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Refugees - the Unwanted Topic at Western Balkans Summit

Published on , , Vienna, Twitter: @AdelinaMarini

The refugee crisis overshadowed Germany’s effort to show leadership in the integration of Western Balkans countries that have been neglected by the EU for too long. In 2014, German chancellor Angela Merkel and the country’s president Joachim Gauck came out with an initiative to speed-up the European integration of the countries in the region that are not yet in the EU, also known as “Restern Balkans”. The initiative’s focus was on economic and infrastructural connectivity. Political questions were not the leading subject. The initiative was joined by Austria, who hosted this year’s summit of the Western Balkans. The Berlin Process enjoys the support of Croatia and Slovenia and will be joined next year by France and Italy, who will host the next summits. 

The intentions of keeping the process purely economic and thus carrying positive messages both for the inter-Balkan integration and the European one, were dashed this year by the unprecedented refugee and migrant crisis that flooded almost all of Europe. The subject is causing strong colics in the EU itself, but ever since the Western Balkan route turned into a major one into the Union the stomach discomfort spread over the EU’s relations with candidate-countries of the region, especially Serbia and Macedonia. And even though the subject has been a leading one for European media over the last few weeks, Germany has been openly hesitant to let it overshadow the initial agenda. This explains the attempt to pull the subject forward to precede the start of the summit when early in the morning of August 27th the foreign ministers of Serbia, Macedonia, Germany, Austria, and Commissioner for Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn (Austria, EPP) gave a press-conference that turned into an unpleasant illustration of the real state of relations between the EU and the Western Balkans and especially between Brussels and Belgrade. 

Frankly and personally about the refugee crisis

At the opening of the press-conference Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz pleaded for focusing of attention on the Western Balkan refugee and migrant route, for many refugees are using it and expressed hope that a European solution would be found. His German colleague Frank-Walter Steinmeier in his turn could not hide his dissatisfaction by the fact that this was turning into the dominating subject in the second Western Balkans summit.  "Certainly we will talk about migration, but we should not forget the reason the Berlin Process was launched – to speed-up coherence with the EU and to deal with conflicts where they exist. We will be dealing with two large subjects and we should not underestimate their importance, underlining the fact that people of the Western Balkans should get closer – connectivity, infrastructure, important projects, but also direct contacts between people”, he noted. Mr Steinmeier reminded region countries that besides needing help, they also have the responsibility to deal with refugees in a humane manner.

The star of the press-conference was Serbia’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić who gave a highly provocative speech. He positioned himself as a spokesman for the Western Balkans countries on the refugee subject, although to him it also was not of high priority (a separate article about that). The former spokesman of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević directed sharp criticism at the European Union, some of which legitimate, while others showed the tremendous differences in perception on foreign policy and solving conflicts around the world. He also argued that this was not about refugees and migrants but about migration of peoples. In his words, in 2008, when he became home affairs minister of Serbia, the number of asylum applications was 77 while this year alone 94 000 applications were filed in Serbia. 

Dačić once again condemned Hungary’s decision to build a wall along the 175 kilometre long border with Serbia and stated that this could not be an adequate solution. Moreover, not having a prepared speech, totally impromptu, Dačić continued hotly: “You should be aware of this: for years now you have been saying that asylum-seekers come to the EU from Serbia and Macedonia but we can say that the migrants are coming from the EU. So we are asking: when do you plan to control the problem and how do you expect to prevent them from coming in? You are not going to achieve that with one million euro as you are planning to give”, warned Serbia’s top diplomat. He talks about the 1.5 million Euros that the EC allocated additionally for aiding the humanitarian efforts of Serbia and Macedonia in dealing with refugees and migrants in the two states.

Having completely abandoned the diplomatic tone and using the excuse that he could be even more direct ‘but we are friends”,  he continued his criticism by emphasizing that Serbia was expected to come up with a plan for dealing with the migrants while the EU itself still doesn’t have one. “You make your own action plans and then ask for ours!”.

The faces of German Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Commissioner Hahn were showing their discomfort and annoyance with the Serbian foreign minister’s outpouring, who continued with the criticism reminding that a possible EU summit on migration in October would be too late. This summit should have been held much earlier, he said. Dačić did not forget to remind that the refugee crisis had a background. This is an often repeated theory not only in Serbia but in most of the new EU member states as well. They see the refugee and migrant crisis as a result of the large countries’ foreign policy. "I am not sure whether all the countries that participated in the exacerbation of the situation in those countries are participating equally in solving the migration problem. It's easy to create problems in other parts of the world, while we should pay the price. Serbia and Macedonia definitely are not responsible for the problems in the countries where migrants are coming from”, said Dačić, while the German foreign minister looked like the company was becoming exceedingly unpleasant. 

The Serbian Foreign Minister went even further in reminding that Serbia is home to thousands of refugees from previous wars. He especially stressed on the ones from Kosovo. When mentioning the number of Kosovo refugees he neglected to mention the main culprits for that war in particular. This omission stood out notably at the background of Mr Dačić’s call for the EU to finally open the first negotiation chapters with Serbia. Grounds for this opening are seen by Belgrade in the four agreements, signed in Brussels between Serbia and Kosovo on the eve of the Vienna summit. This did not by any means exhaust Ivica Dačić’s mentor mood and he urged that Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and especially Greece be included in the Berlin Process, for they are a part of the migration crisis. “You can react urgently and open the perspective for us, instead of erecting walls, thus fencing Serbia out. What political message is this to us, who are left outside these walls?”, asked the Serbian first deputy prime minister. 

His proposal to include Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Greece was not eagerly accepted by Commissioner Hahn or German Foreign Minister Steinmeier. According to the Austrian Commissioner, a distinction should be made – the Berlin Process deals with the coherence of the Western Balkans and there is no reason to work case by case by including other countries. What is important is that the refugees remain close to their countries of origin, so that they can return as soon as the problem in their homeland is solved. “Perhaps we should consider a Marshall Plan for the affected regions and we are doing so” he concluded answering a question by this website. 

Frank-Walter Steinmeier was even more explicit in stating that not everything “that shocks us in the Balkans and which needs a solution should become a topic of the Berlin Process”. Host Sebastian Kurz warned that if a European approach were not found more states would go their separate way and build walls. He called for EU self-criticism by pointing out that it is a shame for a member state to redirect refugees to non-members. Greece is even aiding their travel with ferryboats, Mr Kurz noted. Later, in front of journalists, Croatia’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Vesna Pusić stated, that if the EU were unable to solve the problem at its origin it should solve it where the problem is. This means sending experts and money to Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia. Regardless if we are talking about EU member states or not, the problem must be solved on the spot, she said and underlined that Croatia is not going to build walls. She answered euinside's question on what she thinks about countries that are doing it laconically: “Nothing good".  

There was a mismatch of priorities during the Prime Ministers’ statements as well. After the finish of the brief summit Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann announced that the issue of the refugees and granting asylum played an important role in the summit. He sent out a loud call against those politicians who are betting on hate speech and division. “We should learn the lessons of history”, he said. German Chancellor Angela Merkel began with the agreements, signed by Belgrade and Priština two days previous. Regarding the refugee crisis, she pointed out that the Western Balkan countries are transit and, being in a difficult economic situation themselves, they need aid. “As members of the European Union, it is our responsibility to ease their problems”, she said but reminded that those states are a source of asylum-seekers too. 

Was democracy sacrificed?

Furthermore, she announced that an agreement was reached candidate countries or the ones about to start negotiations to be considered safe states in terms of human rights and thus for them an asylum will not be granted. This is also written in the declaration after the meeting: “At the same time the participants note that all Western Balkans countries have achieved significant progress in the areas of rule of law and respect of fundamental rights. The Council of the EU noted with regard to the Western Balkan countries that a majority of national lists of safe countries of origin include these countries. This suggests that the Western Balkan countries could be considered as safe countries of origin by all EU Member States”, says in the document.

It must be explained to people from these countries that they have hardly any chance of receiving asylum, because it should be granted to people running away from armed conflicts, pointed out Angela Merkel. And although there is a huge difference between conditions in the countries torn by military conflicts and the post-conflict states of former Yugoslavia, especially Kosovo, which is the largest origin of asylum-seekers in the EU, the ease with which a connection between a safe country and a country with rule of law and respect for human rights is made is surprising. It confirms the biggest fears of many in the countries of the region, who often blame the EU that it is willing to sacrifice democracy in the name of Balkan stability. 

Journalists of the region often complain of repressions, and in some countries like Montenegro and Macedonia you are even talking about violence and murders. Non-governmental organisations and politicians of the region also often claim that there is virtually no democracy in these states. European Commission reports on these states’ progress towards compliance with accession criteria also show explicitly that these states could be called anything but states with respect for human rights and rule of law. Equating stability with democracy could carry out short-term political tasks but is extremely dangerous in the long run, for it encourages those who have interest in establishing and stabilising their democraturas. And this will surely come back to the EU like a boomerang. 

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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