The “return” of the United States in Europe is good news for the transatlantic alliance; it is the strongest foundation upon which the security and prosperity of the West are built. “The transatlantic alliance is at a turning point” President Joe Biden In his speech at last month’s virtual Munich Security Conference, he pointed out that the challenges America faces today are more difficult to meet in a new era of great power competition. The West has a unique opportunity to begin a new chapter in strengthening the transatlantic relationship as the new US administration offers an opportunity to work together to overcome current challenges and tensions, thereby renewing the transatlantic alliance. In a confidence-building exercise on both sides of the Atlantic, priority will be given to consultation, coordination and cooperation in addressing common security challenges.
The pressing issues on the table range from shared transatlantic approaches to China and Russia, to shared tactics for renewed engagement with Iran, to responses to climate change, NATO and the coronavirus pandemic. Within this framework, the bilateral relationship between Germany and the United States has the potential to define the future character and content of the transatlantic relationship. In this context, several German representatives from science, military and politics present in their paper More ambition please developed five core demands for a new agreement between Germany and the United States “with the aim of strengthening the role of the United States in Europe and developing a new transatlantic bundle of tasks. The new consensus focuses on five key policy areas: China, NATO, the coronavirus pandemic, climate, technology and trade. A sixth should be added to this list: the Western Balkans, in order to achieve “the goal of an intact, free and peaceful Europe”. The Western Balkans is of course part of the other five core areas, but its unique role (of Europe, but not yet in Europe) makes it stand out.
It is important to note that the Western Balkans is not just another issue feverishly seeking attention the Biden administrationn keeps an eye on improvement relations with Europe. Instead, solutions in the Western Balkans are an integral part of the success of the other priorities in the transatlantic relationship. That means: The countries of the western Balkans can contribute to the solution of the central transnational problems pandemic control and climate change, giving weight to transatlantic multilateral efforts; they can enhance NATO’s importance and role as it redefines its missions and priorities; they can be at the forefront of transatlantic efforts to reach out to China, as their experience over the past decade with the Belt and Road Initiative and the 17+1 Initiative provides them with unique insights and interests; and they can be part of the European Union’s efforts to provide answers to trade and technology questions, thereby giving new impetus to the meaning and future of EU enlargement interests; and they can be part of the EU’s efforts to provide answers to trade and technology issues, giving new impetus to the meaning and future of EU enlargement.
EU integration and transatlantic cooperation: two sides of the same coin
However, the Western Balkans are not in the best of shape, suffering the worst economic downturn in twenty years. The coronavirus pandemic has taken a terrible toll on the region’s physical, social and economic health. Economic divergence with Western Europe is increasing. Ten years ago, the region’s average per capita income was 15 percent of the EU average per capita. Today it accounts for just 14 percent, with a median income of $6,000 per capita. While governments have adopted emergency measures and economic support packages, the scale of the challenges has certainly exceeded their national response capabilities. The countries of the region are critically disadvantaged compared to EU countries in their ability to deal with the converging economic and economic crises due to their lack of resources and capabilities. This situation will affect the pace of economic, democratic and social reforms, which are crucial for EU integration.
The current EU integration process has stalled. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation, highlighting the flaws in EU policy towards the Western Balkans and its economic and political divergence from EU standards, as the 2020 crisis has favored strongmen increasingly leaning towards Chinese and Russian models of authoritarianism support capitalism. But again, rather than seeing the Western Balkans’ bids for EU membership as just another in a long list of EU problems, the transatlantic community can instead use the Western Balkans’ interests and experiences to address its own future. In doing so, it will add new and much-needed relevance to the attractiveness of EU membership in a new era, and with it that of a strengthened West.
European integration and transatlantic cooperation are inextricably linked – two sides of the same coin. This is also where the focus for the future of the Western Balkans lies. After World War II, the presence and engagement of the United States as a European power ensured peace and stability on the European continent and set the stage for European integration and prosperity. In the 1990s, the role of the United States in pacifying the Balkans after the bloody dissolution of the former Yugoslavia was essential. Today, the “unresolved issues in the Balkans” and the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region can only be achieved through a transatlantic approach.
Joint German-American strategy for the Western Balkans
Biden’s long relationship with the Balkans should ease the path to restoring the transatlantic and resuming joint efforts in the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration. The new transatlantic approach to the Western Balkans should focus on core democratic values. Given the many challenges facing the United States and the EU in the new era of great power competition, success in the Western Balkans is not only a very doable task, but also a litmus test for the future of European integration. A joint transatlantic strategy, with the German-American relationship as the backbone of the alliance, should focus on key areas: Euro-Atlantic integration of the region, resolving bilateral issues, resilience, China, and economic development and energy security.
Let’s look at a few examples. Now that Europe and America are talking again, it should be easy (at least institutionally) to set a common agenda on the pressing issue of Kosovo and Serbia. the mechanism—EU leadership under its experienced negotiator Miroslav Lajcak, in close cooperation with American diplomacy – can and must move beyond the scattered approach of recent years. That means broadening the scope of Lajcak to not only include thorny bilateral issues between the two countries, but to outline for Belgrade and Pristina how their cooperation in public health, education and partnership in high-tech, digital governance and green technology can get them talking to the rest of the Atlantic world. To do this, issues such as corruption and the rule of law must be taken into account, but not only because the West preaches this to the aspirants, but because without addressing these issues, Kosovo and Serbia will not be realistic partners in the new post-coronavirus economic and political development.
A variation on this theme also applies to Bosnia. For decades, Europeans and Americans have been saying that the structures established in Dayton do not meet the needs of the people there. Rather than continue current crisis management, this could be an area where Germany and America could take the lead, perhaps again with one authorized German envoy (former federal minister and member of parliament Christian Schmidt) in close cooperation with the transatlantic support. What are Germany and America talking about? Trade, digital issues, economic reform—offer to involve the Bosnian leadership in these global debates and if the structure of the Bosnian leadership is not able to respond, then look for those who are, be it in the universities, civil society or the local political leaders.
China: Make Western Balkans allies in transatlantic effort
Another priority for Europe and America is China. The rise of China poses significant challenges for the transatlantic community and is therefore high on the list of priorities to define a common transatlantic strategy focused on economy, security and technology.
In the Western Balkansincreased Chinese activities through trade, investment, debt for equity, but also through educational and media activities have consolidated their position in the region, including support for their regional political goals, silence (or defense) of human rights violations, international rights violations, and mercantilist economic policy behaviors. Therefore, any coordinated EU-US approach to China should include the Western Balkans, including the Transatlantic Foreign Direct Investment Screening Partnership, which should be extended beyond the EU to better envision China’s investment and influence strategy through its BRI and “17th +1 “platforms.
We should not continue to see the Western Balkans as a prize that one side or the other will win. Rather, the great advantage of a common Western approach is that we can include the Western Balkans in our evolving strategy towards China. In other words, treat the Western Balkans as partners in this and they may simply respond by acting as partners. Stronger transatlantic engagement is needed to build the region’s resilience to Chinese influence and to counter the propaganda narratives, particularly to support the democratic dimension. The bottom line: make the Western Balkans allies, not objects, in this effort.