Ursula von der Leyen has framed the Balkan nations’ choice of potential partners as a question of ‘democracy’ vs. ‘autocracy’
The last Balkan country to actually ascend to European Union membership was Croatia, in 2013. And this year, the Balkans have had to contend with the spectacle of Brussels gushing over Ukraine and rushing to grant Kiev candidate status.
For context, it took Albania five years to receive candidate status (which it did in 2014). It took Serbia three years (a candidate since 2012) and Montenegro two years (a candidate since 2010). Just imagine: You’ve been waiting years for Brussels to make a commitment, or to even show signs that it’s serious about the relationship, and suddenly it only has eyes for Kiev and seems to have forgotten about your existence.
So it’s not exactly surprising that the citizens of these countries would start feeling like maybe the bloc simply isn’t marriage material.
Even in Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, confidence in European institutions has recently dipped. So it makes sense that the EU is running over there now for a big summit, worried about someone else stealing their loyalty – specifically Russia or China.
Serbia is a big friend of Russia, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said recently that Belgrade’s ties with Albania and North Macedonia in particular have never been better – even though Albania has been viewed over the past couple of decades by the West as one of its staunchest allies, including militarily, by committing troops to its efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Serbia isn’t onboard with the EU and its anti-Russian sanctions and agenda, refusing to march in lockstep with Brussels on its foreign policy towards Russia. Vučić refused to sign the summit’s Tirana Declaration, whose top clause referred to Russia’s “escalating war in Ukraine,” and reiterated his disagreement with the bloc’s sanctions policy. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Brussels could see a threat to its anti-Russia agenda in all of this, or be concerned that other Balkan countries that followed the Western sanctions lead could feasibly start comparing their economic and energy challenges to Serbia’s situation, which still enjoys the benefits of cheap Russian gas, comprising about 85% of its gas imports.
So how does the EU handle this powder keg? With all the subtlety of a hand grenade. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen rhetorically dive bombed into the region this week, pointing out that the world is divided between autocracies and democracies and that the Balkans needed to pick a side. “We notice very clearly that the Ukraine war is not only Russia’s cruel war against Ukraine, but also a question of whether autocracies and the law of the strongest will prevail. Or whether democracy and the rule of law will prevail. And this struggle is also noticeable in the Western Balkans,” Von der Leyen said.
She presumably considers the European Union to be among the democracies. Nothing says “democracy” like an unelected bureaucrat traveling to a foreign country and throwing around demands. “We are the closest partner and that is why the discussion is also about you having to decide which side you are on,” Von der Leyen said.
Do the citizens of these countries get a say in this ‘discussion’? You’d think that she would have at least paid lip service to democracy by pointing out, “Hey, this is all something that you obviously would want to put to your own citizens for consideration.” Or hey, maybe they’d rather stick with a position of strategic non-alignment in the interests of their own sovereignty? Instead, she sounded like a mean girl from a grade school clique who caught the Balkans eating lunch in the cafeteria with an opposing posse.
The European Commission president then proceeded to remind the Balkans that the EU is the region’s “closest partner,” which is why they should choose the EU. It’s in the Tirana Declaration, presumably drafted by the EU – since Vučić pointed out that he had no role in doing so, and likely neither did other Balkan leaders – “The EU remains the region’s closest partner, main investor and trading partner and principal donor. The exceptional scale and range of this support should be made more visible and reflected proactively by the Partners in their public debate and communication, so that citizens can appreciate the concrete benefits of the partnership with the EU.”
That’ll probably go over really well, because people really love it when the guy who offers to pay the bill constantly reminds everyone that he’s paying the bill – and demands everyone promotes how generous he is, and what a great catch he would be, and how you should be totally loyal to him, so that maybe one day
– if you’re lucky, and reliably denounce Russia and China – he might just put a ring on it. Or not.
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