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TematicheEuropaA geopolitical EU and the Western Balkans: twenty years...

A geopolitical EU and the Western Balkans: twenty years from “The Thessaloniki Agenda”


The European Council met in Thessaloniki on 19 and 20 June 2003 and underlined its “determination to fully and effectively support the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries, which will become an integral part of the EU, once they meet the established criteria”. Moreover, the European Council welcomed the Draft Constitutional Treaty presented by the President of the Convention, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and the Vice-President, Giuliano Amato. Defined as a historic step in European integration, the Draft included the enlargement process and the “Union’s ability to act as a coherent and unified force in the international system”. Back then, the President of the European Commission was Romano Prodi.

Therefore, the EU-Western Balkans Summit in June 2003 stressed further strengthening the privileged relations between the EU and the Western Balkans. Furthermore, the Greek Presidency underscored the implementation of the EU Programme for the Prevention of Violent Conflicts by focusing mainly on the Western Balkans. In July 2003, Italy, with the Berlusconi’s Government, took the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. 

Thus, this year marks twenty years since the European Union promised and defined a European future for the countries of the Western Balkans. Celebrating The Day of Europe on 9 May in Strasbourg, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addressed the European Parliament and called to keep its promises to the Western Balkans and speed up EU integration. In the 21st century of the multipolar world, following the “Zeitenwende” of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Scholz highlighted the necessity of a geopolitical EU, an enlarged and reformed EU. Finally, the German Chancellor recalled “The Thessaloniki Agenda” from 2003, pointing out an honest enlargement policy implementing its promises, particularly vis-à-vis the Western Balkan countries. A few weeks later, the President of the European Commission, Von der Leyen, presented a four-pillar plan – to bring Western Balkan closer to the EU single market, accelerating fundamental reforms, deepening regional economic integration, and increasing pre-accession funds.

Besides, on 21 August, leaders of the EU candidate countries met in Athens at the invitation of the Prime Minister of Greece Mitsotakis, marking the 20 years of the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki. Namely, at the Athens Summit were present as well Prime Ministers of Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria, Presidents of the European Commission, Von der Leyen, and European Council Charles Michel, who repeated that enlargement remains high on the agenda as a top priority for the EU. Likewise, the Athens meeting joined the Presidents of Ukraine and Moldova, the leaders of the new candidate countries.

Mitsotakis did not invite Albanian Prime Minister Rama because of the bilateral disputes over the Greek minority community in Albania and arrested a Greek major candidate in one of Albanian municipalities, charged with vote buying and corruption. Also, in one interview before the Summit, Rama stated that Greece cheated on its EU accession process. Instead, the President of Albania, Begaj, was invited but could not participate “due to an agenda defined earlier”. Moreover, part of the growing Greece-Albanian tensions includes a protracted disagreement on maritime borders set to be decided by an international tribunal.

So, the participants adopted an eight-point joint Declaration. The first four points support Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity and condemn the Russian invasion. The second part of the Athens Declaration recalls the Thessaloniki Summit and “the need for a re-energized and re-focused enlargement process” for the Western Balkans, Ukraine, and Moldova in light of the new geopolitical context. 

In focus was a bilateral meeting between the Presidents of Serbia and Ukraine, Vučić and Zelenskyy. Namely, Serbia, which has not imposed sanctions on Russia, declares support for Ukrainian territorial integrity. Conversely, Ukraine does not recognize Kosovo as an independent country.

However, since 2003 the Western Balkans political reality changed significantly. Since 2006, Montenegro has been an independent country; in 2008, Kosovo self-declared independence, still not recognized by Serbia; the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, after a state agreement with Greece in 2018, changed the name of the country to North Macedonia. Croatia was the only one to join the EU in 2013. Meanwhile, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia became the NATO members.

Likewise, geopolitical EU plans in the Western Balkans are burdened by various unresolved issues. For instance, fierce tensions are present between Belgrade and Priština (unsuccessful dialogue and new conflicts on the verge of war in Serbian municipalities); Bulgaria conditions Skopje with language and history questions; Greece refuses to ratify three technical agreements with North Macedonia as part of the Prespa Agreement; Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina differently interpret the Dayton Agreement from 1995. Perhaps, due to the EU conditioning policy to deliver reforms and bilateral blocking on an EU path, Russia and China appear to have more economic and political influence in the region.

Hence, the EU realizes that the war between Russia and Ukraine creates new momentum for the enlargement process. Arguably, the war in Europe has added a new dimension to the negotiating for the EU membership; it shifts small Southeastern European countries from the periphery of Europe to the core of political debates. So, the EU enlargement policy towards Western Balkans appears again quite topical after years of fatigue. As another realpolitik reason, the highest EU formal and informal visits and meetings try to maintain the EU influence in the region and to react to the Western Balkan before Russia and China. It is still an open question of how successful this endeavour can be. The Thessaloniki Agenda constantly evolves from its creation to the present and develops new models of intergovernmental action. Therefore, the topic as a geopolitical question presents the history, daily politics, and future of the EU in a competitive multipolar world of fierce divisions. As members of a supranational body (the European Council), the EU national governments and intergovernmental decision-makers, provide the political framework for the enlargement agenda, considering primarily economic and geopolitical member-state interests in a particular context, preventing security threats and balancing Russian and Chinese power.

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