so much appreciated in the region, the leaders of other Western Balkan countries might be tempted to emulate Belgrade’s views and policies in order to increase their domestic approval rates.

EWB: Do you think that, if the EU offered the region a new realistic accession perspective, the perception of the EU would improve across the board? Is the crisis of the enlargement policy the crucial factor affecting the image of the EU in general?

NT: The EU should restore the credibility of its external policies and it should commence with the policy of enlargement, where the greatest damage has been done in recent years. The EU should not only reward the reform efforts of Western Balkan countries. It should also sanction the countries that have consistently deviated from meeting their commitments. In addition, the EU should stop treating the policy of enlargement as a panacea for all troubles in the region. We have seen that it does not work. Conflict resolution in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo requires a different diplomatic approach, in coordination with other like-minded actors such as the United States and Canada.

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