The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) in Budapest and the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade jointly organized the second Western Balkans Conference this year entitled ‘Western Balkans – In the Limelight of Global Players’. The event that was held on 1 March 2018 consisted of two closed and one public panel. The latter took place at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade where the opening lecture was held by H.E. Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Firstly, Amb. Márton Schőberl, the Director of IFAT and Frank Spengler, the Resident Representative of KAS in Budapest welcomed the guests of the event. Both of them emphasized that the EU is paying increasing attention to the Western Balkans because of the security risks stemming from the growing rivalry among international actors in the region. As both Hungary and Germany are strongly supporting the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans, both the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Budapest are engaged in the promotion of exchanges in this topic.

After the welcoming speeches Minister Péter Szijjártó held his lecture. At first, referring to the situation of the European Union, he drew attention to the fact that the community is facing multiple challenges at the same time. The crisis in Ukraine, the migration pressure, the challenges related to energy security and Russia, the Brexit and the demand for enlargement in parallel put huge pressure on the European decision-makers. He also underlined that the competitiveness of the EU is decreasing and that such a tendency could be counterbalanced by the integration of the Western Balkans that is surrounded by EU member states. To achieve this, the EU should work out a proper strategy. All other actors active in the region – namely Russia, Turkey and China – have already had a strategy so the EU has no more time to waste. Talking about the Hungarian position, the Minister mentioned that Hungary supports the acceleration of negotiations and in many issues it calls for more understanding towards the problems of the Western Balkan countries but often these ideas are not in line with the mainstream position within the European Union.

The speech of the head of Hungarian diplomacy was followed by the roundtable discussion entitled ‘EU-Western Balkans: a Special Relationship’ that was moderated by Márton Ugrósdy, the Strategic Deputy Director of IFAT. The members of the panel discussion were:

Zsolt Németh, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Assembly, Hungary;
Knut Abraham, Head of Division, Bilateral Relations with the States of Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe as well as Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus, Federal Chancellery, Germany; and
Clive Rumbold, Deputy Head of Western Balkans Division, European External Action Service.

At first, Clive Rumbold spoke about the current state of affairs and the future of the EU enlargement process towards the Western Balkans. The Deputy Head of Division was absolutely certain that the future of the region is in the EU. The region is already an integrated part of the European economy and relations in the field of trade and investments continue to broaden. With reference to the recently published strategy of the European Commission, he pointed out that EU membership can be achieved in a tangible timeframe – within a generation – but this requires the immediate resolution of bilateral disputes in the region. Rumbold was glad to inform the audience about that Bosnia and Herzegovina managed to submit its responses to the Commission’s questionnaire just a day ago. He also drew attention to the already existing interconnectedness between the Western Balkans and the EU in areas such as handling the migration crisis, common defence policy, fighting terrorism and violent extremism. He also underlined that there was still great potential in the region and the EU would contribute to their developments.  As a positive example, he mentioned the establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office that aims to enhance people-to-people relations. He also pointed to the development of transportation networks as a key priority. Rumbold finally emphasized that the region is no longer the Balkans known from the 1990s burdened by wars and conflicts but one that shares the values of the European Union.

In order to outline the possible standpoint of the new German government for the audience, Knut Abraham read out from the text of the draft coalition agreement. The agreement was clear about the promotion of the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans as a priority for Germany but accompanied by strict expectations regarding the conditionality principle. The agreement has also foreseen greater support if the countries of the region make additional efforts to meet all these requirements. The Head of Division believed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is strongly engaged with the integration of the region. It is not an accident that on the centenary of the World War I, she launched a programme aiming to support the Western Balkans that is able to complement the very bureaucratic negotiation structures of the EU by its more informal frameworks. Concerning the Berlin Process he also highlighted the launch of the youth exchange programme and the initiatives facilitating connectivity.

Zsolt Németh expressed his concerns that the status quo in the Western Balkans is dangerous and problems can easily emerge. He called the EU lucky that so far the global players were not so active in the region. He thought that Russia is withdrawing from the region and now its influence is more or less limited to Serbia. He added that there should be more patience toward Serbia because it cannot be expected to cut its traditional ties from Russia from one day to another. Concerning the USA, he was uncertain about that whether the current administration would have a coherent policy toward the region. Beyond Russia and the United States, he also mentioned Turkey as an important actor, and he drew attention to that if the Euro-Atlantic community would like to fill the vacuum in the Western Balkans, then it should act now because there is not much time.  To the critics of autocratic tendencies in the Western Balkan countries, Mr. Németh believed that the Western partners do not fully consider the difficulties of governance under the challenging unstable circumstances. He also suggested greater empathy toward the region because these are still young states and nations, many of them are still in the state- and nation-building processes that are accompanied by many conflicts and tensions. Therefore the EU should also handle its own “stabilophobia” and it should ensure the continuity of the integration process.

After the contributions of the panellists, many questions were raised by the members of the audience that covered issues of demography, Serb-Albanian relations, the future of relations of Kosovo and the non-recognizing EU members.

The conference entitled ‘Western Balkans – In the Limelight of Global Players’ provided an excellent opportunity this year to encourage fruitful debate about the Euro-Atlantic future of the Western Balkans. Contrary to the conference last year, this time the focus was on the foreign policy considerations of players outside of the region. This allowed the audience to learn more about   perspectives that are different from or even contradicting to the European one.