Greece hovering between the Balkans and “Europe”

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Less than a fortnight ago, a high-profile meeting of West Balkans leaders (with the conspicuous absence of Albania) convened in Athens at the initiative of Greece and with the EU leadership joining in. After all, the stated intention of this regional mini-Summit was for the West Balkan countries to resume their long slog towards a future in the European fold: in 2003, the ‘Thessaloniki initiative” had set in motion such a (supposedly European) priority endeavour.

Last week, in a joint initiative of ELIAMEP/a Greek think tank, Hanns Seidel Stiftung/a German Academy for Politics and Current Affairs and the Mertens Centre, the official think tank of the EPP, also with an Athens venue, the same discourse was taken up in a lower-flight Seminar, but one that was probably more substance-laden.

Just as in the August mini-Summit the high point was marked by the presence of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenski, in the ELIAMEP Seminar there was a politically heavy moment when National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister Thanos Dokos diplomatically but nonetheless quite clearly called for an “end to the war in Ukraine through diplomacy, for fear that Kyiv would have to compose [later on] from a weaker position”. In the discussion that took place, Th. Dokos and most of the Greek attendance were less than happy to see that some of the participants were considering the Greek position on the Ukrainian crisis closer to the Hungarian one than the one of mainstream EU; Dokos had to counter that the assistance and effective participation of Greece at the side of Ukraine was quite strong, “short of sending troops”. It would seem that the impression that Greek public opinion is less hostile to Russia than in most EU countries is embedded in European perceptions…

Although quite an eye-opener, this was more a side-show to the main debate that occupied most of the ELIAMEP/Hanns Seidel/Mertens Seminar. However important the “geopolitical earthquake” underway, the 17.5 million people of the Western Balkans (with a collective GDP of some 115 bn euros) are quite concerned that they are left behind in their efforts or aspirations or expectations – nuances matter, but not much – to join Europe, meaning the EU. The point was made quite poignantly by Bojan Marichikj, Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs of the Republic of North Macedonia but also by Odeta Barbullushi, Advisor to the Albanian P.M. Both Macedonia and Albania have since 2005 and 2014, respectively candidate status; in March 2020 negotiations were initiated with both – but progress has proved halting at best.

In a no-holds-barred debate between French and German positions (respectively formulated by Elysee-close Alexandre Adam and Martens Centre Chairman Klaus Welle) as well as ELIAMEP Board President Loukas Tsoukalis, it was made clear that the crux of the matter for the Balkans to join the EU resides in the level of EU “27” preparedness to accept it. Further to EU Governments’ political will, where the reticence of public opinion at national level would have to be weighed against the risks of leaving a “black hole” at the South-East fringe of Europe at a time of unrest/war realities and of Russian assertiveness, the issue was discussed of institutional change needed so as to ensure that the EU would not end mired in passivity at a crucial turn of global change. The effective content of Europe’s “strategic autonomy”, of Macron origin, was discussed in quite differential mode, given the Ukraine war reality. The recurring issue of shifting from unanimity to weighted majority rule in major foreign-policy or even in security matters cropped up; probably the most revealing point was made in this respect by Kl. Welle, who reminded the audience that, whatever the future institutional arrangements in place, if ever the moment comes for military engagement (“to send men to face death”) the end decision could not possibly reside by anybody else than national authorities.

Compared to such essential aspects, the issue pales of costs to be incurred in order to integrate the West Balkans to the EU; things are quite different in scale when Ukraine comes into the equation – just think of the needed CAP overhaul needed…

One last point, diplomatically but clearly raised by L. Tsoukalis: however important it is for the EU “27” to make clear how genuine their intention is to have the West Balkans join, it is of equal importance for Western Balkan countries to clarify – individually and jointly – if they are ready to assume the political, economic and social strain associated with accession.

When the baton of the Seminar discussion was passed to the West Balkan participants, one common point raised was of the political cost incurred by their political systems due to the continuous delays of negotiations on part of the EU. The erosion of public support to the idea of a European future is becoming a central issue throughout the region, while populist nationalism is fueled by a feeling of Euro-rejection. In almost poignant tones, R. Marichikj referred to the political capital expanded by the North Macedonian Government so as to reach compromise with Greece for the Prespa Agreement under the pressure-cum-assurances of European officialdom that this would expedite accession moves – just to experience soon afterwards the realities of deliberate Euro-procrastination. The retreat of public support for “Europe” from the 80% mark to something closer to 60% is not a signal to be missed. A corresponding point was made by Od. Barbullushi for the Albanian case, as to the radical changes make in the justice system and the fight against corruption, in order to comply with EU pressures.

The major importance of having a fixed time-frame for accession – whatever further transition measures to be agreed – was also stressed; whether such a goal would be set for 2030 or not, the main thing would be for a point in time to be in the sights of public opinion. As to institutional arrangements, the issue of the West Balkan countries accepting e.g. to share one or two posts in future European Commission set-ups so as to help for the Commission not to become ever more cumbersome was dealt with in quite realist a way.

[In lieu of a footnote: in his contemporaneous ECONOMIST article (by invitation), ECB former chairman Mario Draghi discussed EU institutional changes under an angle of future fiscal arrangements; he integrated in his argumentation as an accepted fact that the EU would soon enough welcome the accession of the West Balakns and Ukraine]