EU sets date for next wave of enlargement
The EU is preparing to pledge a 2025 deadline for the next wave of enlargement. “The Western Balkans partners now have a historic window of opportunity. For the first time, their accession perspective has a best-case timeframe,” the Commission is to say in a strategy paper to be adopted either on 7 or 14 February. Notably, the draft text seen by EUobserver said Montenegro and Serbia should be among the first countries to join in 2025.
As of now, Serbia and Montenegro have already opened accession talks. Albania and Macedonia are hoping to do it this year, provided that Macedonia can resolve its name dispute with Greece. Bosnia is angling to gain EU “candidate” status, while Kosovo is considering to seek candidate status formally.
This paper marked a shift in tone after Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said in 2014 that there would be no EU enlargement in the foreseeable future. However, the Commission will also warn that “all the Western Balkans partners concerned must resolve [territorial] disputes as a matter of urgency” should the ambitious timeline is to be met. This stance was in part shaped by the on-going maritime territorial disputes between two of its member states, Slovenia and Croatia. Currently, Croatia is refusing to implement a ruling handed down by a Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague last summer over the route of its 670km border with Slovenia. After the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Slovenia joined the EU in 2004 and Croatia’s accession in 2013 was, at the time, made conditional on its acceptance of international arbitration.
To avoid such cases because the “EU cannot and will not import bilateral disputes”, Brussels expect candidate states to resolve disputes amongst themselves before becoming EU members. For example, in the paper to be adopted, the EU regarded a “comprehensive normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo in the form of a legally-binding agreement” as “crucial” for both their EU prospects. Recognition of Kosovo’s statehood is a major problem for Belgrade (and a few other EU member states). In October 2017, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic once again drew attention to the controversies surrounding Kosovo’s secession by comparing it to the referendum in Spain’s Catalonia region. In the meantime, Kosovo’s own problems go far beyond its relations with Serbia. Five EU member states, including Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus, also did not recognise its independence and that could potentially prevent it from joining the bloc.
Nevertheless, EU leaders will be in Sofia for an informal summit on the Western Balkans in May, as Bulgaria – which just took over the rotating presidency – looks to make its mark in the EU’s enlargement.
Cabinet reshuffles in Britain and Poland
At the beginning of this week, British Prime Minister Theresa May launched a cabinet reshuffle (an informal term for the PM switching around jobs in the Cabinet). On the surface it was Ms May’s most extensive reshuffle since she took office in 2016, and was aimed at bolstering her authority ahead of a crucial new phase in Brexit negotiations. In reality, her four “big beasts”, Chancellor Philip Hammond, Home Secretary Amber Rudd, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis – who were infamously known for holding drastically different views on Brexit, some soft Brexiteers and some (ultra-)hard Brexiteers – all remained in the same positions. Therefore, shared views in the UK and in Europe was that, with such a “botched reshuffle”, Ms May actually turned an exercise of power into a showcase of weakness. After 18 months of her reign as prime minister, she still struggled to assert her authority and was continuously constrained by the need to preserve the fragile balance of power over Brexit around her Cabinet table.
Unlike the British reshuffle which mainly stuck with status quo, the reshuffle that was happening roughly at the same time in Poland was significantly more radical. After the sweeping reshuffle, several senior government ministers had gone from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). The most contentious change involved Antoni Macierewicz, who lost his job at the defense ministry. He allegedly strained relations with Paris after scuppering a deal to buy helicopters from Airbus, and his purge of the top leadership of the Polish military has created worries among NATO allies. Macierwicz is being replaced by Mariusz Błaszczak, the former interior minister. In addition, new foreign, finance, interior, health and environment ministers were also appointed.
The move to bring to the Cabinet more faces friendlier to Europe came ahead of a meeting on Tuesday (9 Jan) in Brussels between Poland’s new PM Mateusz Morawiecki and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. It is an attempt to signal Warsaw’s effort to improve relations with the EU. (Poland is facing enormous pressure from the EU after Brussels triggered Article 7 over concerns that Poland is violating the bloc’s democratic principles.) But the change “may be too little too late” to some. The EU’s and Poland’s drawn-out feuds over the rule of law as well as issues over the environment and migration have sowed deep damage and could take months to reverse. The EU’s distrust against Poland was evident in European Council President Donald Tusk’s interview with Tygodnik Powszechny. He told the Polish Roman Catholic weekly magazine that Poland is interested in nothing about Europe other than monetary benefits related to balance of payments. He further accused the ruling party of his home country of trying to “‘free’ Polish politics from the burden of the EU”.
France embarks on ‘horse diplomacy’ in China
French President Emmanuel Macron went on a three-day tour of China early this week. Chinese media widely praised Macron for choosing China for his first state visit to an Asian nation (and Brigitte Macron for her attire and elegance). Macron, for his part, expressed deep admiration for Chinese culture and history when visiting the Terracotta Army in Xi’an, an eastern departure point of the ancient Silk Road, and the Forbidden City in Beijing. He also made a reference to the Chinese Belt and Road initiative by reiterating that China and Europe should work together on this initiative and reminding that the ancient Silk Road were never only Chinese and hence the “modern Silk Road could not be one way”.
Interestingly, Macron offered Chinese President Xi Jinping an 8-year old brown gelding named Vesuvius of the elite French Republican Guard. The choice of the gift, an “unprecedented diplomatic gesture” and “a symbol of French excellence”, was made after Xi showed his fascination for the 104 horsemen who escorted him during his last visit to Paris in 2014. Emphatically, it was the first time France offered one of the elite cavalry corps’ horses and was also a response to China’s famous “panda diplomacy”. Macron’s wife Brigitte became the godmother of a Chinese panda lent by Beijing to a zoo near Paris.
In addition to the symbolic “horse diplomacy,” the two sides signed several agreements worth billions of euros, spanning strategic sectors of industry, including trade, art and energy. The series of agreements aimed to “rebalance” the €30 billion ($36 billion) trade deficit France has with Beijing by providing reciprocal access to Chinese markets. Notably, China ordered 184 Airbus A320 planes.
Although Macron seemingly secured strategic access to Chinese markets for France, some sceptics were of the view that the trip would not give Paris a head start in Beijing and it was actually China that would emerge as the ultimate winner, for at least two reasons. First, the greater “reciprocity” China gave to France should be best understood as another case in which, as a Livemint editorial put it, China is “bribing its way to superpower status”. The Indian newspaper noted that the scale at which China is using its capital for securing political influence is unprecedented. Second, contrary to the conventional wisdom that smaller, poorer Eastern European countries are vulnerable to China’s charm offensive, Macron’s visit proved that major Western European countries like France are no less intimidated by China’s deep pockets.
On the final leg of Macron’s visit, he pressed the EU for united front on foreign takeovers in order to be respected by China. However, he himself had taken a soft line on a line of thorny issues that used to strain Sino-European relations. For example, politically contentious issues like human rights and rule of law were not brought up in public or in private. This led to one disappointed analyst lamenting that “While many in Europe disparage Trump’s values-free and transactional approach to international relations, there is little to distinguish the posture adopted by the EU today.”
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