US policy in South East Europe under president Biden

The Biden White House and South East Europe

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

This year has been a year of elections in South East Europe. Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia have all held parliamentary elections. At the same time, Slovenia ended up with a new government in March 2020 after the previous centre-left coalition dissolved. In Bosnia Herzegovina, governments were finally formed after last year’s general election. For readers of this blog these were important events. Yet, in terms of global significance they all pale into irrelevance compared to the November 3 US elections, where Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden prevailed.

The importance of the US to the state of play in South East Europe

We all know South East Europe is well down the list of State Department priorities; there are bigger issues to deal with elsewhere. Being well down the list of priorities is not the same as not being important though. The Dayton Accords, Kosovo intervention and 2001 Macedonian peace deal are but three examples of crucial US steers to political realities in the region. Meanwhile, through policies such as driving Albanian, Montenegrin and North Macedonian membership of NATO, as well as strong backing for Bulgaria and Romania to join Western structures, as a buffer to Russian influence, the US has materially contributed to stability in the region.

Towards the end of 2020 Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Slovenia are in the EU, with Slovenia in the euro area. Bulgaria and Croatia in are ERMII, the waiting room for full euro area membership. All are also NATO members as well as Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia. The only countries in the region not formally members of NATO or the EU are Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Serbia.

Historically, South East Europe has been subject to significant amounts of Russian influence. Turkey, to an admittedly lesser extent, also plays a role and in recent times, the presence of China is more and more evident. Given Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia can only entertain EU membership as a distant prospect, this generates discontent with the EU. The EU meanwhile is occupied with CoVID-19, negotiations over the Recovery and Resilience Fund and next 7-year budget framework. It comes as no surprise it is not laser focussed on expanding its number currently, magnifying the importance of the US to the region.

A more predictable approach to policy from a Biden White House

A Biden White House in many ways represents a return to the standard US approach to the region. We expect improved coordination between the EU and US. For EU member states a return to the standard US approach means less uncertainty and an opportunity to deploy resources to other issues.

For the countries outside the EU, Montenegro and North Macedonia have most to gain. Montenegro, because it is closest to EU membership. Also, open issues with Serbia likely represent less of a risk for Montenegro as the one-on-one negotiations prefered by the Trump administration will be replaced by a more predictable, coordinated EU/US approach. As a nation with open issues with a much larger neighbour, Montenegro has more to gain from such an approach. The benefit for North Macedonia of a return to more usual US engagement in the region under a president Biden rests on a similar assumption: that Bulgaria risks a greater backlash as it threatens to block the country’s EU accession talks.

The challenges of joining the EU – the example of Serbia

In addition, there is the very real question of whether the remaining SEE countries really want to join the EU. A very cursory look at the challenges facing Serbia illustrates the point. For Serbia, joining the EU means, at a minimum, significantly closer ties to NATO, if not full membership. That alone, given NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia, sets a high psychological bar to joining an EU full of NATO members. It also means resolving politically challenging issues in respect of Kosovo and moving further away from Russia and China. All in return for a myriad of difficult reforms which promise returns at some undefined point in the future. At a time when Serbia’s GDP will fall the least in the region in part because of visible Chinese and Russian investments. All of this creates room to manoeuvre for non-Western actors to expand their influence in the region.

Serbia is the largest nation outside the EU in the region and is thus important if the goal is to have all of SEE in the EU. Serbia has a formal political role in Bosnia Herzegovina through the Dayton Agreement. The country has open issues with Kosovo and Montenegro, the majority of which would be much closer to being resolved were the country ready to join the EU. Were Serbia to join the EU, the rest of the region would follow.

Bottom line: each country decides for itself

As with many developments in Central and Eastern Europe generally, US support has significantly underpinned the desire of countries to be a part of Euro-Atlantic institutions. All non-EU member states in the region are faced with the question of what strategic decisions to take. Under president Biden, the steer to join the EU and NATO will become stronger. Yet, that has been the case since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Trump administration’s non-standard approach to policy notwithstanding.

In other words, the elephant in the room (no pun intended), risks becoming more evident. Namely, that countries outside the EU in the region are unwilling or unable to accept the EU’s membership conditions.  Perversely, perhaps, but due to domestic preferences and/or realities, that would continue to provide non-Western outside powers scope to project their influence in the region.

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