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EU's Post-Brexit Pivot to the Balkans Piles Pressure on Serbia to Give Up Kosovo

© AFP 2023 / ARMEND NIMANI / Kosovar Albanians walk under the EU and Kosovo flags in the main square of Pristina on May 4, 2016.
Kosovar Albanians walk under the EU and Kosovo flags in the main square of Pristina on May 4, 2016. - Sputnik International
Struggling against Euroscepticism in Western Europe, the EU is seeking to reinvent itself with expansion to the East that threatens the stability of the Balkans, analyst Igor Pshenichnikov warns.

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Amid rising Euroscepticism in Western Europe, the EU is focused on eastern enlargement, but its desire to "relaunch" the European project depends on pressuring eastern European countries into making painful concessions, such as the demand on Serbia to give up sovereignty over Kosovo.

On Thursday, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told Italian newspaper La Stampa that the recent election of Emmanuel Macron as French President is a demonstration of "clear support for the European project" and of a desire to "re-launch it because they consider it [the EU] part of the solution."

Responding to a question about the impact of Brexit on the EU, Mogherini said that this relaunch depends on the enlargement of the bloc to the east.

"I am certain that in the future there won't just be 27 member states, because we will have new members. I am thinking of the Balkan countries, with which we are negotiating about entry," Mogherini said.

In an op-ed for RIA Novosti, analyst Igor Pshenichnikov of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies writes that the EU's efforts to reassert its significance in the aftermath of the UK's Brexit vote will result in renewed pressure for Serbia and other Balkan countries to fulfil the EU's conditions for entry, in spite of the high social, economic and political costs.

The issue of Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is one of the main stumbling blocks to Serbian accession. While Belgrade refuses to recognize the declaration and continues to consider Kosovo its territory, most EU member states, with the exception of Spain, have recognized Kosovan independence.

"At the same time, Kosovo is the historical cradle of the Serbian people and recognition of the province's independence for any Serbian politician means political annihilation. Recognition of Kosovan independence is a political taboo for the Serbs," Pshenichnikov wrote.

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The EU's backing for Serbian Prime Minister Alexander Vucic, who was elected President in April, should be seen in this light.

The Serbian newspaper Danas reports that despite concerns about the state of Serbian democracy aired by the Council of Europe and Western NGO's such as Freedom House, the EU largely ignored protests that followed the election because it sees Vucic as the politician who will deliver Serbia's recognition of Kosovo.

Diplomatic sources told the newspaper that the EU wants Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia to be fast-tracked the bloc as soon as 2018, in the name of "regional stability." 

"Clearly the EU is counting on Vucic to be the Serbian politician who will finally solve the 'Kosovo question' in the interests of the EU," Pshenichnikov wrote.

The analyst notes that last week's election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France was a welcome reprieve for the EU, whose very existence was under threat from the potential victory of the Eurosceptic Marine Le Pen.

"In Brussels itself, there is a feeling of crisis. Brexit in the UK, and in second place in elections in the Netherlands and France were politicians who question their countries' EU membership and with it the very existence of the EU."

"That's why the EU needs a 'fresh wind of hope,' which could be the massive appeal to the Balkan countries to join the EU. That's why the rumors of diplomatic circles, referenced by the Serbian portal Danas, seem to be an accurate reflection of the plans of high-ranking EU officials."

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However, EU pressure on Serbia to recognize Kosovan independence, in return for the enlargement that would give such a boost to Brussels, could cause a political crisis in Serbia, which remains split over the question of EU membership.

"Then, something very serious could happen in Serbia – an internal political crisis, the essence of which will be the total rejection of the government by the people, to an even greater extent than now. We can only guess where that will lead," Pshenichnikov wrote.

According to an opinion poll in March by the New Serbian Political Thought [NSPM] magazine, less than half of Serbs are in favor of joining the EU. 

When asked, "Do you support EU entry," 47.7 percent answered yes, 39 percent said no and 13.3 percent of respondents said they weren't sure.

"As well as all this, there is also the desire of Republika Srpska to withdraw from Bosnia and Hercegovina and join the Serbian motherland. Serbs in Republika Srpska don't want to recognize Kosovo either. It seems they won't stay uninvolved if Belgrade starts sending official signals."

"The EU's intention to expand into the Balkans – or simply put, to expand its influence in this region will not only fail to pacify it but may ignite a long-standing smoldering national-religious conflict into a full-scale fire. But the EU bureaucracy, judging by the statements of Mogherini, has firmly decided to orientate itself toward the Balkans, that is, Kosovo's separation from Serbia," Pshenichnikov concluded.

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