Wednesday, February 21, 2024
 
 

Munich Bacchanalian surprises

Two minor, but positive shockwaves for Southeast Europe

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At the Munich Security Conference 2020, two reality-altering messages were sent back to Southeastern Europe, which incidentally was not the core focus of this year’s conference.
One of those shocks was a US-sponsored agreement to work on reopening Kosovo-Serbia road and rail links, while the other was the message that Albania and North Macedonia have been praying, if not dying, for — that the all-important path to opening EU accession talks will likely be offered to them this spring.
 US delivers another “Balkan” step forward
Replaying what the US-sponsored at its embassy in Berlin on January 20 to relaunch Pristina-Belgrade flights, Munich saw another Washington-brokered agreement signed, this time to reopen for public use certain road and rail links that only the UN and select military/diplomatic personnel currently use.
This time the signing ceremony occurred on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on February 14 in the presence of the Serbian and Kosovar presidents, Aleksandar Vucic and Hashim Thaci, as well as US Special Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Richard Grenell, who also serves as the American Ambassador to Germany.
Grenell was appointed by President Donald Trump last October as Washington’s Special Envoy to talks to normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia. The EU-mediated negotiations started in 2011 but have been stalled and have led absolutely nowhere since Kosovo imposed prohibitive 100% tariffs on Serbian goods in 2018.
After the signing, Grenell hailed Thaci and Vucic for their goodwill and cooperation, saying, “What I talked to the presidents about is trying as much as possible to concentrate on economic development, jobs for the future.
There are few details on the practical arrangements available to the public at this time.  Currently, there is a rail link between a small city in central Serbia to a town in northern Kosovo, but nothing to Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.  Most people currently travel by car and bus on poorly maintained roads across the border.
After the signing ceremony in Munich, both Thaci and Vucic thanked Trump for his leadership and the American effort to lead the way after talks with the EU ended in a frustrating stalemate for all sides.
“We feel that this will bring us a better future and that we will ensure peace for decades to come,” the Serbian leader wrote on his Twitter feed.
Thaci tweeted “we will move to new agreements following that on Pristina-Belgrade flights. We will have other engagements for the railway line. We will work as institutions to reach a final agreement as two independent states. It is a fact that we have as US-backed dynamic, things that were not imagined two decades ago are happening.”

Once again, it is clear to all those working on the Western Balkans that US diplomatic engagement is the key driving force in reshaping the political and transport map of Southeastern Europe. A fact that needs to be recognised in Brussels. Most analysts have concluded that it is now a question of when, not if, an agreement to roll back Kosovo’s tariffs on Serbian goods will be reached.
Macron warms to launching Enlargement talks
With the EU seemingly behind the curve in terms of developments in the Balkans, a somewhat unexpected but positive shock was delivered by French President Emmanuel Macron on February 15 when he said his country would be following the Commission’s recommendations regarding the start of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. Since nobody has ever had any question that the only recommendation the Commission would make in the post-Brexit environment was to begin talks on Enlargement as quickly as possible, the message was immediately translated in the aspirant countries as “French veto will be lifted, and France’s few allies on a go-slow approach will fall into line.”
Macron appears satisfied that the Commissions’ proposed new Enlargement rules announced earlier this month, if not watered down further in the process, will provide the all-important “conditionality” and “reversibility” in the Enlargement process that Paris has demanded before moving ahead.
At the Munich Security Conference Macron said that that the question of procedural reform has now been fulfilled. He then said the next step will be a report in March from the Commission on the progress made by the two countries, which all see as a foregone conclusion.
What Macron actually said on record was “we are waiting for the report in March… depending on that, if the results are positive and confidence is established, then we should be in a position to open the negotiations.”
Macron also cautioned that Enlargement was not a panacea for the EU’s problems in speaking with one voice and that more members also meant the need for a larger EU common budget, something richer northern EU members reject.
“It doesn’t work at 27 (EU members) so do you think it will work if we’re 32 or 33? We are incoherent,” Macron added.
Ultimately, the decision on Enlargement will be taken at EU-Balkan summit in the Croatian capital Zagreb in May, before the end of the current Croatian EU presidency.  Macron’s shift makes it more likely that Denmark and the Netherlands, the other two member states who supported France in October in freezing Enlargement, will drop their resistance before the Zagreb Summit.

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CEO / co-founder and Executive Director for Global Economics and Southeast Europe at NE Global Media.  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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