EU & USA Taking The Western Balkans More Seriously

BELGRADE – There seems to be an inflation of special envoys or special representatives for the Western Balkans, after the Western actors designated or announced the designation of several such officials. While some argue that such actions are welcome and that they showcase more serious EU and US commitment to the region, the reasons for the establishment of these positions are still not entirely clear, and neither is the effect of such appointments.

First it was Matthew Palmer, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, who was designated by the State Department as a US special representative for the Western Balkans. Then the question arose whether the EU will also have its own special envoy for the region, as some have argued during the summer. But it turned out that the US will have one more special envoy of their own, as Richard Grenell, current US ambassador to Germany, was named as a “special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations” by president Donald Trump.

The moment for such appointments seems appropriate. The new European Commission will be established by the end of the year, and there are serious question marks above the future of EU enlargement, evidenced by lack of consensus among member states on opening negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Moreover, as the new government will be established in Kosovo following opposition victory, the normalization process is also expected to be resumed after a one-year break after Kosovo introduced 100% tariffs on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

However, there are different questions that need to be answered. First, why does USA need a special envoy for the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue when the special envoy for the entire region was named only last month? Second, can we expect an EU special envoy as well, as many have advocated? And third, do these appointments prove a more serious Western commitment to the Western Balkans?

Why does the United States need (two) special envoys?

The appointment of Matthew Palmer, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, as a special representative for the Western Balkans, was seen by many as evidence that the United States are now determined to kickstart the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.

As an experienced diplomat with both professional and personal ties to the region, Matthew Palmer was an obvious choice for such an appointment. However, Palmer remained on his position of Deputy Assistant Secretary, which by default concerns the Western Balkans, and it was not entirely clear where the need to designate him as a “special” representative comes from.

Many spectators were further baffled by the appointment of Richard Grenell, current US ambassador in Germany, as Donald Trump’s special presidential envoy for Serbia-Kosovo peace negotiations. Not only that Grenell is quite inexperienced in the region and the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, but has been a controversial figure in Germany, straining relations between the two countries with his statements about supporting the far right in Europe.

Ivan Vejvoda, Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, said in his interview for EWB that while Matthew Palmer’s appointment was most welcome due to his knowledge of the region, the appointment of ambassador Richard Grenell came as a surprise.

“We can have a number of interpretations. Is it a good cop, bad cop division of labour? Maybe, and maybe not”, says Vejvoda, adding that the visit of ambassador Grenell shows that “United States does not want to lose time.”

Michael Carpenter, Senior Director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and former foreign policy advisor to US Vice President Joe Biden, claims it is not clear to him “what qualifications Richard Grenell has to serve as a mediator of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue”.

“He does not seem to have any relevant experience for this role other than being a personal friend of Donald Trump’s, and his appointment usurps the role played thus far by Matthew Palmer”, said Carpenter for EWB.

The former high-ranking State Department official is also pessimistic about the results of this diplomatic move by president Trump.

“Especially now, following disclosures of Gordon Sondland’s rogue diplomacy, I do not see how anything good can come of this appointment”, concluded Carpenter.

The first Grenell’s visit to the region was indeed not seen as having a positive impact, as his tête-à-tête meeting with Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić was reportedly very unpleasant. Or this is at least the message that was sent from the office of the Serbian president.

Matthew Palmer himself recently stated that he and Grenell share a same goal, to resume the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and to “help the parties reach a comprehensive agreement on normalization.”

According to Palmer, the two diplomats are in daily communication and share a common strategy for resolving the issue of Kosovo. However, Palmer further clarified Grenell’s role in US’s diplomatic approach to this problem.

“I know that ambassador Grenell is especially interested to identify commercial, business and economic incentives that may be used to establish progress on the political front”, said Palmer.

This is line with the official statement by the US Embassy in Berlin after Grenell’s visit to the region, which says that “It is the strong belief of the Trump administration that economic development, job creation for young people and increased commerce opportunities are a key part of ensuring a durable peace”.

Palmer himself then visited the region at the beginning of November, sending a message of US support to kickstarting the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and restoring the credibility of the EU enlargement process, recently jeopardized by the lack of decision on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. This time the visit was presented in an overwhelmingly positive light, especially by the Serbian president.

Why does the EU need a special envoy?

After news of Palmer’s appointment broke out at the end of August, many spectators expected the EU to follow suit and appoint its own special representative for the Western Balkans, or at least for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, in which no progress could be seen for a long time.

There were already discussions about the benefits of appointing an EU special representative for the dialogue, which were made even more relevant once Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell was nominated as the next High Representative. Coming from perhaps the staunchest among the 5 EU non-recognizers of Kosovo’s independence, Borrell was considered to be a wrong person to move the dialogue forward.

However, there are different high officials of the EU which are expected to deal with the Western Balkans. These are primarily the High Commissioner for Foreign and Security Policy, position previously held by Federica Mogherini, and the Commissioner for Enlargement, held by Johannes Hahn. European Parliament appoints standing representatives for individual countries, as well as co-chairs of the Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committees for each of the Western Balkan hopefuls.

Therefore, the question looms why the EU needs a special representative and who will he or she be responsible to.

Ivan Vejvoda believes that the announcement of an EU special envoy sends a message that “there needs to be greater efficiency and not only endless meetings where there are only small steps on the very important issues”.

According to him, having a person who is much more devoted to the region than the High Representative could help the process of EU enlargement.

“There needs to be someone who, proverbially, wakes up every morning and thinks about this issue. Josep Borrell will have a whole plate of issues that he needs to think about, from China to Iran to the United States, and so I think that there has been a realisation that it is better to have an Envoy with whom he would work closely and thus maybe make the progress and the movement on finding a compromise more efficient.”, said Vejvoda in an interview for EWB.

On the other hand, Srđan Cvijić, Senior Policy Analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute and member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), does not believe that duplicating the High Representative’s Function would be helpful.

“At his European Parliament hearing the HR/VP Josep Borrell showed determination and resolve to lead this portfolio by himself. As Mr. Borrell stated, Western Balkans will be the top priority of the EU foreign policy during his term which indicates that he will devote a lot of his time and energy to the dossier”, says Cvijić for EWB.

According to him, “the EU must avoid sending conflicting messages to their counterparts in the WB, especially when it comes to sensitive issues such as the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue.”

Cvijić does not believe that the fact that Borrell comes from a country which does not recognize Kosovo’s independence means that having a special representative for the dialogue would be a better option.

“Mr. Borrell would be in the lead on the dossier so if we don’t trust his ability to extrapolate himself from the Spanish policy on Kosovo, what we would have at best is conflicting messages from the EU in the region. We had that in the previous period (in particular in the Serbia-Kosovo file) and it was extremely unhelpful.”

According to Cvijić, Borrell’s announcement during the hearing that his first foreign policy trip will be to Pristina “provides reassurance that he will be able to effectively represent the EU as a whole in this dossier.”

Addressing the question of who the special representatives would answer to, Cvijić believes that there is no other option except that he or she would be directly subordinate to the High Representative.

“The European Union Special Representatives (EUSR) are emissaries of the European Union with specific tasks abroad. They are directly subordinate to the HR/VP. I honestly don’t see another option. Theoretically a Special Representative for the Western Balkans could answer directly to the President of the European Commission, but I don’t think this is very likely.”, concludes Cvijić.

Appointment of envoys – signal that the West is upping its game in the Western Balkans?

The lack of decision about opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania by the European Council led many to question the credibility of EU accession process and the commitment of member states towards enlargement. This goes against the message sent by the new European Commission and the logic of appointing special envoys by both the US and the EU.

In fact, both the US officials and representatives of the EC have labelled this decision as a “historic mistake”, and have called on the member states to rethink their decision and their entire lacklustre approach to the Western Balkans. Whether there is a genuine rift among member states and between them and the Commission remains to be seen.

Ivan Vejvoda believes that the new Commission will put the Western Balkans high on the list of priorities, and that even the member states are supportive of enlargement as such.

“It is important and relevant to repeat that it is a great and a vast majority of EU member states who support EU membership of the Western Balkans. I would say that all countries are supportive, but that some are very cautious and are pulling the handbrake to the dynamic of the enlargement”, says Vejvoda.

Kristof Bender, deputy chairman at the European Stability Initiative (ESI), believes that a new approach is urgently needed, but is important to know the motivation behind the appointment of special representatives.

Special envoys can make a difference when it is clear what they should do. Having envoys for the Balkans just because things are not going well in itself will not change much, I think. If the idea is to push for border changes, as the US has been doing in 2018, then such an envoy would be harmful”, says Bender for EWB.

According to him, scepticism regarding EU enlargement will not go away anytime soon, and the best solution now would be a “credible interim goal that all EU member states can support and that is genuinely helpful for the Western Balkans: offering all Western Balkan countries a merit-based process leading to membership in the EU’s common market”.

“The EU would need to set out the same clear criteria for all West Balkan countries, regardless of their formal status in the accession process, assess the criteria strictly, fairly and regularly for all countries, and then allow those who meet the criteria to join the common market. This would allow all countries to pursue useful reforms, progress on merit, and move closer to EU membership, while escaping all those blockages and vetoes that currently exist at every formal step”, concludes Bender.

With the new Commission taking office by the end of the year, we will soon know more about the role of the announced EU special envoy, and also whether the member states will reconfirm their commitment to EU enlargement. In the meantime, the United States and their newly appointed envoys are very active and supportive of such an outcome. Whether they all “play for the same team” and whether their appointment truly means that the West is now taking the Western Balkans more seriously remains to be seen.