Scholz and the Western Balkans

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As expected, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has just concluded his much-touted two-day tour of the Western Balkan countries on a mixed note. For the last three months, Chancellor Scholz has been vehemently talking about this trip as a key part of his aggressive diplomatic campaign in favour of making the Western Balkans a part of the European Union brotherhood as quick as possible. This is the fact that among all his counterparts in the 27-member EU, ever since 24 February when Vladmir Putin launched his blistering attack on the Ukrainian territory, Chancellor Scholz has emerged as the most passionate advocate of speeding up the proposed enlargement of the EU. The invasion of Ukraine has suddenly jolted the European Union for the obvious reasons.

But for Germany, the Western Balkans are of more strategic importance and security concerns than other EU members. Germany is quite wary of the growing influence of Russia and China in the Western Balkans – Germany does not want another “Ukraine-like war” in its backyard. That’s why Chancellor Scholz has made this matter a foreign policy priority and assumed the role of a “self-proclaimed mediator” to expedite this process, which inherits a long queue of diplomatic complications and tangles.

Apparently, Chancellor Scholz arranged this two-day diplomatic venture as a preamble to the forthcoming EU-Western Balkans leaders’ summit on 23-24 June. He knew well that he won’t be able to make any tangible progress in resolving the internal friction within the Western Balkans in two days of preliminary trip, but he achieved secondary objective of attracting the “limelight” before the June 23 summit.  The European Union is holding this meeting on membership of the bloc for six nations in the Western Balkans.

Leaders will be conducting their summit in Slovenia amid prevalent cynicism over the union being expanded to include Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia or Bosnia and Herzegovina. Brussels is expected to recommit to its east-wards enlargement, but, so far, with no clear schedule and timelines. There are plenty knotty internal frictions within the Western Balkans that are hampering the integration process of the Western Balkans with the European Union.

Honestly speaking, Chancellor Scholz is making very sincere efforts to use his mediation skills to extinguish the flames of distrust and animosities within the Western Balkans. His visit was also another attempt to find some viable frame-work to resolve the chronic simmering dispute within the Western Balkans. But he had to face tough resistance everywhere in this tour.

Bulgaria has so far effectively blocked the start of official accession talks with North Macedonia. Sofia has been insisting that North Macedonia must recognise its Bulgarian minority in the constitution, that it should also formally acknowledge that its language has Bulgarian roots and to eliminate allegedly anti-Bulgarian rhetoric. During this trip, Chancellor Olaf Scholz pleaded to Bulgaria to take back its veto on EU accession talks for North Macedonia.

But there is little hope that Scholz’s bid will produce any positive results in the coming days, as Bulgaria is facing government crises after its Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said he will continue with a minority government following the withdrawal of one of the four parties from the country’s centrist coalition government. On the other hand, North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski claims that North Macedonia has fulfilled all criteria to start membership talks based on a merit system and again urged EU leaders to give the go-ahead for opening accession discussions at the forthcoming EU summit.

Though, the two-day visit of Chancellor Scholz helped in mitigating some of the confusions in the Western Balkans, but his clash with the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić at their joint press conference over the sanction against Russia and the recognition of Kosovo as independent state exposed the complexity of the deep-rooted frictions within the Western Balkans. Serbia is stubbornly adamant to join the EU sanctions on Russia after the Ukraine invasion. Despite intense pleading by Chancellor Scholz, against the established diplomatic norms, President Vučić very bluntly rebuffed his guest on this point. Furthermore, President Vučić also refused to show any kind of compromise on the question of recognising Kosovo as independent state – a perquisite for all the EU candidates to recognise each other officially.

“We do not respond to pressure in this way, that someone threatens us and then you have to do something. What was said regarding mutual recognition is also a surprise for us.” the Serbian President Vučić replied rather arrogantly to Scholz. This heated exchange between Scholz and Vučić is a clear reflection of the expected tenor of the Western Balkan leaders at the forthcoming summit. Differences are quite deep and at the same time Russia is playing its “energy card” very effectively to snub the enlargement of the EU. Chancellor Scholz has certainly taken the right step by personally engaging with the leaders of the Western Balkans ahead of the big summit, but plenty of compromises are needed by the regional players to enable the Western Balkans to be a part of the EU in the coming days. 

By Dr. Imran Khalid