“Poor old Germany, too big for Europe, too small for the world” – this evergreen by Henry Kissinger is not worn out even in the days when Angela Merkel, no doubt one of the most influential European and world leaders in the 21st century, is leaving the scene. There is a lot of talk about her political legacy in the world, as the first lady who succeeded as German chancellor, but also the person who shared the first place in that position in the period after the Second World War, together with her political father, Helmut Kohl. The world will examine the accuracy of Kissinger’s remark about Germany for a long time, and in the context of Angela Merkel’s era, but as far as the Balkans, and especially Serbia, are concerned, Germany undoubtedly remained important and, in many ways, decisive for major political and economic processes.
In one of the farewell visits, before retiring after the upcoming parliamentary elections, Angela Merkel also visited Belgrade, and that is really a special privilege for Serbia. Her gesture to come only to Belgrade and talk to Serbian President Vučić, and to talk to all other Balkan countries as a group, in Tirana, is a strong message to her successor as to the extent to which he should pay attention to Balkan issues. Serbia really was the central place in Angela Merkel’s Balkan agenda, which she otherwise held quite high in her foreign policy priorities.
In Belgrade, they realized very late and in a very difficult way that Serbia and the Balkans are high on the scale of Angela Merkel’s interests. Boris Tadić received a famous look at a watch and addressing him as “young man” at a press conference in 2011, in response to his self-confidence that arresting Mladić and Karadžić was enough for Serbia’s progress towards the EU, and that the German chancellor must let Serbia pass on the Kosovo issue, where the Serbian president promised one thing and carried out quite another on the ground, including the erection of barricades and clashes with KFOR. Serbia and its then president wasted almost half of the mandate of the most influential European politician, trying to play her.
She had serious ambitions with Serbia, and that quickly began to come true. Of course, with a new partner in Belgrade, Aleksandar Vučić, who understood the rules of the game with Germany and its chancellor well from the first day. Merkel quite rightly treated Serbia as a key country in the Balkans, in the sense that the entire region depended on its stability or instability. Her policy was not to “break” Serbia and its interests, as Vučić’s predecessors misinterpreted it. Merkel “inserted” Serbia in several longer lasting processes, and in that way ensured its partnership, and thus its influence on the largest part of the Balkans. The first and most important was the process around Kosovo. It was designed in Berlin, handed over to the European Union for guidance, but with constant supervision and full control by its creator. Berlin has long set the expected outcomes of this process, and from time to time, German politicians remind us that Serbia cannot expect to join the EU before resolving relations over Kosovo. Berlin is also the main sponsor of the mission of Miroslav Lajčák, the special European envoy for the Kosovo process. The brutal torpedoing of the Donald Trump administration’s attempts to take over the Kosovo process from the EU will be especially remembered, so that the meeting in the White House and the signing of the agreement, planned for June last year, were thwarted by the sudden announcement of the indictment against Hashim Thaci, the then president of Kosovo.
Another process in which Germany “involved” Serbia is Angela Merkel’s child – the Berlin process, whose basic idea is the formation of an open economic zone in the Balkans, as a substitute for the slow accession of Balkan states to the European Union. Although both Germany and its Chancellor, but also the EU, under their influence, have invested a lot in this project, there is little chance that it will bring any effect after the departure of Angela Merkel. So far, it has not managed to integrate Balkan aspirants to EU membership, and its achievements, apart from rhetorical ones, have not been great. Perhaps the only good legacy behind the Berlin Process will be that it prompted the creation of the “Open Balkan”, an authentic Balkan initiative, certainly very similar to the Berlin Process, but qualitatively different and more potent.
And the third process in which Germany under Angela Merkel managed to “involve” Serbia is its strong inclusion in the supply chains of German industrial giants. This connection is strategic, long-term and the interests of Germany in Serbia and the Balkans are based on it, and especially the interests of Serbia to raise its economy and enter the “higher class” of economic partnership with the developed Europe. Investments by German giants, such as Siemens, Bosch, and Continental, confirm that Berlin is serious about Serbia, no matter how much it disagrees with it on some key political issues, especially Kosovo. But it is convinced that this important issue for the stability of the Balkans can be very difficult to solve without including the Serbian economy in German supply chains.
Since the arrival of Aleksandar Vučić, the authorities in Belgrade have well understood these intentions of Angela Merkel. Vučić understood them as an invitation to fully cooperate, regardless of the fact that it has both good and bad sides. But he concluded very clearly that the alternative is completely devastating for Serbia. Serbia could not realize any of its strategic interests through a confrontation with Germany, and it tried to do that until 2012. Even full cooperation with Berlin, as it has been since 2012, will not be a guarantee that Serbia will achieve all its state goals, but that will only mean that those goals were not even realistic. For example, Serbia’s membership in the EU in the next few years, or the return of Kosovo to the state and legal order of Serbia, or, perhaps, entry into the EU without resolving the Kosovo issue (according to the recipe of Cyprus). As a small country and, above all, a small economy, Serbia can hope for prosperity in the future only as a partner of Germany. After Angela Merkel, it will be just as big for Europe, as in Kissinger’s time, and that is a fact that Serbia has no interest in resisting.