A conference in Tirana on Thursday (31 October) provided a rare insight into the state of mind of the country’s government, but also of other regional players, following the EU’s recent failure to take a decision on opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia.
On 18 October, EU leaders held a heated six-and-a-half-hour debate on whether to open accession talks with the two Western Balkans hopefuls. Mostly due to French and Dutch opposition, the issue was postponed for another EU summit, under a new Commission and a new Council Presidents.
The incumbent holders of these positions, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, called this outcome a “grave” mistake.
North Macedonia in particular, a country that changed its name and its constitution to clear the way for opening negotiations, risks being destabilised. North Macedonia’s reformist Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called for a snap election and Serbia felt free to sign a trade deal with Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
The Tirana Connectivity Forum, the fifth of its kind, concentrated more on the political fallout of the EU summit, than the traditional issues of infrastructure, energy, roaming or human contacts.
Sokol Dedja, deputy minister of Europe in Albania’s foreign ministry, said he was “not in a complaining mood” but insisted that the most important thing was the EU to remain “credible”.
He stressed that regarding the “change of methodology” in the accession negotiations, only one country (France) had made such a demand. He also argued that it was unclear what this change of methodology implied.
Dedja also made it clear that for his country, “a more demanding conditionality” was not a problem but “the end game – EU accession” should not be changed. However, he insisted that “conditionality should not become a moving target”.
‘Enlargement not dead’
Several speakers said that EU enlargement was not dead, despite the gloomy mood following the inconclusive summit.
The alternative ideas to EU accession of the candidate countries, such as joining the European Economic Area (EEA), which includes Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, was strongly rejected by authoritative speakers such as Steven Blockmans of CEPS, a Brussels-based think-tank.
Also, the idea of having the so-called “Berlin Process” gain more weight or even become a replacement to enlargement didn’t find supporters, although the initiative is still seen as useful.
The Berlin Process for the Western Balkans is an initiative aimed at stepping up regional cooperation and aiding the integration of these countries into the EU. It was launched in 2014 by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Bulgaria and North Macedonia recently decided to jointly host the presidency of the Berlin Process in 2020. (The incumbent president of the initiative is Poland.)
Bojan Maricik, a special adviser to Prime Minister Zaev, said it had taken took almost a decade for the pro-EU forces to defeat the old politics of nationalism.
What happened, he said was “almost unthinkable”. But he continued: “The first big hit of this new policy was the decision of the European Council two weeks ago”.
He said that he still hoped that “despite all the circumstances” the EU would not further aggravate the internal situation in North Macedonia. The alternative, he said, was for “the country to return to 2015”, when conservative nationalist Nikola Gruevski was on power.
“Now, after all these years, we are asking ourselves is the EU actually serious about the Western Balkans. Either the opportunity will be grasped, or it will be lost for another decade”, the diplomat said.
Regarding the Berlin Process, he said it was very important that his country was co-chair together with Bulgaria.
“It brings the ownership of the initiative to the region, it makes us a subject, and not an object of the process”, he said. But he added:
“We need to be very careful how we go forward with the Berlin Process. Some of the countries of the Western Balkans have a justified fear that this is going to be a replacement for enlargement. This is why they are not prepared to stay with two legs in this process.”
Maricik also said his country got strong messages from Brussels to be very careful with Chinese investment.
He said: “We withhold this, but it will not be forever. This is not a threat. If we don’t see the clear direction where we go, we will open the door, maybe not today, maybe tomorrow or in a few years, and we will build our infrastructure with Chinese funds, we are going to trade our agriculture with Russia, and we are going to help our finance sector and our financial services from Turkey.”
Momčilo Radulović, president of the European Movement Montenegro, said 95% of the banks in the candidate countries were EU banks. “So our money is good. But we are not good. So we are eaten, swallowed, and unfortunately at this moment we are at the very end of the digestion process”, he said, amid laughs.
Montenegro is clearly the frontrunner among the Western Balkans, having opened all the negotiating chapters except competition policy. However, the talks have dragged on and only three chapters have been provisionally closed.
Dusan Reljic, Head of the Brussels office of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), said that grants and loans of the EU for the Western Balkans amounted to 600-700 million per year. In terms of IPA money (the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance replaced since 2007 the previous programs such as PHARE, ISPA, SAPARD etc)– Serbia receives 200 million a year, which is 0.2% of the country’s GDP. In comparison, Hungary, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria receive from structural funds, which is “free money”, between 2 and 6% of their GDP, and in his words this was what enabled these countries to survive the economic crisis.
Reljic also mentioned a fact that in his words was overlooked, namely that the trade deficit of the south east European six with the EU in the last 10 years is €100 billion. “Money is actually flowing from the region to the core EU countries”, he said.
“Opening the EU structural funds [to the Western Balkan countries] will help, said Maricik. “We feel we are taking only the crumbs from the table”, he added.