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Greece’s Balkan diplomacy currently a sideshow

Athens’ main focus remains on Eastern Mediterranean drilling and the Aegean

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While keeping up the appearances of an active diplomatic campaign in Southeast Europe, the net impact of Athens’ recent initiatives will yield next to nothing in the struggle against neighboring Turkey over potential energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Sea. 

In the last week, Greece engaged EU foreign ministers over the next phase of EU Enlargement which, in theory, includes Albania and North Macedonia, while also meeting at senior levels to tighten the bilateral relationship with Serbia. 

Unfortunately, neither of these separate steps will have any true impact on the Greek-Turkey dispute, accordingly, qualifying as little more than a sideshow.

Enlargement Breakfast

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias programmed a breakfast on the subject of EU Enlargement on December 9 on the sidelines of the regular EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels.  Attendance included over 20 EU counterparts as well as Albania’s Foreign Minister Gent Cakaj and Dendias’ North Macedonian counterpart Nikola Dimitrov.  Reports indicate France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian did not attend Dendias’ breakfast session.

It is unclear if anything of substance emerged from the breakfast other than a general discussion.  Dendias made reference to the October EU Summit which under French pressure for procedural reform failed to give a date for Albania and North Macedonia to open EU accession talks and triggered elections in North Macedonia.  Describing the meeting, he said “it’s been a useful first opportunity for the next steps after the October Council.” Dendias also noted “as the oldest EU country in the region, Greece is a pillar of stability and will continue to promote initiatives in this direction.”

Facing elections in April, North Macedonia’s Dimitrov said his country would not fall into the “trap of victimisation” or blame anyone for the current situation, adding “we will continue to produce positive news, both in the reforms back home and in good relations with all our neighbors, and we will make it impossible for all member states to say no again in the coming months.”

Procedural concerns over Enlargement front and centre

While not the only country unenthusiastic about EU Enlargement under current rules, France has taken the strongest actions to delay the process that most EU member states support. When blocking the October EU Council conclusions that would have given accession negotiation start dates to Albania and North Macedonia, Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron noted his intention to completely rework the accession process for the next tranche of candidates.  A French working paper circulated in November will likely form the basis of new Commission proposals that will emerge early in 2020 so that future meetings on Enlargement under the upcoming Croatian EU Presidency should have a new roadmap.

The French proposals emphasise rule-of-law concerns, tightly restrict visa-free travel rights that some candidate countries might obtain, as well as inject the concept of reversibility if a country fails to fully implement reforms, but on the plus side will allow accession candidates to participate in certain EU  programs before they have completed the entire accession process.  The French proposals would break the accession process into seven stages.  Not to be outdone by the French, other groupings of countries are working furiously to develop their own proposals on Enlargement.

The Netherlands is not as energetic about opposing EU Enlargement as France has been, but has expressed similar concerns about moving ahead now, especially in discussions about Albania.

“We do not believe Albania is ready to start talks with the EU at this point and as far as North Macedonia is concerned, it is closer to that goal,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte told the Montenegrin media while in London for the NATO Summit earlier this month. 

Rutte added that some countries did not want the decoupling of the EU’s Enlargement negotiating process with North Macedonia and Albania, further complicating the path forward.  Both Tirana and Skopje have repeatedly agreed to oppose the concept of decoupling.

Vucic takes Athens

During his December 9-11 visit to Athens, Serbian President Alexandar Vucic met with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, saw leading Greek businessmen, met the head of Greece’s Church Ieronymos II, and was presented with the Gold Medal for Merits by the City of Athens.

Vucic and Mitsotakis signed a joint declaration on December 11 on establishing strategic partnership between the two countries. The Declaration addresses six areas of cooperation: politics and foreign policy, security and defense, science and education, economics, culture and the environment, which, according to Vucic, put a seal on decades-long and centuries-old friendships that “no one will be able to break.”

Greece declared its full support for Serbia’s European perspective, as Pavlopoulos told Vucic on December 10.

“We Greeks, Greece, support your (EU) accession process and I stress that this is not only because of our friendship, but because you rise up to meet the requirements of the European structure. We are here … to help …so that your steps towards accession will become faster,” Pavlopoulos declared. Vucic, on his part, thanked Greece for its support of Serbian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Athens was able to garner an expression of Serbia’s support in its dispute with Turkey over Aegean and Mediterranean economic rights, not an insignificant development with a Western Balkan country itself hopeful for further Turkish private sector investment.

Vucic declared “Serbia will always support Greece’s territorial integrity. We have signed the (United Nations) Convention on the Law of the Sea and we will always support Greece’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and our position will not change in the future. Regarding our European prospects we are grateful to Greece for the support provided.”

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CEO/Editor-in-Chief.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.

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