The European Union’s expansion into the Western Balkans will continue despite the UK’s Brexit vote, EU leaders insisted at the DG Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement summit in Paris on July 4.
As well as words of reassurance from the leaders of France and Germany and European Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn, the EU also announced almost €150mn of funding for the region. However, concerns that a Europe distracted by Brexit negotiations will be less focussed on enlargement are likely to persist.
The EU’s enlargement strategy had "not changed with the decision of the UK”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
This was echoed by France’s President Francois Hollande, who said that, "The British decision does not in any way put into question commitments made toward countries in the Balkan region: they will be respected.”
Unsurprisingly, though, the June 23 Brexit referendum was the main topic of discussion on the sidelines of the conference.
Hahn, the man charged with overseeing the West Balkan Six's (WB6) progress towards the EU, insisted that the EU would not be consumed with dealing with Brexit. “In the real world we do things in parallel,” Hahn said. “There is no reason why we would change our strategy, our mission. We need this European perspective, which guarantees peace and reconciliation: otherwise we might face another refugee crisis within our own courtyards,” Hahn added.
Hahn insisted that Brexit would in all likelihood have no effect on the €1bn budget that the EU has already earmarked for developing the Western Balkans. “We are at a very early stage of a technical process we did not expect. Brexit might probably [occur] close to the end of the decade, so everything is budgeted until then.” He conceded, however, that none of the WB6 could now accede during his 2014-19 term.
Government officials from across the region, where EU accession is the main foreign policy goal, are anxious about the implications of Brexit for their prospects of integration.
Safet Gerxhaliu, president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Kosovo, gave an impassioned speech on the value of the European project for the Western Balkans.
“All of the [European words] are starting with ‘E’. First is Europe, second is economy, third is education, fourth is environment and fifth is experience.
“That is why we are all here, to link all economies, to get support from all countries and to use the economy to bring people together and to create a future. We are aware what faces Europe with Brexit, but we believe… blue is the colour of peace, its the colour of future, its colour is healthy, and its the colour of hope. It's the colour of Europe. My tie is blue: I got it from the leader of the Serbian chamber of commerce,” Gerxhaliu told delegates.
The prospect of EU accession has been the main incentive for officials from both Kosovo and Serbia to work towards the normalisation of their relations.
Another talking point on the sidelines of the event was the UK’s blocking of Serbia’s application to open Chapter 23 of its accession negotiations on technical grounds; a move made all the more mystifying by London’s parallel approval for Turkey, whose mooted accession was a key argument for the Brexit campaigners.
An EU official speaking on condition of anonymity told bne IntelliNews that “Great Britain blocking Serbia makes no sense. The British administration has become chaotic, after always being outstanding administratively before.
“If they block everything, it will destroy the project," the official warned, adding that the EC “had been genuinely saddened by the Brexit, as the British contributed an invaluable global perspective on diplomacy and security”.
The UK later withdrew its objections to Serbia’s opening of the negotiation chapter. However, Brexit or not, it will no longer play the influential role it did in the Balkans - most notably in Kosovo - with Germany now the unquestionable go-to European power for the region.
Merkel has already become the main pusher for greater engagement with the region from within the EU, and was behind the Berlin Process intended to revive the integration of Western Balkan countries. Proponents of the strategy see engagement with the region as highly important, not least to tackle potential instability.
Hahn named key challenges as youth unemployment rates, increasing debts and “enlargement fatigue”. The key drivers to combating these will be reforming and diversifying economies and strengthening the rule of law, he added.
Speaking to bne IntelliNews, he said “In the last five years we can see a doubling of debt. If we extrapolate this kind of development I have to be a little bit nervous. The youth unemployment rate in Bosnia is more than 60%.”
Kosovo is facing similar youth jobless rates and additional challenges. Hahn said: “There are other issues in Kosovo, still one third of the national income is custom fees: in a EU single market you don't have customs, so you have to address this issue to have a change on the revenue side.”
As well as business project financing and reform, delegates discussed the growing influence of Islamic radicalism in Kosovo, as well as in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Albania.
Hahn said he considers Islamic radicalisation a greater threat than Russian expansionism in the Balkans. “We have to invest in this country to not create a fertile soil for radical extremists. This is one of the key topics, we are talking about the threat of certain Islamic and radical organisations in the region. To build fences around them is not functioning,” he added.
At this year’s summit, more support for the Western Balkans was forthcoming. Hahn announced €96mn for railway projects in Serbia, Kosovo and Albania, as well as an additional €50mn for environmental measures. Delegates also discussed developing a Kosovo ski resort and sending French chefs to teach gastronomy in Kosovo.
The WB6 countries agreed to a youth initiative to “promote the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation between the youth” in Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania. The WB6 heads of states signed a founding document of the new Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO), which will start operating on January 1.
The business forum reviewed progress on projects co-financed by the European Commission. On the agenda were the concession of Pristina Airport, the AKUO Energy wind farm in Montenegro and the introduction of electronic services, ID cards and passports in Albania.