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EU enlargement, the (meagre) results of the Italian EU Council Presidency

On January 13, with the handover to Latvia, the Italian Presidency of the Council of the European Union has reached its end. And also with regard to EU enlargement policy, the results of the semester remain meagre. The only formal step ahead for the countries of the Western Balkans towards European integration has been the opening of four new chapters of negotiations with Montenegro, in addition to the launch of the Adriatic-Ionian macro-regional strategy. Serbia and Albania, the major countries of the region, are not moving, nor are Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The importance of a friend in Brussels

As argued by Dorian Jano, a researcher at the Marin Barleti University in Tirana, several empirical conditions are needed for a candidate state to progress towards European integration. Besides having a market economy and a liberal democracy, the EU Council (where decisions on the issue are still taken by unanimity) should be chaired by a member country in favour of enlargement and able to build a consensus among all 28. This has been the case in the past with the German Presidency which preceded the Helsinki Summit in 1999, or the Greek one at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003.

The year 2014 could therefore have been envisaged as a good year for the region: two countries that have traditionally been friends and supporters of the Balkans (Greece and Italy) held the EU Council Presidency, and could have capitalized on the previous year, in which several nodes seemed close to a solution, primarily with the agreement on the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

In fact, 2014 was a lost year. On the one hand, the Greek Presidency showed little interest in its historical role as a friend of the Balkans, apart from the veto against Macedonia. On the other hand, time was wasted on the campaigns and coalition-building surrounding the European elections as well as the renewal of parliaments in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo. And the Italian presidency failed to deliver almost anything on the subject.

The Italian Presidency of the EU Council and the Balkans

The Italian Presidency of the EU Council held from the beginning an ambiguous relationship with the Balkans, and more generally with EU foreign policy as a whole. If lip service was given to enlargement as a priority, this eventually disappeared among other dossiers. One could perhaps place hope in the visit of the then foreign minister Federica Mogherini to the capitals of the region in late July 2014. But this too turned out to be a stunt in favour of the appointment of Mogherini as new EU foreign policy chief, a personal obsession for Matteo Renzi, rather than a true indication of how the region was deemed a priority for Italian foreign policy.

The objectives that Italy had set itself with regard to the European integration of the Balkans included the decision on a date for the opening of negotiations with Albania, the opening of new negotiating chapters with Serbia, Montenegro, and Turkey, and the revival of the prospect of membership for Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, all of which were blocked by internal and external vetoes.

What the Italian Presidency has actually managed to obtain, in the conclusions of the EU Council of 16 December 2014, is the opening of four new chapters of negotiations with Montenegro: chapters 18 (statistical regulations), 28 (protection of health and consumers), 29 (customs union) and 33 (financial measures and budget), bringing to 16 over 35 the chapters opened with the smallest country in the region. There was no progress for Serbia, which was unable to obtain the opening of Chapter 32 (financial controls), despite the assurances of the Italian ambassador in Belgrade. Likewise, Albania is still waiting for a date to start negotiations, despite having obtained the status of candidate country last June.

As for the three laggard countries in the enlargement process, the signs of optimism transcend the role held by the Italian Presidency. Kosovo has finally signed its Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU, which, following the Lisbon Treaty, will not have to go through the ratification of the 28 member states. Bosnia and Herzegovina has seen a British/German diplomatic initiative designed to relaunch the process of European integration, delaying the complex debate on constitutional reform; in this case as well, Rome has not participated diplomatically and initially did not even express a position on the proposal. As for Macedonia, 2014 has offered no new hope given the eternal return of the Greek veto over the name issue - a veto illegal under the Interim Agreement of 1995, as recognized by the International Court of Justice in 2011 in the case of the integration of the country into NATO.

No progress either, finally, for Turkey, where several open issues (from the repression of internal dissent, to the role in the Syrian scenario) have prevented what would have been perhaps the only sensible step to take, i.e. the opening of negotiating chapters 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights) and 24 (justice, freedom and security) as a way to begin a serious dialogue with the Turkish authorities on civil and political rights in the country. Again, despite the verbal support of France and Italy, the EU Council has not given the green light. The latest negotiating chapter with Turkey, the 22nd, on regional policy, was opened in October 2013.

The strategy for the Adriatic-Ionian macro region

One more European instrument initiated during this Italian Presidency, and probably the only long-term project for the region, has been the strategy for the Adriatic-Ionian macro region (EUSAIR). The Adriatic-Ionian strategy is a platform for territorial cooperation at the decentralized level among the regions facing the two seas, and it was strongly supported by the President of the Marche region, Gian Mario Spacca. The EUSAIR is centred on four main themes (fishing, sustainable tourism, environmental quality, and infrastructure) and comes as an addition to the already existing EU macro-regional strategies for the Baltic, the Alps and the Danube Basin.

The Adriatic-Ionian strategy brings together four EU member states (Italy, Greece, Slovenia and Croatia) and four enlargement countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania), two of which, in hindsight, have little in common with a maritime dimension. However, the EUSAIR does not provide for additional resources with respect to the various EU and bilateral funds. Moreover it excludes Kosovo and Macedonia due to the vetoes of Greece and Serbia, in a way that is inconsistent with the objective of supporting regional cooperation in the Balkans. Skopje and Pristina can fortunately still participate in related initiatives, such as those on academic cooperation.

Support with words rather than deeds

As in other dossiers, also with regard to EU enlargement, the results of the Italian Presidency of the EU Council amounted to more words than concrete actions. Italy has yet to fully understand the importance, also in economic terms, that the Balkan region can have for the country. The diplomatic initiative in the region is shifting more and more towards Germany, to which its importance has instead always been very clear.

Now the Presidency of the EU Council passes to Latvia and Luxembourg, countries with different strategic priorities, from the war in Ukraine to the banking union. We will see in 2015 if, as honest brokers, they will prove more favourable to the Balkans than the Italian support, too often limited to rhetoric.

First published inĀ Italian for East Journal

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