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Landmark agreement between Serbia and Kosovo ahead of West Balkan summit

Several media report on what is deemed by EU High Representative EC Vice-President Mogherini as a “milestone in the process towards the normalization” of relations between Serbia and Kosovo ahead of today’s West Balkan summit in Vienna. Corriere Della Sera notes that seven years after Kosovo gained its independence from Serbia, the country still did not have its own international telephone area code. With the agreement, Serbian minority groups that have remained in Kosovo will be better protected, while Kosovo will finally have its own international area code, +383, something that is of great symbolic value, as Serbia knows that recognising Kosovo is a door to the EU.

Jutarnji list notes that both sides gave completely different interpretations of the meaning immediately after the signing, with each party claiming victory. Večernji list says it is not yet clear whether the signed agreements actually mean success for either side, as their contents have not been published. Erich Rathfelder writes in Tageszeitung that the two countries can surely not expect an exchange of ambassadors and the elimination of diplomatic hurdles. Other media note that Serbia hopes the first chapter of accession negotiations can start after this deal.

Although the Western Balkans summit in Vienna today was supposed to focus on European integration and cross-border infrastructural and energy projects, the main topic will be the refugee crisis. Die Presse believes the final declaration is supposed to say that the Western Balkan countries must fulfil their border control obligations as EU partners, while the EU must not abandon them. Several leaders spoke to the media prior to the Western Balkans summit. German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz wrote in Delo that the strongest efforts for the European perspective of all Western Balkans countries will be renewed at the Summit, and the region will receive their continued support.

They state that the door to the EU must remain open for the Western Balkans and the EU is, by all measures, imperfect without the Western Balkans. Commissioner Hahn also told Der Kurier that joint projects and the European perspective are to help the countries of the Western Balkans find common ground again. Acting as referee during a football match that was hosted within the frame of the Western Balkans Conference, he told ORF1 his goal is to help the people locally to make it unnecessary for them to leave their country.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said in an interview with Der Standard that much more EU aid is needed in the Balkans and better than many Albanians emigrating to Europe. Meanwhile, Albania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ditmir Bushati said in an interview with Handelsblatt that his government is fighting illegal emigration with an information campaign for potential asylum seekers and is actively tackling human traffickers. He stresses that young people in Albania have the “desire for a change of the current situation” and a “speedy EU membership.”

Some commentators criticise the EU policy in the Balkans. MEP Reinhard Bütikufer (Die Grünen) says in an interview with Tagesspiegel that the EU “has failed the Balkans”: instead of following up on promises to support wealth and stability, it has kept these states “at a distance.” Commission President Juncker’s announcement of not accepting any new members in the next five years is a “disastrous political message.” Expert Vedran Dzihic says in an interview with Salzburger Nachrichten that the meeting initiated by President Juncker is supposed to console Serbia, Albania, Bosnia and FYROM for the fact that they have no chance of gaining EU membership for now while keeping the prospect of EU accession alive.

According to an analysis in Die Presse, the overall efforts made so far are rather unimpressive one year after the Western Balkans conference in Berlin: the region is caught in stagnation, the reforms demanded by Brussels are being implemented only slowly or hardly at all, the former enemies are still far from reconciliation, growth rates are still too weak to make up for the earlier decline or even reduce the development gap between the region and the EU partners.

Adelheid Wölfl writes in a commentary in Der Standard that EU aid for the expansion of infrastructure should be tied more strongly to economic and administrative reforms. Other commentators believe that the EU policy still plays an important role. Le Monde reports that EULEX has not met its objectives. Despite the criticism, some are calling for the maintenance of EULEX, to monitor the functioning of local justice, faced with the influence of clans and organised crime groups. EU membership is the only real future prospect for the Western Balkan countries, even though the process is surely going to be very long and hard, states a Jutarnji list commentary.

Some accused the EC of flunking under the “pressure of populism”, because further enlargement does not enjoy support among EU citizens. However, Western Balkan states enjoy the support of the most influential politician in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose support is worth more than anything the EC might have to say.



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