Following lengthy talks on the new composition of the European government, Western politicians reached a consensus on the top persons of leading EU authorities for the next five years. Meanwhile, the media recalls what these newly elected officials are remembered for in the Balkans and speculates whether the new appointments will bring novelty to the regional politics...

Oksana Sazonova

Following lengthy talks on the new composition of the European government, Western politicians reached a consensus on the top persons of leading EU authorities for the next five years. Meanwhile, the media recalls what these newly elected officials are remembered for in the Balkans and speculates whether the new appointments will bring novelty to the regional politics.

Who will head the European institutions

On July 16, Ursula von der Leyen, former German Defence minister, was elected as President of the EU Commission. This figure is probably the most controversial within the entire renewed Brussels political elite, as the ex-minister does not represent the winning party and is not widely respected at home. Her appointment is an interesting development, especially given that Ms von der Leyen has already accepted the principal request of her numerous critics to reduce the EC presidential powers in favor of expanding those of the European Parliament and agreed to take decisions upon the majority of vote of the EU member states. This step may become crucial not only for the European Union, but also for its external partners, including the Balkan countries.

David Maria Sassoli, former journalist and a well-known Italian politician of the center-left Democratic Party, who had held the position of EP Vice-President (re-elected), assumed office of President of the European Parliament.
Belgian PM Charles Michel, one of the youngest European leaders, President of the liberal Reformist Movement, will assume office of President of the European Council. Last year, Charles Michel made an official visit to Belgrade to discuss the details of Serbia’s European integration and the progress of the Brussels dialogue with President Aleksandar Vucic. Mr Vucic did not specify the proposals voiced during the talks until they are accepted by other actors.
Christine Lagarde, known in Europe for her activities in the International Monetary Fund, was nominated as President of the European Central Bank. Previously, she was French Minister of Economy, Finance and Industry and was repeatedly ranked among World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, according to Forbes. In the Balkans, she “glimpsed” more often as the author of encouraging and approving statements about Serbian reforms towards the EU entry.
Spanish MFA Josep Borrell was nominated as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. His formal appointment by the European Council requires the agreement of the President-elect of the Commission. This is one of the most challenging politicians for the Balkans, and not only because of the assumed office.
While European analysts debate whether such EU selection of top persons would imply changes promised to voters, the Balkan media tried to analyze whether it would affect the development of the regional situation. The greatest interest was naturally caused by Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell, both from their background (previous positions, visits and comments) and in view of possible structural changes within the EU.

Will the new EC President become a “ceremonial bystander”?

What can the “weakest” German minister give Europe?” wondered the Europe edition of Politico, quoting von der Leyen’s fellow Christian Democrats and commenting on the entire performance of the defense ministry.
The European audience is well aware that Ms von der Leyen makes preparations to leave for Brussels amid the ongoing investigation into the illegal involvement of external agents in government procurement and after numerous calls for the resignation of Defence minister from the opposition. The already former minister is considered a close ally of the German Chancellor; according to analysts, Angela Merkel’s advocacy helped her to retain position and to promote to the Commission leadership. Ms von der Leyen will apparently continue to mediate Angela Merkel’s policy in Brussels.
What is Ms von der Leyen famous for in the Balkans? For instance, for her support of a one-year extension of the German mission in 2014, as part of the EULEX in Kosovo. Shortly before the respective voting in the Bundeswehr, she visited the region and met with German military servicemen.

“The development of the situation shows that a peaceful solution can be found in a seemingly desperate situation. It is important for us to show a well-managed position in this country”, DW quoted Ms von der Leyen’s statement (2014), where she argued that even 15 years after she still believed the Kosovo mission justified. At that time, the German military numbered 700 soldiers (at present, 400). This made the longest foreign mission in the Bundeswehr history and the second largest after Afghanistan.

The Serbian newspaper Blic recalled Ms ex-minister’s words of support for the NATO operation against Yugoslavia in1999, when she argued ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder statement that sending Tornado combat aircraft without UN Security Council sanction was a violation of international law.

Moreover, when already a candidate for the EU Commission presidency, Ms von der Leyen talked about negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia on their accession to the EU. As regards Serbia’s EU integration, the key point is the agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, according to her earlier statements.

A few days ago, Ursula von der Leyen presented the MEPs in Strasbourg her program, where she highlighted the key aspects of her future work, in case of election, with emphasis on a strong foreign policy.

More importantly, the consent of the new head of the European Commission to take decisions based on a majority of votes cast by the EU member states (instead of the current consensus principle) presents a zone of special concern for the Balkans. At the moment, the EU has no consolidated position on Kosovo and this discordance may provide an occasion to test out the policy based on “the majority wants it” principle.

This situation gets extra flavor from the candidacy of the tentative EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, an opponent of the Brussels’ official course on a number of important foreign policy issues. Another touch to his image is added by a tough stance towards Russia (Borrell calls Moscow “a threat”) and his view of the separatist formations, which is quite natural for the Spaniard.

Catalonia ≠ Kosovo?

Discussion over the candidacy of the Spanish MFA Josep Borrell as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy has stirred up much controversy. The most vivid example was the recent conflict between the Serbian MFA Ivica Dacic and Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov. The core of discordance was whether Josep Borrell, a follower of Madrid’s position on not recognizing Kosovo, could be guided by his opinion on this issue, or he should take to the majority. According to the von der Leyen’s policy statements, who had to contend with influential opponents, the second option is very likely, which is disadvantageous, first and foremost, to Serbia.

The stance of this majority was voiced earlier by Annalena Baerbock, co-chairman of the German Green Party. Commenting on Josep Borrell’s nomination, she recalled that he should respect the majority opinion on the Kosovo issue, rather than advance his own standing. It is obvious that here she means the EU countries, which recognized the Kosovo independence. Therefore, structural changes announced by Ms von der Leyen could undermine the powers of High Representative as well.

Indeed, the “corporate consciousness” is completely disinterested in handing over decision-making under its scope of power to representatives of individual countries (even if allies). In the opinion of the Serbian Danas, in the case of Josep Borrell, this could lead to the establishment of bilateral state contacts between entities, where one (Spain) does not recognize the other (Kosovo), which has never happened in history before.

Mr Borrell is an ardent critic of separatism (the Catalan, and beyond). Last March, during an official visit to Belgrade, he emphasized that Madrid has consistently followed its position of non-recognition of Kosovo.
“Catalonia and Kosovo are not the same, no matter how much supporters of the Spanish region separation wish it,” the Serbian newspaper Blic quoted the chief of Spanish diplomacy. However, it should be noted that the tentative head of European diplomacy believes primarily in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.

Whether to expect changes in the EU Balkans policy (above all, in Kosovo) from new officials remains an open question. The previous European elite failed to solve the problem of the disputed territory within its mandate, so that both sides of the lingering conflict proposed involving new international parties to the dialogue. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Belgrade and spoke of his willingness to personally contribute to saving the Brussels dialogue in its current format, finally recognized the obvious truth that Brussels had no fresh solution for the Balkans.

Both Belgrade and Pristina took a break at the time of the European Parliament elections, waiting to know, who would occupy take key positions. Now it appears they should have awaited not only the approval of candidates, it is already a question of determining the scope of their real powers and being able to influence decisions of the European majority.