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Balkan nations bank on regional ties after EU snub

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Via Financial Times

The EU’s decision to keep the door closed to two Balkan nations has left the region realising that it cannot rely on its western neighbours alone, Serbia’s president has warned.

Aleksander Vucic also said the EU’s refusal to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania vindicated his policy of forging closer ties with China and Russia. Belgrade is ready to sign a free trade deal with the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-centred customs union with five members, on Friday, and has also called for further regional integration.

“We need to take care of ourselves. That’s the only way, that’s the only approach. Everything else would be very irresponsible,” Mr Vucic told the Financial Times in an interview.

His comments are likely to reinforce fears that the EU could lose influence in the Balkans after the bloc’s leaders failed to agree at a summit last week to start accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. The decision, which was driven by opposition from French president Emmanuel Macron, was criticised by both countries and by the US.

Paris believes the bloc needs to resolve more of its own problems before looking to bring in new members.

Speaking in Belgrade, Mr Vucic said the EU’s decision — taken despite reform efforts made by both Albania and North Macedonia at the bloc’s behest — had made clear to the region that “it is not all up to us”.

“They were always speaking, ‘Oh it is up to you, the speed of your reforms’ . . . Now, at least, they are pretty much fair. They say, at least it is not all about you,” Mr Vucic said.

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“What can I do, cry and [go on] hunger strike in [front of the] Berlaymont?” he asked, referring to the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels. “I am not going to do that, no one is going to do that.”

Mr Vucic said the Balkans should do more instead to forge regional co-operation.

“We cannot be dependent on the next decision of the European Council, or whether the Dutch government will decide this way or another way, or the Danish government will do something differently than we expected,” he said, referring to the countries that joined Paris in contravening Brussels’ recommendation to open accession talks.

Last week, Mr Vucic, along with the premiers of North Macedonia and Albania, signed a declaration creating a co-operation agreement modelled on the EU’s Schengen Agreement, providing for the free travel of people, goods, capital, and services between their three connected countries.

The declaration invites other regional countries to join, with the intention of creating a joint market of 18m people.

Mr Vucic said the commitment to the agreement had been strengthened by the EU’s block on enlargement talks. Previously, he said, Serbia’s neighbours “were not really interested because they expected a lot more from the EU. Now they see that we have to turn to ourselves firstly, of course staying firmly on our EU path, but not waiting for charity from anyone.”

Mr Vucic said he was ready to synchronise value added tax rates and investment incentives with Albania and North Macedonia, which he said would create a market of 12m people between the three countries.

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Serbia opened accession negotiations with the EU in 2014 but is considered by the bloc to be less prepared for membership than North Macedonia. An EU diplomat in Belgrade told the Financial Times that Serbia belonged in the EU “because of simple geography”.

Mr Vucic’s policy of regional co-operation and balancing great powers resembles the geographical calculations made by Yugoslavia, which was a founder of the nonaligned movement — though the country was much bigger then than Serbia today and the policy had the acceptance of both the Soviet Union and the west.

However, the regional mistrust and the bilateral issues generated during the bitter wars that followed Yugoslavia’s collapse will pose a challenge to deeper co-operation.

Serbia still refuses to recognise the independence of its former province of Kosovo, which is 90 per cent ethnic Albanian, despite almost a decade of EU-mediated talks.

It also has complicated relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Belgrade supports a predominantly ethnic Serb statelet, Republika Srpska, whose leader advocates secession. 

“One would really have to see a sea change of behaviour towards its neighbours to be convinced that Serbia is really interested in improving relations in the region as something to help the process of reform and stability stay on track,” said Florian Bieber, director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria.

He noted that to be truly successful, the so-called “Balkan Schengen” would need to include Bosnia and Kosovo, but Belgrade is still engaged in an active campaign to get countries to revoke their recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

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