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Unclear signals from Austria ahead of Western Balkans summit

Vienna; Photo: pixabay

In light of the upcoming elections in 2024 and polls running high for the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Austrian government struggles to maintain a clear position on big European questions.

With the highly anticipated Western Balkans Summit and European Council Meeting approaching this week, efforts to enlarge the EU continue. However, Austria’s chancellor Karl Nehammer has opposed the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine during a session in parliament on Monday afternoon.

“There should be no preferential treatment for Ukraine, especially over Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is now also in accession negotiations”, he explained. As a sign of solidarity, Ukraine and Moldova should be offered a perspective for accession, but without a “fast-track procedure” for the two states, the chancellor stated.

Austria’s Foreign Ministry stated that official Vienna sends a clear signal to third parties: the Western Balkans are members of our European family.

“It is vital to strengthen the pro-European forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to show to the citizens that their future is in the EU. At the same time, it is clear that Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to continue to deliver on reforms”, they stated.

No negotiations for Bosnia-Herzegovina before March

Recent reports also suggest that other EU leaders are not ready to decide whether to open accession talks with Bosnia-Herzegovina. A bloc of countries led by the Netherlands opposes this.

For them, negotiations should not be opened before March, when an evaluation of the reform process in BiH and the fulfilment of 14 priorities is scheduled. They believe that not enough has been done to fulfil these priorities.

The country has also witnessed severe setbacks in freedom of expression, and the secessionist ambitions of the political leadership in the Republika Srpska entity remain a problem, a letter stated.

While the European Commission recommended the opening of negotiations with Ukraine, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants this point removed from the agenda. “The Commission’s recent proposal related to the accession process of Ukraine marks the end of the European Union’s enlargement policy as an objective and merit-based instrument”, he wrote in a letter to President of the Council, Charles Michel.

‘Headache’ Austria

Known for his pro-Russian stance, this move by the Hungarian PM did not come as a surprise. However, recent efforts by Austria to oppose accession talks did come as an unexpected ‘headache’ for some.

The ‘Brussels Playbook’ newsletter from POLITICO stated on December 5th that Austria insists on the opening of accession talks with Bosnia-Herzegovina if the EU does so with Ukraine. The newsletter quotes an EU diplomat saying, “Austria is hiding behind Hungary, but no one dares to point that out.”

Other diplomats quoted in the text say that, considering that BiH has not done enough to implement its reforms, it essentially means that Austria is opposing Ukraine’s accession. The Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment on a request by European Western Balkans concerning the statements made in the newsletter.

Western Balkans as a key priority in Vienna

Not only because of their shared history and cultural intertwinement but also because of economic aspirations, the Western Balkans have been one of the main focal points in Austria’s foreign policy. So, for many experts, enlargement became a question of political symbolism.

And what Austria is trying to do, is create equidistance, says Vedran Džihić from the Austrian Institute for International Politics and member of BiEPAG. However, by still not fulfilling the 14 priorities, BiH is giving yet another reason to block accession talks.

“Yes, the argument remains that the EU must not forget the Western Balkans. But, when it comes to reforms, Ukraine and Moldova have done more than Bosnia and Herzegovina did”, he concludes in an interview with European Western Balkans. 

Questionable intentions

For Džihić, Austria is not hiding behind Hungary but simply fails to establish a clear position.

“Austria has the image of slowing things down for its domestic political interests, the Schengen veto against Bulgaria and Romania being the latest example.” He added that they often act out of political opportunism when it comes to big European questions.

“It is not consequent and often perceived in Brussels as an unreliable partner”, he criticizes. The country’s unclear relationship with Russia, with no motivation to reduce Russian gas or their companies continuing to work in Russia, has also been controversially discussed.

The latest blow occurred last year when Interior Minister Gerhard Karner unexpectedly vetoed Romania’s and Bulgaria’s Schengen accession. Migration experts internationally still criticize this move. For many, it was purely out of the motivation to gain voters with a tougher migration policy.

With the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) climbing the polls with more than 30%, other parties including the government coalition are struggling to establish a clear position. The support of Ukraine and migration policies are among the most controversially discussed topics.

Unclear what will happen

As for this week’s summit, it is still not clear what the outcome will be. But postponing the question of enlargement to the next summit in March would be catastrophic for Ukraine, a country continuing to fight off a ruthless aggression.

It seems that with the unwillingness of BiH to work towards the priorities and uncertain futures of countries like Serbia, the Western Balkans might not be too significant for Brussels at the moment.

But Džihić doubts that Austria will stand in the way at the end. “It is a small country. And they recently used a veto already. They would only do so again if more countries join”, he says.

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