Merkel’s announced departure from the leading position in her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), will inevitably bring changes in the perception of official Berlin towards the Western Balkans. Whether it will be a dramatic deviation or cautious distancing, we will have to wait for the December CDU Congress and the election of the new leader of the party.
At the Western Balkans Forum that has been held in the past few days in Berlin, several political experts have stressed that German politics after the provincial elections in Bavaria and Hesse has other troubles. Sebastian Versig, of the major non-governmental organization MitOst, is not very optimistic that the Western Balkans will return to the upper scale of German politics after Merkel’s announcement. “The Berlin process was Merkel’s initiative, she invested a lot of energy in it. The big question is whether her successor in the CDU will have the same projections for the region,” he stated for Nezavisen Vesnik/Independent Newspaper.
Two of the candidates for leadership in the CDU, Wehrsig says, are unlikely to be too inclined to the EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, mostly because of their more post-conservative ideology than that of Angela Merkel. Jens Spahn, the current Minister of Health, is at the bottom right of the CDU, which is more in line with the party’s usual election base. The other strong candidate, the party’s founder and Merkel’s former strong rival, Friedrich Merz, is a conspirator of the liberal economy, but declares himself as a social conservative. Before being expelled from the top of the party, he asked the Germans to run from “Leitkultur”, which translates as a dominant political culture. Much earlier before the immigration crisis arose, Merz demanded anyone who wanted to live in Germany to “have to adapt to the prevailing liberal culture”. It then caused a furious national debate and was accused of illiberalism and racism. But, says Versig, what was condemned ten years ago now is back on the political scene. It also hides the fears of politicians and the public with the possible new EU enlargement.
The growing reservations about the migration to Merkel’s party after bad election results already suggest a change in direction. Many CDU MPs announced in the past few days that they would oppose the German acceptance of the UN Global Compact on the signing in December, as opposed to the government’s stance. The United States has already announced that they will not join the agreement, while Hungary, Australia and Austria joined them. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Italy have already signaled that they will also retreat.
This has already begun to shape the new policy towards immigrants in Germany. This dramatic change towards migrants can be a step towards exacerbating the concept of Western Balkans’ inclusion in European architecture.
The senior official of Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Christian Helbach, Special Representative for Southeastern Europe, reassured that the Western Balkans is still high on the agenda of German diplomacy and that the government remains committed to the conclusions of the 2003 Thessaloniki summit. “The main reason for the involvement of the countries of the Western Balkans is security. This region is in Europe itself, not in its backyard. Economic interests are important, but they are not the key to European interest,” said Helbach. But he also acknowledged that while diplomacy is committed, politicians hardly sell the enlargement story to voters.
“When we presented the decision to start accession talks with Macedonia and Albania in the Bundestag, we faced tough questions from lawmakers which were not easy to answer,” he said.
For a long time it seemed that Germany could fully assume the role of the Wizard of Oz for the Western Balkans, as one of the participants in the Forum said. To a large extent, it did so, therefore politicians and nations of the region had such confidence in Berlin. Especially in Angela Merkel. But now the attitude towards enlargement will depend on whoever comes to power – in the CDU and in Germany. Because no one excludes the possibility the government coalition that barely functions, because of the poor results of the smaller coalition partner the Social Democrats, to fall apart at some point. Christal Morehouse pointed out that now is the time for introspection in Germany. “The main issues in public debates are about the identity, what is the place of the German people in Germany,” said Morehouse.
That discourse is not far from what the frontrunner as Merkel’s successor, Frederick Merz, advocates. And it’s up to putting the EU enlargement folder on the Western Balkans into the drawer where French President Emmanuel Macron keeps his documents on European progress in the region. The more prosaic the claims that European elections in May next year will bring dramatic changes in Europe, it can indeed be so – populists could make a big step forward, the people’s parties to be in a careful retreat, the classical Social Democrats before a possible breakdown, the Green parties to become a much more important factor, and the Union of Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the liberal bloc (which is most skeptical of enlargement) take some of the key functions in the European Union. All in all – after Bavaria, Hessen and Merkel’s announcement, things are getting complicated for the Western Balkans, regardless of the constant encouragement of EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn of the achievement of the magical date – 2025.
Ambassador Christian Helbach was very direct talking about misconceptions in some political circles in Serbia and Macedonia. “The idea of some structures that the success of nationalist conservatives in European elections will be good for Serbia and Macedonia is completely wrong. These new forces will not open the door to the Western Balkans but will completely shut it down.” This statement was a message that many politicians in the region understand very little of what is happening in Europe. Therefore, the countries of the Western Balkans, especially Macedonia, should hurry up. With the reforms, of course.
Helbach: VMRO-DPMNE is falling apart
The name solution between Macedonia and Greece is a breath of fresh air for the region. This shows that it is possible to solve even the most complicated problems, and that a compromise is possible, assessed German diplomat Christian Helbach.
Commenting on the developments in the Macedonian opposition party following the Prespa agreement, Helbach pointed out that “VMRO-DPMNE is falling apart not because of the name solution, but due to many years of bad governance and corruption. That’s the real reason for the party’s fragmentation,” said Helbach.
From our special reporter