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In this week’s edition: EU-Western Balkans summit fallout, 2022 work programme sneak peek and EU defence woes.
“We are one European family,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after the EU-Western Balkans summit earlier this week. Let’s just hope the six family members currently shut out of the will won’t become estranged.
Yes, EU leaders backed the idea of enlargement, but everyone in the room understood that this promise won’t be fulfilled any time soon. To what consequence?
European Council President Charles Michel was quick to point out the EU’s financial support for the Western Balkans. ”This is key, this is paramount, this is the link between the reforms … and the investments,” he said.
Calling the investment plan put forward by the Commission “a lot of money, an unprecedented amount of money”, he said: “We hope that those investments will play an important role also in order to make the European presence, the EU’s presence more visible, more tangible for the people in those countries.”
The EU’s leadership has been fast to recognise the region’s strategic importance and the link between calculated investment and geopolitics is a clear means to keep the Western Balkans close.
EU diplomats confirmed to EURACTIV that many predominantly Western European member states see EU aid cannot compare in either quality or quantity to all other geopolitical players in the region.
But many of them warn that this thinking is dangerous, not least because the EU’s competitors are providing aid with next to no strings attached.
“Of course, we can work with Western Balkan countries, but our competitors are working harder than us,” Dimitris Dimitriadis, head of the European Economic and Social Committee’s external relations section told EURACTIV in the run-up to the summit.
The businessman said: “Twenty years ago, Turkey was absent from the region, now it is a key player. How? Financing big projects without conditions, just spreading money by helicopters.”
Of course, Turkey is not alone, it is followed by Gulf investors as well as China and Russia, whose COVID-19 pandemic diplomacy in the region caught the EU off guard during the early stages of the crisis.
On top of that, the simple truth is enlargement is becoming more and more difficult to sell by leaders of many Western European countries to their citizens, this report’s authors understand, penning this text on the Western Balkan side of the Schengen border.
There is no doubt credible reforms by club hopefuls are indispensable, especially as we witness backsliding among the newer members.
But no matter the amount of investment, the further away the prospect of accession seems to many in the Western Balkans, the harder it will be for their pro-European politicians to stay in power and sell painful reforms at home while keeping nationalist forces at bay.
In EU circles and national capitals, one tends to forget that in the Western Balkans, many do not see the EU as just the provider of financial support.
For many, it’s a chance to leave the burden of heavy history – and the bitter political quarrels of current times – behind and eventually belong to a club where this can be solved with institutional means.
None of that will be solved with infrastructure development and project funding alone. Over the past years, however, this has become the mantra in Brussels: Let’s provide more money, while enlargement stays on life support.
EU financial support to its near neighbourhood is undoubtedly a good signal.
But ultimately, as one EU diplomat put it: positive signals are important for the countries in the region and their citizens, but the longer they go on, divorced from concrete political progress, the more they become “background music” to the enlargement process.
Read more here:
SNEAK PEEK | According to a leaked version of the European Commission’s draft working programme dated for 27 September and seen by EURACTIV, plans for next year include a new EU strategy to engage with the Gulf region, more on energy diplomacy and a closer outline of the EU’s space ambitions.
EU foreign ministers had put green diplomacy at the top of their agenda earlier this year, saying the EU “will seek to ensure undistorted trade and investment for EU businesses in third countries” as well as “a level playing field, and fair access to resources and green technologies” in countries like China.
The creation of a new branch in the European Commission – DG Defence Industry and Space (DEFIS), long resisted by Britain – has been a step forward to put a European stamp on the emerging domain.
One initiative jointly proposed by DEFIS and the EU’s diplomatic service (EEAS) will be to develop an EU strategy for Space Traffic Management (STM), whose objective will be to prepare European industry for the establishment of rules on space traffic at the international level and protect the efficiency of the EU’s flagship programmes (Galileo, Copernicus).
In addition, as part of the open strategic autonomy push, the Commission plans to build an EU space-based global secure communications system, which would provide connectivity services and high-speed broadband to EU member states and European regions and territories.
‘PHYSICAL BARRIERS’ | Twelve EU member states have called for update the bloc’s Schengen Border Code to allow ‘physical barriers’ as border protection measures, according to a letter sent to the European Commission and seen by EURACTIV. Lithuania had previously suggested that the EU fund border barriers on its external frontier from its common budget, backed Poland and other Baltic countries.
At the same time, the European Commission called for an investigation into illegal migrant pushbacks after a report by German media outlets Der Spiegel and ARD documented what they said were Greek, Croatian and Romanian officials carrying out such operations.
WHAT STRATEGY? | Amid disunity over the way forward on European defence, EU leaders discussed whether the bloc should enhance its capacity to act independently and/or strengthen its partnership with NATO, but with no clear result.
TRAINING MISSION | The EU is considering a training mission for Ukrainian officers due to the “ongoing military activities” of Russia as relations between Kyiv and Moscow remain tense. The push for the mission comes after several member states had repeatedly expressed concern over Russia’s military exercises close to their and the EU’s borders, including Zapad-2021 in September and a massive Russian troop build-up near Ukraine in April.
SPY ALERT | NATO has expelled eight members of Russia’s mission to the alliance who were “undeclared Russian intelligence officers”, the latest deterioration in East-West ties that are already at post-Cold War lows.
GAS SUPPLY | In the context of skyrocketing gas prices and calls for Russia to supply more gas to the EU, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to exclude Ukraine as a transit country for such additional supplies. However, he said Russia would fully comply with its present contractual obligations for the transit of gas through Ukraine to Europe.
STATUS UPDATE | A new political season has started, together with some easing of COVID-19-related travel and meeting restrictions. As journalists and politicians prepare to take the plane and renew contacts, EURACTIV has taken snapshots of the ongoing cooperation between the EU and Kazakhstan.
WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING
ON OUR RADAR FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS…
We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as Europe’s everyday business is back from summer break.
- EU and Britain begin talks on Gibraltar
| Monday, 11 October 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
- EU-Ukraine summit
| Tuesday, 12 October 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
- G20 holds special virtual summit on Afghanistan
| Tuesday, 12 October 2021 | Rome, Italy
- EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell goes Washington
| Wed-Fri, 13-15 October 2021 | Washington DC, United States
- Security Council holds closed-door meeting on UN peace mission in Western Sahara
| Wednesday, 13 October 2021 | New York, United States
- Arctic Circle Assembly
| Thu-Sat, 14-17 October 2021 | Reykjavik, Iceland
- European Parliament’s AFET Committee meets
| Thrusday, 14 October 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
- International Court of Justice hears Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute
| Thursday, 14 October 2021 | The Hague, Netherlands
- Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) leaders hold summit
| Friday, 15 October 2021 | Minsk, Belarus
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