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The Balkan summit in Slovenia: Timing and geopolitics key to enlargement

Slovenia is seriously preparing for its presidency of the European Union, at least when it comes to the issue of the Western Balkans, which will be one of the most important points of its 6-month presidency from July 1st. The President of Slovenia, Borut Pahor, hosted the leaders of the region at the traditional annual mini-summit called “Brdo-Brioni”, which has been organized for ten years, and it is already a good routine. What comes out of the routine is Pahor’s tour of all Balkan capitals before the summit in Slovenia, during which he tried to better prepare the meeting with the heads of state. Such commitment has not been seen often in the Balkans in recent years.

The good energy of the Slovenian president had a double motive. One is certainly Slovenia’s desire to return the Western Balkans to the EU’s main agenda during its presidency, so that the region gets a new impulse for its accession to the Union, after years of stagnation. The second motive is less strategic, and concerns the recently published “non-paper”, which allegedly originated in Slovenia and which brought a lot of turbulence, both in the Balkans and in the EU, because it advocated drawing new state borders in the Balkans.

The first ambition of the host was fully realized. The leaders of the Western Balkan countries gladly supported Slovenia’s call for the Union to speed up the integration of the region as much as possible, insisting that the Balkan accession be treated as a geopolitical issue. These are important elements of the declaration from Brdo near Kranj, because they emphasize two aspects that are in many ways key to the European perspective of the Balkans.

One is the time, that is, an incentive for both sides to speed up the accession process as much as possible. It is precisely the large flow of time without a noticeable approaching of the Western Balkans to the Union that is the factor that increases the fatigue on both sides – in the EU from enlargement, and in the Balkans from the hard process of adjustment. This prolonged transition affects the growth of non-European influences in the Western Balkans, which introduces us to another aspect of the Slovenian initiative, and that is the insistence on the geopolitical dimension of the integration of the Western Balkans. It is clear and means – the less of the EU in the Western Balkans, the more of Russia, China, Turkey, Arab countries. Slovenia’s focus on these two key factors of Balkan integration into the EU (time and geopolitics) is not new. Some Balkan think-tanks have been insisting on them for several years, but without much support from Brussels. The novelty is that one EU member, as the next presiding country of the European Council, is warning about them for the first time.

The second ambition of the Slovenian president, on the eve of the Western Balkan summit, was not even close to being realized as the previous one. Namely, Pahor’s initiative for the summit participants to agree that the borders in the Balkans cannot be changed did not pass. Therefore, the idea of once again rejecting ideas of a new redrawing of the internal Balkan state borders, and thus denying any involvement of Slovenia in the creation of “non-paper”, which advocated this new architecture, did not pass.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announced even before his arrival in Slovenia that he would oppose such an obligation, which he confirmed at the meeting itself. The final statement, therefore, was left without a narrative about borders, except in the form of a statement that, with EU membership, borders in the Balkans will become less important, which will increase the space for cooperation and pluralism of national identities.

Vučić’s reaction was not destructive, nor was it without a political or legal basis. It is, in part, the result of diplomatic logic that there is no point in political declarations confirming the principles of “higher-ranking” documents, and when it comes to the immutability of borders, these are certainly UN documents, as well as the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. Furthermore, this reaction of Serbia has basis in the principle that was used when the republics of the former Yugoslavia were demarcated three decades ago, based on the opinion of a commission headed by Robert Badinter, hired as an arbitrator by the Hague Conference on the Former Yugoslavia. Especially its Opinion No.3 of 11 January 1992, according to which the demarcation lines “may be changed only by free and mutual agreement”. Finally, Aleksandar Vučić’s “veto” on the position on the immutability of borders derives from Serbia’s current position in the negotiations on Kosovo, according to which the possibility of a mutual agreement on the correction of border lines cannot be ruled out as an important part of the future compromise solution.

The episode around the borders ended, obviously easily, at the level of difference in two pragmatic positions. One Slovenian, according to which the leaders of the Western Balkans were supposed to reject speculations from the famous “non-paper”, whose authorship (or mediation) was attributed to Slovenia. And other, Serbian, which keeps the issue of state borders in the sphere of international law and generally accepted documents. With, of course, the possibility they provide for the borders to change, if both interested parties agree on that.

There could be no consensus on that, but there was on other important issues, so the summit in Slovenia and its final statement left a positive impression on its participants: “The meeting was decent and good” (Aleksandar Vučić), “Final document is good” (Zoran Milanović), “The meeting was held at the right time” (Milo Đukanović). This is an unusually positive epilogue for the relatively frequent meetings of Balkan leaders and as such a very encouraging introduction to the upcoming Slovenian presidency of the European Council.

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