Blog / Europe's Futures

Chinese Influence in the Western Balkans and Its Impact on the Region’s European Union Integration Process

Valbona Zeneli is the Chair of Strategic Engagements at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, a Non-Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, and a Europe’s Futures alumna of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) and ERSTE Foundation The Western Balkans has seen a significant expansion of Chinese influence over the last decade, in line with Beijing’s geo-economic and diplomatic vision of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and in the broader strategic context of China-EU relations. A key tool in promoting engagement with the five Western Balkans countries (excluding Kosovo) has been the “16+1” initiative with Central and Eastern European countries, established in 2012, and later tied to support the BRI.

It’s a Package Deal! Reforming and Enlarging the European Union in a Contested World

The authors are members of the Europe's Futures Alumni Network of the IWM and ERSTE Foundation. “Delay always breeds danger; and to protract a great design is often to ruin it.” Miguel de Cervantes

In the Shadow of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

The Russo-Ukrainian War has shaken the foundations of Europe’s security architecture set by the Helsinki Final Act, 1975

A Grand EU Bargain, the Four Freedoms and Merit: How to Fix the European House and Make Room for New Members

“The reality of the EU accession process today resembles a bus with no wheels.” Gerald Knaus

Was ist zu tun? Der Krieg, der Westbalkan und die EU

Anlässlich der bevorstehenden Sitzung des Europäischen Rates veröffentlichen Europe's Futures Fellows und Alumnis ein Positionspapier mit Lösungsansätzen.  

What is to be done? The war, the Western Balkans and the EU

In view of the upcoming summit of the European Council, Europe’s Futures Fellows and alumni propose six fixes for the enlargement process.
EU flag

A New Bold Vision for Europe

Following Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine in late February, a new bold vision for the European Union is needed. This watershed moment has put the European project to test as it’s clear the proliferation of crises in the last decade has undermined the unity of the bloc. Therefore, it’s time for the European Union (EU) to face the future with strategic resolve and visionary determination. It should focus on playing a role in restructuring the global security architecture, embrace the struggles between democracy and autocracy, and be flexible enough to deal with new challenges that will undoubtedly arise as the world order shifts. The EU’s current mechanisms were built to maintain peace after the Second World War, new ones must prevent widespread conflict and preserve democracy in a very different looking world.
De Clerck-Sachsse

New Policy Brief Published

Look Who’s Talking! Telling Europe’s Story in the EU Capital Policy Brief, March 2022 (Publication download link) Dahrendorf Programme at the European Studies Centre, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, in cooperation with the ‘Europe’s Futures-Ideas for Action’ project at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna Europe is facing a battle of the narratives that will shape our future. In this brave new world, a compelling narrative will be paramount for the survival of the European project.
infrastructure - a road junction from above in black and white

The Chinese Gift that Keeps on Taking: The Western Balkans

The Western Balkans has seen a significant expansion of Chinese influence over the last decade, in line with Beijing’s geo-economic and diplomatic vision of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and in the broader strategic context of China-EU relations.

The EU’s Approach Towards Enlargement is Bad PR

The European Union’s way of dealing with the question of enlargement both with the Western Balkans and in a different way also with Turkey contributes to how the EU is perceived as a global actor. It contributes to our image in the world. Many factors that are relevant for the EU’s performance and ability to effectively act on a global stage can be observed when looking at how the EU is dealing with the Balkans and Turkey. The issue of enlargement rips the mask off much deeper underlying problems the European Union has.

EU-Western Balkans relations: It’s not that complicated

Whether to place or not the word “enlargement” in the Brdo Declaration of the latest European Union-Western Balkans Summit certainly captured the media’s attention. A compromise was finally reached to balance the wording of the EU’s on-going “commitment to the enlargement process” with the EU’s “capacity to integrate new members”. Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, acknowledged what has been known and publicly discussed for sometime, that, “there is an ongoing debate between the 27 on the Union’s capacity to integrate new member states.” 
EU and polish table flags side by side on a desk

It’s a long way to “Polexit”

The decision of Poland’s government-controlled constitutional court to reject EU authority has raised the spectre of “Polexit”. But it might also have awakened Poland’s pro-Europe camp, and even paved the way for its own demise.

Identity Provisions in Agreements: Medicine that Cures or Kills?

Identity provisions integrated in agreements are only the first step in a long and painful process for the resolution of enduring Balkan disputes. Including complex identity and heritage provisions in agreements that settle bilateral disputes is a necessary primary stage, but it may very well prove to be a double-edge sword – the medicine that could kill rather than cure. The recipe may be for political agents of change to be prepared in advance for the maelstrom that is likely to follow. And for grassroot agents of change to be given space to do the unpopular groundwork of building trust. The trials and tribulations of the recent agreement between Greece and North Macedonia are an illustrative example and serve to offer lessons for other disputes and conflicts. 

Identity Provisions in Agreements: Medicine that Cures or Kills?

Identity provisions integrated in agreements are only the first step in a long and painful process for the resolution of enduring Balkan disputes. Including complex identity and heritage provisions in agreements that settle bilateral disputes is a necessary primary stage, but it may very well prove to be a double-edge sword – the medicine that could kill rather than cure. The recipe may be for political agents of change to be prepared in advance for the maelstrom that is likely to follow. And for grassroot agents of change to be given space to do the unpopular groundwork of building trust. The trials and tribulations of the recent agreement between Greece and North Macedonia are an illustrative example and serve to offer lessons for other disputes and conflicts.

Germany Needs Change. Europe Needs Integration.

Europe's Futures Visiting Fellow, Judy Dempsey, in this post, discusses the current political situation in Germany, and its outlook for the future of Europe. Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves office in September. Her successor needs to create a foreign policy that is strategic in outlook, breaks with the status quo and sets a new compass for the European Union and its neighbors.
All Our Colours to the Mast

Europe and America under the Biden Administration

As the new Biden administration takes over on 20 January, Europe is brimming with expectations of what the next chapter in relations with the US will be like. There will be few tears shed for Trump et al., though the leaders in Poland, Hungary or Slovenia made no secret whom they were rooting for in the presidential race. The new occupant of the White House comes on a promise of restoring normalcy in transatlantic ties. He is kneejerk multilateralist, believes in the value of traditional alliances, and has already made it clear that issues such as climate change, a shibboleth to Europeans, would be a priority. At the same time, there is the Emmanuel Macron school of thought. If a handful of voters in Wisconsin and Michigan elected Trump, a disruptor extraordinaire, in 2016, what rules out a scenario where another populist America-firster is propelled to power again in the near future? Biden or no Biden, Macronistas argue, the European Union should invest into strategic autonomy. To prosper in a growingly insecure world, Europe needs to be able to fend for itself.
Zajedno smo EUropa

Geopolitical Europe Should Prove Its Mettle in the Balkans

In 2006, Javier Solana, the then head of the European Union’s (EU) diplomacy, proclaimed that Europe’s mission was to become “a global power, a force for good in the world.” Just two years before the economic meltdown, the EU, gazing at the world through rose-tinted glasses, pledged to transform its neighbourhood into a “circle of friends.” Today, those rose-tinted glasses have largely been cast aside: With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, a looming migration crisis driven by the “ring of fire” beyond the EU’s borders, and the global rise of authoritarianism, most Europeans look at the international arena with angst. Notwithstanding this grim reality, the EU’s goal remains the same as what it was 15 years ago. Like its predecessors, today’s EU Commission under President Von der Leyen aspires to be “geopolitical” by projecting the EU’s interests and values onto the world. The key difference today, however, is that more than anything, the Trump presidency has made Europeans realize that unconditional reliance on the United States is a thing of the past. Hence, the EU seeks to claim its spot as a bona fide global player.
Congratulations, Mr. President - From Kosova with Love

Western Balkans - Has the time come for the US to support European hegemony?

There is no doubt that the election of Joe Biden represents a welcome return to normality in international relations. Nevertheless, because honesty compels us to admit that his predecessor Donald Trump was ultimately less a bringer of change and more the product of an era already beset by rupture and disorder, the "normality" of the future transatlantic entente needs to be interrogated. In that respect, the Western Balkans—that "geostrategic investment" advocated by the European Union since its 2018 strategy [1]—could become a benchmark for rebuilding the relationship between Washington and Brussels, as long as both partners look towards the future of the region rather than simply revisiting the past.
Europe Must Act

Europe Must Act, not Bet, on its Future

The European Union will be unable to act as a geopolitical player until all the member states share the same threats, challenges and values.
Milica Delevic

Socially Distanced but More Vocal? The Corona Crisis and Political Participation

Forced through by the pandemic, new factors and trends in politics are shaping novel futures for Europe. In Tryptich Europa, a series of texts, our Europe's Futures project partnered with prominent European thinkers Milica Delević, Olivier Fillieule and Mark Leonard in attempting to capture some of the immediate changes to the political landscape. Inequalities, the role of the state, upholding of rights, digitalization and public health policies are some of the factors influencing trends in political participation in Europe and its extraordinary current political, social and economic predicament. In a new addition to Tryptich Europa series, Milica Delević argues that it has become clear to citizens that the cost of not participating in the political process in their countries is considerable.
Danilo Kiš - Portret by Ratko Šoć, 1991

Mechanical Lions and Potemkin Villages: Why Is Montenegro Different from Belarus?

For the rest of the Western world, Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, is the “last European dictator.” For most citizens of Montenegro, it is (or better was) their President Milo Đukanović who governed the Balkan country for some three decades. He was first elected in 1991 and ruled undisputedly until 30 August 2020, when his party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) lost its majority in the parliamentary elections. Although the DPS won the greatest number of votes, the three opposition parties, For the Future of Montenegro, Peace is Our Nation, and Black on White, came together to form the new government on 31 August, ousting Đukanović.
Western Balkans

Western Balkans Diaspora: Untapped Potential and Asset for the Region

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Western Balkans future relies on the participation of its diaspora in their countries of origin. The diaspora’s potential to creatively introduce to their country of origin the experiences, knowledge, networks, and visions gained abroad is enormous and arguably the key to the region’s success. Having benefited from opportunities while working abroad, most diaspora members still have a strong commitment to their homeland, willing to share their knowledge and experience with their fellow citizens.
Mark Leonard

Geopolitical Europe in Times of Covid-19

Forced through by the pandemic, new factors and trends in politics are shaping novel futures for Europe. In Tryptich Europa, a series of texts, our Europe's Futures project partnered with prominent European thinkers Milica Delevic, Olivier Fillieule and Mark Leonard in attempting to capture some of the immediate changes to the political landscape. As international relations shift from rules to power and the USA’s focus pivots toward Asia, the foundations of the European values-based conception of order are being challenged. Opening the Tryptich Europa, Mark Leonard analyses options that could help Europe strengthen its position, prosper and maintain its sovereignty in a Covid-19 world of geopolitical competition.
Protests in Bulgaria

Lessons Learned from Bulgaria’s Democratic Defects

It has been nearly a month that Bulgarians have now been protesting. Sofia along with other major cities across the country see daily rallies demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev. They are bound to continue. Borisov refused to step down and hand over his post to a technocrat hailing from within his own party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB). Then, in the wee hours of September 7, police forcefully cleared impromptu camps and barricades set up by the protesters. Borisov and his coalition partners from the far-right United Patriots alliance are putting out a fire with gasoline.
Leszek Jazdzewski

The Power of Mythmaking

Milan Kundera in his seminal essay "Tragedy of Central Europe" wrote: By virtue of its political system, Central Europe is the East; by virtue of its cultural history, it is the West. But since Europe itself is in the process of losing its own cultural identity, it perceives in Central Europe nothing but a political regime, put another way it sees in Central Europe only Eastern Europe. (…) Central Europe therefore, should fight not only against its big oppressive neighbour but also against the subtle, relentless pressure of time, which is leaving the era of culture in its wake. That is why in Central European revolts there is something conservative, nearly anachronistic: they are desperately trying to restore the past, the past of culture, the past of the modern era. It is only in that period, only in a world that maintains a cultural dimension, that Central Europe can still defend its identity, still be seen for what it is.
Srdjan Cvijic

Milosevic’s Spies still Guard the Fallen Serbian Regime’s Secrets

Twenty years after Slobodan Milošević's authoritarian regime collapsed, its security service spies have yet to surrender the files that would shed important light on its crimes.

The New EU Budget and Recovery Fund: A Positive Omen for the EU Enlargement Process?

After five days of intense negotiations and amid fears of a forceful comeback of Covid-19 in a number of EU Member States, the heads of state and government of the 27 Member States reached a political compromise on a generous and much-needed recovery fund to deal with the socio-economic consequences of this unprecedented pandemic, and on the seven-year multiannual financial framework (MFF). Although the European Parliament still needs to give its consent on the MFF and EU sectoral programmes and the 27 national parliaments still need to ratify the recovery fund, that does not take away from the importance of the European Council’s political agreement. The EU has come out of these negotiations stronger, giving the impression to its citizens and the world (including less friendly partners) of unity, commitment and resilience in these trying times. But as it comes out of yet another crisis — this time successfully — its resilience will be further tested in keeping to its promises to the Western Balkan countries and demonstrating political intelligence by continuing with EU enlargement.
Peter Kreko

How Can Tribalism, Fuelled from Above, Eat up Democratic Norms?

According to the rules of traditional, mainstream politics, you are losing popularity if you receive support from a foreign country. In the era of tribal politics, you should not be afraid. How can pernicious polarization eat up democratic norms? A case study on foreign intervention.
Future of Europe

Give Strasbourg to the Citizens!

A priority of the newly appointed European Commission is "a new push for European democracy," giving citizens "a stronger role in decision-making." The centerpiece of the workprogram laid out by the new president von der Leyen is the Conference on the Future of Europe, to run for two years from 2020 to 2022, and in which citizens should participate. The debate on how this conference ought to be organized, what topics should be under consideration, and what should then happen to the recommendations that emerge has been ongoing for the past months, and must soon reach a conclusion if the Conference is to be launched on the 9th May 2020. The French and German governments have produced a "non- paper" on the organization, timescale and issues of the Conference and the European Parliament a briefing on the background; the European Policy Centre has a blueprint for how the Conference ought to work; the Bertelsmann Stiftung has weighed the advantages and disadvantage of different models; and the ECI campaign has its proposal to introduce a Europe wide referendum at the end of the Conference. The European Parliament voted on a plan excluding civil society from a seat in the plenary of the Conference, and the plans of the European Commission are not more encouraging. Over 100 academics have signed a joint letter expressing severe reservations about the current plans, and suggesting alternatives.
EU Foreign Policy

QMV and the Lasting Dream of a Single EU Foreign Policy

Around 80% of EU legislation is adopted by qualified majority vote (QMV). Over the years, it has become the ‘standard voting method’ in the Council. One notable exception is the area of Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). In this field, still at the heart of national sovereignty, there are only few exceptions from unanimity. The previous European Commission proposed extending the use of QMV within the CFSP. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised to pursue this initiative. She tasked High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the Commission Josep Borrell to use the Treaty clauses allowing for a gradual extension of QMV. The rationale behind this is simple: the EU needs more efficient decision-making procedures if it is to play a role in global affairs and act in a timely fashion. This rationale has become ever more compelling in recent years. There have been many examples where one or few member states prevented, delayed or diluted the EU’s common voice or foreign policy action. Many of these situations did not reflect unbridgeable divisions between the member states, but rather parochial interests regarding unrelated dossiers or external pressure by third countries.
Slovak Elections 2020

Slovak Elections 2020: Unexpected Implications of the Expected Victory

On 1 March, 2020, Slovakia came to the forefront of the world media information services. On this day, the results of parliamentary elections were announced which meant a broad redrawing of the country's political map. Opposition secured the overwhelming victory over the former dominant ruling party Smer-SD [1] and the former ruling coalition as a whole. The results and the atmosphere awakened memories of the similarly critical Slovak parliamentary elections in 1998, when the then broad-spectral opposition managed to put an end to the power of charismatic leader Vladimir Mečiar and his national-populist government which had led the country into the deadlock of authoritarianism.
Map of Europe, 1910

Time for Policy Change on Western Balkans Emigration

The exodus of skilled workers from the Western Balkans has reached such critical levels that governments can no longer keep their heads in the sand.
European Metamorphoses

European Metamorphoses

European democracy is undergoing a metamorphosis, but its new shape is still highly uncertain. If it can be argued that democracy is itself as a regime is always changing and being reinvented, democracy in the European Union has been undergoing a distinctive process of change since at least 2008, when the EU was hit by the global financial crisis without a constitutional settlement to enable it to adequately respond. Unable to robustly coordinate policy responses across either the single market or eurozone in a way that would justly and fairly shield European populations from the effects of the crisis, let alone intervene in the global frame to change the dangerous dynamics of financialized capitalism, the EU as a whole, and its member states individually, have been scrambling to find solutions to almost every political issue that has arrived since this period, whether the topic is migrants, technology, military aggression, climate change, terrorism, or authoritarianism.
Corruption Perception Index, 2018

Corruption in Slovakia: Enemy of Democracy, Ally of Extremism

In a recent article in The Guardian Timothy Garton Ash argues that as it was premature to consider the fall of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, then triumph of liberal democracy, a beginning of development that would turn this triumph into normal state of society, it would be similarly premature to think today about the triumph of anti-liberal authoritarianism in the world. As a positive example, Garton Ash mentioned the fact that “leading the democratic fightback in Central Europe today is Slovakia, a country that was authoritarian laggard in the 1990s, and has more than its fair share of post-communist corruption in recent years." In this context, Garton Ash writes about the mass citizens‘ protests after the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in 2018 and recalls the "election this year of a liberal, pro-European president, Zuzana Čaputová." [1]
Donald Tusk

Donald Tusk, Europe’s Liaison Officer

The former president of the European Council has forged a reputation as a no-nonsense pragmatist who has taken on the populists. How will he do in his new role as head of the European People’s Party?
European Commission

The ‘Geopolitical’ European Commission and its Pitfalls

At the outset of his term, outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promised he would lead a "political Commission." Five years later, Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen opted for a different framing: She said she wanted to lead a ‘geopolitical Commission’. She thus responded to recent global developments, notably the rise of protectionism, the gradual erosion of multilateralism and the ‘great power competition’ between the US and China. Besides political communication and framing, what does the geopolitical Commission really mean and what are potential obstacles?
Peter Kreko

Were Hungary’s Municipal Elections the Beginning of the End for Orban?

Hungary’s recent municipal elections brought surprising gains for the opposition and created a stir in the international press as commentators pondered if the result posed a real threat to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s power. It is not unusual in politics to see everyone claiming victory on election night. But the contrast in how the opposition and government assessed the results was striking. Opposition forces talked about an "electoral breakthrough" while politicians of Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party repeated the mantra that Fidesz remained the most popular party by far in a country dominated by orange (the colour of Fidesz). Who is right? In fact, both were.
Isabelle Ioannides

EU Enlargement to the Western Balkans is Still Alive

The unfortunate European Council decision of October 2019 not to open EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania is just the latest manifestation of fatigue with the EU enlargement process, not only in the Western Balkans but in the EU side too. Yet long before this Council decision, the EU institutions and its Member States had made certain demands for reforms on North Macedonia and Albania in return for the promise of moving forward on their EU accession path. The exasperation felt today is that of empty promises and broken dreams. It has already given rise to alternative scenarios and Plan Bs if EU enlargement to the Western Balkans were not to materialize. Already at the beginning of the Juncker Commission, it had become clear that EU enlargement would be for the long haul. In that sense, ways to keep the momentum for reform and initiatives from the region were welcomed. Nevertheless, the new EU legislature, for all its uncertainties, may be a sign that the dream of a European perspective for the Western Balkans is not over.
Vienna Humanities Festival 2019

Ivan Vejvoda and Jon Baskin discuss former Yugoslavia at VHF 2019

Vienna Humanities Festival 2019 Hope and Despair in the Former Yugoslavia
Serbia's Demographic Disaster

’Too Late’ to Halt Serbia's Demographic Disaster

Serbia is set to lose almost a quarter of its population by 2050 as the young and the skilled emigrate in search of work.
Grigorij Mesežnikov

Now We Know Who Wants Slovakia’s Fascists to Survive

A murder investigation has, by chance, cast disturbing light on an important court ruling that kept a fascist party in political business. 
Tim Judah

Bye-Bye, Balkans: A Region in Critical Demographic Decline

Former communist countries in Southeast Europe face catastrophic depopulation, with far-reaching social and political consequences. 
Alida Vracic

Can Europe Help the Balkans Keep its Young Emigrants?

High emigration rates are doing massive damage to the prospects of the Western Balkans — and one question is whether a stronger EU perspective can reverse this outflow.
Nicole Koenig

Still an Impossible Job: Challenges and priorities for EU’s next High Representative

2019 marks the tenth anniversary of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. One of its key promises was a more coherent, effective and visible Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). No single innovation encapsulates this promise more than the creation of the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission (HR/VP).
Europe’s Futures Colloquium 30 September 2019

Europe’s Futures Colloquium 30 September 2019

First in the series of Europe’s Futures colloquia took place at the Institute for Human Sciences each Monday in September 2019.
Rosa Balfour

Europe’s Future Depends on Reinventing its Democracies

As the EU’s new leadership team braces for the challenges of the next five years, the bloc needs to rethink what political participation really means.
Niccolo Milanese

All Borders Are not Made Equally: The Irish 'Border Problem' and European Territory

If the Brexit referendum showed one thing, it is that the critics of the European Union have a much easier time making their case than the defenders, despite history clearly being on the side of the European Union. When it comes to the Irish border, there are reasons to fear a similar situation.