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Foreign Policy is not Germany’s Strong Suit

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The German Presidency finds the EU amidst a profound economic crisis due to the COVID-19. In few months, the EU will also be dealing with the end of the British transition period, which could mount further pressure on the economy. Security is not on the top of the agenda. But some things won’t wait.

Greece and Turkey are on collision course and in the post-Brexit period it is France that is taking the lead in foreign and security policy. But with widening divide between Euro-Atlantic partners and a German President of the European Commission that will not do. The world now expects leadership from Germany, which goes over and beyond market-oriented initiatives.

That is particularly the case in the Balkans. After all, Germany laid the foundations of the Berlin Plus agenda in 2014, envisaging additional efforts and funding that would accelerate the Western Balkans’ progress towards EU membership.

TACTICS has published two reports on Islamic Radicalisation and Weapons Exports from the Balkans. It is clear that this part of Europe is still central to European Security. We wanted to make sense of what to expect over the following months.

We talked to a journalist. Florian Schmidt, Senior Southeast Europe Correspondent for Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public broadcaster or a direct equivelent to the BBC. We talked about Germany’s role in the Europe, Turkey, and the Balkans.  

TACTICS. The President of the European Commission speaks of a “Geopolitical Commission.” Not many Germany use this term. Is something changing in Germany’s strategic culture or is the role defining the person?

Florian Schmidt. The global situation has changed and the European Commission has opened a new, a much more difficult chapter in its history. Old alliances have shifted, also because of geopolitical challenges. While in previous years, Brussels was mainly concerned with interior problems, namely the economic and the refugee crisis, it now faces other problems. The bonds between Europe and the United States crumble under the fatal presidency of Donald Trump. At the same time, the situation at the Greek-Turkish border escalates, also revealing conflicts within NATO and the European Union.

Both scenarios seem to highlight the necessity within EU to create a defense union, that is, to create a common European defense strategy, a topic that, along with an economic union, has been on the table for quite a while. As we see quite well at the Greek-Turkish border, Athens is overwhelmed with the mission to protect European borders, in regards to the refugee situation also clearly breaking Greek and European law. Both governments, in Ankara and in Athens, use nationalist rhetoric in order to justify measures that strengthen the political support from within the country. Instead, Athens should deescalate and find a compromise instead of acting exactly the way Erdogan expects them to do.

With the orchestrated refugee situation at Evros river in February and March, Ankara knew that this would stir up a lot of national sentiment in Greece, and he succeeded. With Turkey’s provocative scientific mission in the Aegean now, he receives even more attention. Fact is, that nobody would benefit from military escalations in the region. And the conflict shows very well, why the EC talks about a Geopolitical Commission. It is more of a vision, of course, than a reality. The handful of conflicts I have mentioned now, just a drop in the sea considering the major challenges that Brussels has to face, show the main weaknesses of the EU itself. The inner-European conflicts between national sovereignty and unified strategies to tackle geopolitical problems are severe. EC acts more like an overwhelmed diplomate within it’s own circles of members, than an institution that represents and executes the interests of a state union. Trying to focus on geopolitical challenges as a geopolitical commission might help to focus on finding ways to act as a more unified body. It won’t, however, solve the pressing issues EU faces from within.

TACTICS. Following the EU-W-Balkan Summit in June, the President of the European Commission Von der Leyen said “the Balkans belong to Europe.” Germany’s Minister for Europe, Michael Roth, proclaims that Germany is still fully behind the enlargement. Is this claim politically credible in Berlin, particularly following the French and successive Dutch vetoes?

Florian Schmidt. The EU has finally understood the strategic importance of the West-Balkans for Europe. They do have one major problem, though. The peoples of the EU are overwhelmed with the complexity and the inner problems, the state union has brought along. It will be difficult to sell a further addition of members in the different countries. Speaking as a German I know that the Balkans are somehow a black hole in the perception of the people, despite the large amount of migrants from this region, who, due to the wars in Yugoslavia, came to Germany. Or despite the geographical proximity. Austria is much more connected to the West Balkans. This gap of knowledge needs to be filled, misperceptions need to be confronted with information.

Of course, the political systems in these countries are weak. Problems within EU member states in Southeast Europe have raised the question, if their membership was premature. This discussion needs to happen, also for the sake of beginning political reforms in countries like Bulgaria and Rumania. One thing the people in Western Europe need to understand, is that the West Balkans are not a debt trap for Europe. We actually benefit from them, also financially. Especially during this critical time with Turkey, and ongoing conflicts with Russia regarding Southeast Europe, where many countries are still torn between Moscow and Brussels (Serbia is a good example here), it is crucial that EU offers a strategic plan for this region instead of empty promises.

Turkey has important bonds with countries like Albania and North-Macedonia. If we look at how EU treated Turkey during the many years the country wanted to become a member, we see how quickly a situation can get out of control, if there are no actions to promises, no real plan, no possible time table. A lot of Turks who do not support Erdogan’s authoritarian policies feel disappointed by Brussels. We can observe very comparable reactions in the West-Balkans. After the French veto regarding North-Macedonia, people there were not even surprised, just negatively affirmed in what many had suspected: despite the name change, Brussels, again, did not live up to the expectations created by Europe itself.

Also, why do people from Kosovo still have to fight for visas, after EU had promised to facilitate the process? We need to learn from mistakes made in the past and that includes the media, as well. We need to inform much more about the West-Balkans, explain these countries to the Western-Europe audience, critically, of course, but also highlighting the vast advantages for Europe. Turkey, Saudi-Arabia, Russia – Many countries are ‘courting’ in these countries and gain influence.

If Western-Europe in this very context does not fully grasp the necessity to tighten the bonds with the West-Balkans, we should be prepared and at least openly discuss what it would mean for Europe to lose influence in this region, which geographically is undeniably European. The people there want European passports. We need to face this pro-European majority constructively and with respect, not with lip-services and without a clear strategy. Germany must also be more willing to open historic chapters, dealing with the World Wars. The case with Greece has shown that these wounds don’t heal easily. Yet in Germany, the knowledge of war crimes in Southeast Europe is slim to nill. All of this needs to change, politically and culturally.

TACTICS. Can we hope for concrete steps forward in regional security during the German presidency?

a) Should we expect a revival of the Belgrade-Pristina talks while the Serbs protest for the standards of democratic governance in their country?

Florian Schmidt. The protests in Serbia show that the Serbs are growing tired of how the country is run. It might be a chance for the EU to apply more pressure on Belgrade. Serbia is next in line for an EU-membership. Belgrade maintains very strong bonds with Moscow, though, and President Vucic runs the country much more in this fashion. I believe that Brussels needs to be more firm and more vocal when it comes to Serbia and Kosovo. I truly hope that during the German presidency the responsible diplomats will not hide behind Corona-measures but make clear that negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade need to proceed. As I mentioned before, granting Kosovo easier access to visas would be an important signal.

I am not sure, however, if Germany will be consistent enough. Foreign policy is somewhat of a weak spot in German politics. It is not common to take clear stands.
Also, the Corona pandemic has shifted a lot of focus and a lot of the time of the EU institutions onto the many problems that come along with the virus. Serbia got hit pretty hard, all the West-Balkans do. It will be important to grant financial support, also to non-members or potential new members, in order to be present and underline EU’s interest in stability within this region. Belgrade needs to understand that joining the EU comes along with opening the country to Western standards and this must be shown through reforms and a clear commitment to European Law and the philosophy of good neighborship. That does not only involve Kosovo, but also Bosnia. On the other hand, Brussels needs to understand, that things do not change overnight. Angela Merkel has understood the importance of the West-Balkans as strategically important in the light of ongoing conflicts with Ankara and Moscow. So, long story short, I am optimistic that during the German presidency the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo will be on the table. It is hard to say, though, in this situation, if the negotiations will bring Belgrade to a more flexible agenda when it comes to Kosovo.

TACTICS. b) Could we at the very least expect the stabilization and normalization of relations between Albania and North-Macedonia?

The fact the EU is now open to accession talks with both countries might have a stabilizing effect. More importantly, though, the countries need to deepen their relations without the hand of the EU guiding them. Zoran Zaev was reelected Prime Minister in North-Macedonia with the help of the parties of the Albanian minority. For the first time in the country’s history, the last 100 days in office will be led by an Albanian. This is an important gesture against nationalism and in favor of the appreciation of ethnic diversity in this region. The relations between the two countries have improved, especially considering the fact that in 2001 the situation with the Albanian minority in North-Macedonia brought the country to the brink of a Civil War. Now they created a ‘Mini-Schengen’ zone between North-Macedonia, Albania, and Serbia, which allows for free passage. If you know the Balkans, you understand how important it would for the people to move around freely. For many people the visa requirements are impossible. The collaboration between Serbia and Albania, through and with North-Macedonia, is a sign, that things are moving into the right direction.

TACTICS. Foreign fighters return from the Middle East to the West Balkans with operational experience, while arm trade and human trafficking still thrive. Does anyone keep an eye on the big picture over the region?

I am not a politician, but a journalist. I am sure that the institutions are aware of the problem, which makes it even more pressing to bind these countries to EU. I am convinced that it is a matter of safety for the region and for the EU as a whole to strengthen democratic forces within these countries, also by being present and by closely collaborating with local authorities in order to prevent a spread of terrorism and violence.

We see in the case of Bosnia how religious forces from the outside try to radicalize European Muslims, who actually are moderately religious and closely connected to Western liberalism, especially the young people. The EU institutions need to be present in these countries and openly support the many people, who wish for reforms, better visa conditions, and a more liberal lifestyle. If Turkey manages to gain more control over the region, especially in the current situation, we might face a new level of destabilization and division. As long as Europe does not accept the fact that the Balkans are the living proof that Islam belongs to Europe and is compatible with European believe systems, Turkey and other nations will be able to increase social division through religion, using the people’s disappointment regarding Europe. We need to keep people close, not toss them out.

I always wonder why some politicians constantly demand to send potential aggressors among the migrant community from Western Europe back into their home countries. So that they can get even more radical there? With such demands you might gain voters behind you; voters who are overwhelmed with the complexity of global politics. You certainly don’t make Europe safer with this kind of shenanigans. Therefore, people in the West Balkans need Europe more than ever, a clear commitment from Europe towards the West Balkans. If you want to monitor such a difficult situation, of citizens actually returning as Islamic fighters, EU needs true allies. True allies you gain by moving away from this strategy of lip- services towards a sustainable plan to integrate the West Balkans into EU and drive them away from alliances with other nations, that they keep just in case EU will back out of the deal at whatever point.