Greece’s EU presidency pledges to ‘connect’ the Western Balkans

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Greece's EU presidency will contribute to the European integration of the Western Balkans, promoting transport and energy infrastructure. Belgrade has expressed hope that Athens will promote enlargement, despite it not being one of its key priorities. EurActiv Greece and EurActiv Serbia report.

Greece had always been a strong supporter of EU enlargement policy, especially in the Western Balkans, said Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Kourkoulas.

“We will use our role as Presidency of the EU Council to contribute, in concrete terms, to the European integration of the region,” he said.

The minister added that Athens would encourage the intensification of work on the negotiating chapters with the countries which had started accession talks, “which will soon include Serbia”, in accordance with the established procedures.

Serbia and Kosovo

Serbia obtained candidate status in March 2012 and EU leaders approved the opening of accession talks in June 2013. They decided that the EU-Serbia intergovernmental conference, to mark the formal beginning of the accession negotiations, should be held in January at the latest.

Belgrade hopes that formal accession negotiations can begin already in December.

According to Serbian officials, the normalisation of relations with Kosovo will be included in Chapter 35, “Other Issues.” In most accession negotiations, this is the last chapter to be closed, with the understanding that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

Kourkoulas made clear that Belgrade had already demonstrated “strong commitment” to improving its relations with Kosovo.

“We believe that Serbia has fully demonstrated its strong commitment to the accession process, including meeting the key priority of improving relations with Pristina. The EU and Serbia will continue the process of improvement of relations during 2014,” he said.

'Connecting' the Balkans

According to Kourkoulas, another priority for the Greek presidency will be to promote the “connectivity” of the Western Balkans in the transport and energy sectors, aiming to contribute to growth, competitiveness and employment in the region.

“Greece will also try to promote during our Presidency the idea of connectivity, i.e. of better connecting the Western Balkans both internally and with the EU, through infrastructure projects in the vital transport and energy sectors,” he said.

The European Commission made reference to Greek connectivity in its recent Enlargement Package. Regional initiatives focusing on cooperation between enlargement countries have also included similar ideas.

“Discussing various parameters of this general concept and ways of carrying it forward could be the main topic of an EU-Western Balkans conference organised by the Greek Presidency in 2014,” the Greek diplomat said.

Belgrade has expectations from Athens

Tanja MišÃ„ević, Serbia’s chief EU negotiator, said she was “completely sure” that Greece, and then Italy, which takes on the rotating presidency on 1 July 2014, will give all the necessary attention to her country’s accession talks, despite Athens not having enlargement strategy as a key priority.

MišÃ„ević told EurActiv Serbia that there were three reasons for that: firstly, Greece is the closest EU member state to the Western Balkans region; secondly, because the effort is expected to be positive for business, especially important during the economic crisis; thirdly, because Greece “is traditionally close to certain states and has trouble with certain other states [in the region]”. She did not mention Macedonia, which Greece calls the 'Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia' (FYROM), due to a territorial and historical dispute over the name 'Macedonia'.

Referring to the possibility of opening talks with Serbia in December, MišÃ„ević said that her country was making greats strides towards achieving this goal, but that “we will not be less glad if that happens during the Greek tenure of the EU presidency, i.e. in early January, which would be a successful opening of their semester at the EU's helm”.

Asked if Belgrade had already contacted Greek officials about the issue, she said that her country was in very good contact with the Greek ambassador in Belgrade, Constantine Economides, while Serbian officials would pay an official visit to Athens during the Greek presidency.

Western Balkans toward a 'two-speed' enlargement?

In the meantime, analysts argue that EU enlargement in the Western Balkans is gradually becoming a two-speed process, taking into account the political circumstances and the progress the candidate members have made. It seems that Serbia, Montenegro and Albania are taking the lead, while Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are lagging behind.

Maja Bobić, secretary-general of the pro-European NGO European Movement in Serbia, shares the same view.

“Formally, it is not like this but actually it is going like this. We have some countries where something is happening and the process is going on like Montenegro and Serbia and soon Albania," she told EurActiv, adding "there are those who are really stagnating and this stagnation means in fact going backwards because you are losing the connection from the neighbours and the region itself”.

“This is really quite dangerous. I don’t think that it should be artificially overcome but it is something that is quite obvious'” she continued.

"The difference will increase since some countries are already in the process, the dynamics and the interaction with the EU are increasing, the changes in the monitoring and all these, and this will produce effects in the political-economic sense in the long run."

Bobić expects 2014 to 2015 to bring a "new quality" to Serbia's accession negotiations, with more focus on reforms and engaging public administrative officials and politicians, but then the "entire society and other institutions in issues that are of everyday concern for the citizens".