Western Balkans - Has the Time Come for the US to Support European Hegemony?

Sebastien Gricourt

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.

As a senator during the 1990s, Joe Biden was profoundly affected by the wars in the former Yugoslavia, where he travelled in April 1993. As he recalled during his election campaign in messages targeted specifically at voters of Bosnian or Albanian origin,[2] he endeavoured throughout the 1990s to convince the Democratic occupant of the White House, Bill Clinton, that the US should intervene through NATO (air campaigns in Bosnia-Herzegovina in August-September and in Serbia and Kosovo in March-June 1999) in order to prevent further war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Given this emotional attachment to the region, which he also visited several times as vice-president[3]—as did the man he has selected as Secretary of State, Antony Blinken[4]—his election should help restore equilibrium to US policy in the region after its marked shift towards the nationalist Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, under his predecessor. The Trump administration even engineered the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Kosovo in order to remove the nation’s largest party from power, having deemed it to be insufficiently compliant with the US president’s short-term objectives.[5]

1. US-EU cooperation will be the keyword…

In congratulatory calls from the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen,[6] the president-elect expressed his "belief that a strong European Union is in the United States’ interest." He also stressed the importance he places on cooperation with Europe on "issues of mutual concern," including the Western Balkans as well as Iran, Belarus and Ukraine. This brief list of hot topics may seem frustrating to those who support the EU’s ambition to be a global player, but so is Washington’s analysis so far of the limitations of this still developing power. It will have to be enough for now, and the Balkan region at least seems to be included in the programme of priorities for the transatlantic relationship.

As for the EU’s global ambition in the context of its strengthened partnership with Washington, the efforts made by the European Council and the European Commission to prepare for discussions with the future US administration and, more immediately, the conclusions of the EU summit of 10 and 11 December, demonstrate the Union’s desire to be treated on equal terms as an independent strategic ally, without being naïve about the competitive nature of the relationship in certain areas or the new shape of global power relations.[7]

In this world that has changed so much, we read an insider’s report of an informal conversation about the Balkans with the former Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and close adviser to the president-elect, Nicholas Burns.[8] Burns apparently supports a return to long-term objectives, in stark contrast to the outgoing president’s erratic hunt for quick fixes. The diplomat referred broadly to the former bipartisan goals of a "Europe whole and free" that characterized the bygone age of Western triumphalism following the fall of the Soviet Bloc. He believes that the threats posed to Europe by Russia and China make it more important than ever to integrate the Balkan states into the EU and NATO.

2. …which confirms the return to continuity…

Although the reference to the 1990s is a painful reminder that it was European and UN impotence that made decisive US intervention necessary, Burns thinks the duty to lead a diplomatic dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo falls squarely on the EU. This attitude does not just imply that the US’ geopolitical and geoeconomic priorities are elsewhere. It also attests to the gradual assumption of responsibility by Europe for managing the affairs of its direct neighbours. We should bear in mind that, after the first tragic mistakes in Bosnia- Herzegovina, Europeans came forward to act in the shared interest of peace in the former Yugoslavia. They also reacted more quickly in Kosovo, both politically and militarily. In December 1998, the Franco-British summit at Saint-Malo set out the framework adopted the following year for the European Security and Defence Policy, and the Stabilization and Association Process with the Western Balkan nations was launched in June 1999. Those nations later confirmed their ambition to join the EU at the Zagreb (2000) and Thessaloniki (2003) summits. These developments, which were the fruit of lessons learnt during the Yugoslav wars, are important indicators of the EU’s increasing influence in the long-term resolution of the aftermath of the former Yugoslavia’s decade of violent disintegration. The first decade of the twenty-first century clearly demonstrates the guiding role assumed by the EU in the stabilization of the region and the strengthening of its ties to Europe.[9] Meanwhile, the US’s contribution essentially concluded with the settlement of the status of Kosovo by its independence, proclaimed on 17 February 2008 and confirmed on 22 July 2020 by the International Court of Justice. The United States was deeply concerned at that time by the rising power of China (driven in particular by the 2008 global financial crisis[10]). In 2011, then-President Barack Obama officially announced the pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, as epitomized by the concept of "leading from behind" used during the US intervention in Libya earlier that year.

3. …or the strategy of "accompanying from behind?"

Nevertheless, if we gloss over the Trump years, characterized by an approach to Europe that was as intrusive as it was exclusionary, Obama’s second term can be seen as marking the return of the United States to Europe’s backyard. Frustrated by Europe’s slowness in fulfilling its promises of integration and concerned about external rivals taking advantage of its enlargement fatigue and strategic vacuum, the White House began to display clear signs of impatience.[11] But as the EU prepares to enter its fourth decade, the regional situation is very different from when the previous Democratic president was in power.

First, the US’ main security goal has almost been achieved with the help of NATO, which consolidated its presence and joint protection capabilities with the accession of Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020). Podgorica will fill a gap in NATO’s coverage on the Adriatic Coast, while future challenges for its new political order, a coalition government that ended a quarter of a century of Milo Đukanović’s rule this summer, will be among the priorities of its relationship with the EU.[12] Skopje (and Tirana, which joined in 2009), is being called upon to play an increasingly important role in the context of deteriorating EU and NATO relations with Turkey, but it has already passed several key tests[13] since 2017 that deserve to be rewarded by the official launch of accession negotiations. The same applies to Albania, which is also awaiting its first Intergovernmental Conference. Bulgaria’s obstruction of North Macedonia’s accession because of a dispute about recognition of the Bulgarian language is, like the response to Albania’s efforts to fulfil the supplementary conditions imposed upon it, a matter involving the authority and credibility of the EU alone (although this does not rule out US support).

In that respect, while responsibility for mediating the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue should remain primarily in European hands, Bosnia Herzegovina represents an opportunity to develop a stronger partnership between Brussels and Washington a quarter of a century after the Dayton Accords. In Bosnia Herzegovina, traditional parties suffered losses in the municipal elections in mid-November, and a highly anticipated election in Mostar will take place on 20 December (for the first time since 2008).[14] Both developments are a clear signal of a desire for change that could lead to a positive turning point in the legislative and presidential elections in 2022, if properly supported and coordinated.[15]

Finally, the new US administration will have to acknowledge that the last few years have been a wake-up call for Europeans in terms of Brussels’s political involvement in the Western Balkans. What is at stake in future accessions is no longer just the perspective outlined at the beginning of the century; it has now become a vital question of credibility, not just of the commitment of the candidates but also of the EU. Faced on one side with an integration process that, in rewarding critics of democratic values and the rule of law, has lost its transformative power, and on the other by increasing stagnation that has created opportunities for external powers that do not share its values, the EU is looking for a way to regain control. At the very least, it must persuade Washington that it has things in hand. To start with, it needs to demonstrate that the new accession negotiation tactics introduced with great fanfare by France in the autumn of 2019 do indeed lead to agreement between all parties. It must also allay suspicions that the new tactics were motivated by a desire to stall the accession process. Finally, the aid provided to the region to fight the pandemic (3.3 billion euros) and the Economic and Investment Plan announced this autumn (9 billion euros)[16] also constitute concrete commitments on the part of a Union that is, hopefully, determined to accept the six candidate nations as "a pressing responsibility" in order to achieve its "finalité."[17]

Now that the United Kingdom is no longer around to plead in favour of the liberal integration of the Balkan market or to block the political deepening of the EU, and with member states like Hungary arguing for the integration of the Balkan nations in order to expand the sphere of illiberal values at the expense of fundamental European ones, it seems that the United States hardly has any strategic option but to rely fully on the EU and to support its efforts. At the same time, Washington will want to make sure that Brussels’s ambition of strategic independence does not jeopardise NATO. That has never been the intention, but European and transatlantic misunderstandings are going to have to be overcome before the sought-after partnership can take shape.

The president-elect of the US accepts that a strong Europe would regain its status as a reliable and credible ally. Will he also concede that, in this new era, the success of the accession process depends both on the demonstration of leadership by Europe—the only thing capable of thwarting the influence (which should not be overstated) of external actors[18]—and on the nature of US support?

[1] 6 February 2018, ‘A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans’, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/communication-credible-enlargement-perspective-western-balkans_en.pdf
[2] 17 October 2020, on his vision for relations with Albania and Kosovo: http://illyriapress.com/joe-bidens-vision-for-u-s-relations-with-albania-and-kosova/; 20 October 2020, on his vision for relations with Bosnia-Herzegovina: https://twitter.com/mikercarpenter/status/1318327672448102402
[3] Sarajevo was one of the first places he visited outside the US in 2009. He returned to Kosovo with his family in 2016 to inaugurate a motorway (leading to the US army base, Camp Bondsteel) named after his son, who had died the previous year. His son had worked in Kosovo as a legal advisor after the end of the war.
[4] 23 November 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/nov/23/antony-blinken-joe-biden-secretary-of-state-appointee-is-sharp-break-with-trump-era
[5] By the same author, 2 April 2020: https://jean-jaures.org/nos-productions/kosovo-reglements-de-compte-au-temps-du-coronavirus
[6] 25 November 2020: https://buildbackbetter.gov/press-releases/readout-of-president-elect-bidens-foreign-leader-calls/
[7] 1 December 2020, ‘EU extends a hand (or two) to Joe Biden’, Politico: https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-extends-a-hand-or-two-to-joe-biden/
[8] 28 November 2020, remarks reported by Dr Leon Hartwell (Center for European Policy Analysis), ‘The Biden Administration will Return to the Long Game in the Balkans’, Balkan Insider: https://www.balkaninsider.com/biden-administration-in-the-balkans/
[9] For example: High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina is always European; from 1999, the EU Pillar of UNMIK for the reconstruction and development of Kosovo; EU Special Representative (with a US counterpart) to resolve the conflict in FYROM (2001) and the first CSDP mission (2003); the transfer of NATO missions to the EU in BiH (2004, EUFOR Althea).
[10] 2 July 2009, discussion at NATO about the future prospects of Chinese power: https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2009/07/02/will-the-financial-crisis-make-china-a-superpower/index.html
[11] For example, in 2015 it argued, against EU advice to the contrary, that the extended powers of the High Representative should be used to cancel a referendum intended to bring Republika Srpska closer to independence, and in 2016 it directly threatened Albanian politicians with reprisals if they continued to block a vote on judicial reform required by the EU.
[12] 26 November 2020, the Center for Democratic Transition (Montenegro) describes the potential challenges: https://en.cdtmn.org/analize/potentially-critical-points-in-the-functioning-of-the-new-government-in-montenegro/
[13] By the same author, 18 April 2019, Fondation Jean Jaurès in collaboration with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the magazine Challenges – Journal for social issues: https://jean-jaures.org/nos-productions/macedoine-du-nord-pour-l-ouest-du-nouveau
[14] 18 November 2020: https://www.courrierdesbalkans.fr/Elections-locales-en-Bosnie-Herzegovine-sursaut-citoyen-imprevu
[15] 25 November 2020, see Daniel Serwer’s suggestions: https://www.peacefare.net/2020/11/25/restoring-individual-rights-and-hope-in-bosnia/
[16] 6 October 2020: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_1811
[17] October 2020, analysis carried out on the initiative of the former Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ditmir Bushati, in collaboration with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation office in Tirana: ‘Make-or-break moment: EU enlargement in Southeast Europe in pandemic times’ (Matteo Bonomi, Albana Merja, Theresia Töglhofer, Dušan Reljić) http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/albanien/16595.pdf
[18] 30 July 2020, Dr Ardijan Sainovic, IRSEM, ‘Le positionnement stratégique des États des Balkans occidentaux face aux puissances extérieures; 30 October 2020, Srdjan Cvijic, ‘Mechanical Lions and Potemkin Villages: Why is Montenegro Different From Belarus?’ https://europesfutures.eu/archive/mechanical-lions-and-potemkin-villages-why-is-montenegro-different-from-belarus

The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).