EU Expects Trouble Coming From Catalonia, But Real Danger Comes From The Balkans
Adelina Marini, October 9, 2017
The EU is watching with some concern the developments of the situation in Spain, created by the desire of Catalonia to declare independence, as it could shake the Union in two separate directions - economic and political. A possible secession of the rich Spanish province could cause serious quakes in the Spanish economy, which underwent tough reforms and managed to emerge from the crisis without having to implement a rescue program like Greece, Ireland or Portugal. Possible economic shocks in the fourth largest economy in the euro area could seriously damage the economic performance of the area itself, which is now almost fully recovered from the severe debt and financial crisis. Even Greece is about to come out of its bailout program, thus closing this troublesome chapter in the history of the common currency.
Such a scenario in Spain could also prove a serious obstacle to the euro area plans about starting a new wave of integration deepening for which the moment is ripe, everything is ready, and they are only waiting for the formation of a government in Germany. A separation of Catalonia may delay this process as it could trigger a political crisis in Madrid. Under such circumstances, Spain will not be able to agree on anything until it straightens out the situation at home.
Although the Spanish drama can have an impact on the EU and especially on the euro area, the biggest problem is the echo of Catalonia in Serbia. A problem that Brussels could easily underestimate, which would cost it dearly. As soon as the clashes between Spanish law enforcement and ordinary Catalans, who wanted to vote in the illegal referendum, began everyone closely following the situation in the Balkans started seeing analogies with the former Yugoslavia, especially with Kosovo. The European Commission hastened to point out that there is no room for comparison between the two cases, the least of the reasons being that Spain is part of the EU and Serbia is not. The context is also different.
Belgrade, however, is of a different opinion, and this is a big problem for the EU, because the normalisation of relations with Kosovo is part of Serbia's EU membership negotiation process. An entire chapter is devoted to this normalisation, Chapter 35, which will be closed under the same principle as chapters 23 and 24, which cover the rule of law and democracy as a whole, meaning last, when it is certain that the process is irreversible. Reactions coming from the government in Serbia suggest, however, that EU Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn (Austria, EPP) and EU High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security Federica Mogherini (Italy, Socialists and Democrats), who mediates in the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština, are facing a great challenge.
To President Aleksandar Vučić - former minister in the Slobodan Milošević government during the wars that accompanied the collapse of former Yugoslavia - the „Catalonia” case is a good time to legitimise the replacement of history that has been going on in Serbia in recent years, ever since his party came to power in coalition with the Socialists of Ivica Dačić, a former spokesman for Slobodan Milošević. Moreover, Aleksandar Vučić will seek to get rid of Chapter 35, which is the biggest obstacle to Serbia's accession to the EU because its closure would mean such a solution to Kosovo's status which is as close as possible to recognising it. This will, however, fail to solve the problem either, as there are five countries in the EU that do not recognise the independence of Kosovo, and Spain is one of them.
Aleksandar Vučić has written a letter to Brussels institutions, Serbian media report, directly asking the question of how is it that the request for the independence of Catalonia is illegal, whereas at the same time the Kosovo case is legal. According to Vučić, the EU is showing double standards. The letter has not yet been sent to Brussels, and it is unlikely to happen on 10 October when Prime Minister Ana Brnabić will appear before the European Parliament for a hearing. With such a letter, however, Aleksandar Vučić is actually throwing a gauntlet at the EU, that will place the negotiation process with Serbia in the freezer, for the Serbian president seems to have forgotten why Kosovo declared independence and why it was recognised by the international community. This happened after Slobodan Milošević started an ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, which led to a NATO intervention.
After that, Kosovo's independence has been a logical step, taken after many years of seeking an international solution. Catalonia is very far from such a scenario and, in the 21st century, it can hardly be assumed that it will come to that, especially when we are talking about an EU member state. There are two problems facing the Union - one is how to preserve the geopolitical balance in the Western Balkans for which Serbia is strategically important, and the other one is moral - keeping a blind eye to the current substitution of facts in Serbia's newest history would be the greatest treason to the Union itself, which was built over the ruins of the Second World War after achieving clear awareness and recognition of the reasons that led to the bloodiest event of 20th-century Europe.
The Serbian government categorically refuses to recognise the crimes of the Milošević regime. Moreover, it does not even try to hide its sympathies for this regime anymore. This is a serious obstacle to reconciliation in the region, where relations between almost all countries have never been worse since the end of the war. Frequent provocations, verbal shoot-outs, tinkering with sensitive war issues, and changing facts happen every day, especially along the Belgrade-Zagreb axis. Serbia's role as a conductor of Russian geopolitics should also not be ignored.
Belgrade's refusal to align its foreign policy regarding Russia with that of the Union is more than indicative of the fact that Serbia is on the European path in words only. Government actions in recent months have shown that work is being done in the exact opposite direction. In the summer, Vučić announced the start of a national dialogue on Kosovo, which was completely misinterpreted in Europe as a clear European self-definition of Serbia. The way this dialogue is developing and the signals coming from the government show that it is actually a mobilisation of nationalism in Serbian society.
During a quadrilateral meeting in Bulgaria between the leaders of Greece, Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria, Aleksandar Vučić said the „Catalonia” case is currently the biggest problem for Serbs - not poverty, unemployment, brain drain, corruption, lack of media freedom and the rule of law, but the fact that Brussels considers the Catalonia case to be illegal and the Kosovo one legal. The reaction (or the lack of one, rather) of Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, whose country will be taking over the rotating presidency of the Council on January 1 and has set the accelerated integration of the Western Balkan countries as its top priority, should have come as a surprise for Brussels. Borissov did not respond to Vučić's speech at all, which means that he is not prepared for this extremely difficult and sensitive topic. The question, however, is whether the EU itself is.
Another major challenge for the region, as well as undoubtedly a provocation, is the forthcoming publication of the declaration on the survival of the Serbs by the presidents of Serbia and the Serbian entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina - Aleksandar Vučić and Milorad Dodik. So, it might be a good idea that Brussels watches out so it is not surprised from behind, while looking at Madrid and Barcelona. The great danger once again comes from the Balkans. Serbia expects to open at least five negotiating chapters by the end of the year. The EU should very carefully consider how to approach this, because each opening of a new chapter is a legitimisation of the policy of Vučić, named “the new Slobo” by local observers. The EU underestimated Putin, underestimated Erdoğan, underestimated Orbán and Borisov on the home stage, and is now about to do the same with Vučić.
Translated by Stanimir Stoev