The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Washington has backed away from the Balkans. An E.U. commissioner says it’s not a problem.

Johannes Hahn, the European Union's commissioner for neighborhood policy and enlargement negotiations, says a Greek resolution with North Macedonia could lead to other agreements in the Balkans. (Koca Sulejmanovic/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Johannes Hahn, the European Union’s commissioner for neighborhood policy and enlargement negotiations, finds Washington “interesting.”

Hahn was in town last week in part to discuss the Middle East, Ukraine and the western Balkans with his U.S. counterparts.

The latter has recently featured that rarest of things: a resolution to a decades-old diplomatic dispute. “I think we were both very successful, and the U.S. was very supportive on what we call today North Macedonia,” Hahn told The Washington Post, referring to the resolution of Greece’s dispute with that country over its name (North Macedonia previously went by Macedonia, a name that Greece said belonged to its northern region, the former stronghold of Alexander the Great).

The western Balkans stand out in another way, too. In the wars of the 1990s and their aftermath, Washington was in the driver’s seat in the region, not Brussels. Today, Hahn said, the reverse is true. The United States is very supportive of the European Union on and in the region, he said, adding, “I think that they are quite happy that we are nowadays in the lead in the region.”

Some who work on the region have expressed concern that what they see as Washington’s ambivalence toward it is a destabilizing force. Last year, for example, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar President Hashim Thaci reportedly supported resolving the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo, which unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, with a land swap or border adjustment.

Previous U.S. administrations openly opposed the idea, rendering it a non-starter. Changes of borders in the Balkans have traditionally been associated with violence and bloodshed. The Trump administration said it would support what the parties involved wanted (the parties were internally split on the matter; in Kosovo, for example, the president tentatively backed the idea, while the prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, warned against it).

Hahn’s hope is that the resolution of the Macedonia name dispute will serve as a precursor to the resolutions of other conflicts, including the “standstill” in the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, which he said was caused by trade tariffs imposed by Kosovo on Serbian imports late last year. Resolving the trade issue is now a precondition for restarting dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia.

On the possible border adjustment, Hahn stressed that a legally binding agreement between the two would cover areas beyond the border issue and that “one fundamental element in a future agreement must be the respect of minority rights,” an element of E.U. accession.

“At this moment, nobody could predict what would be a final . . . outcome,” he said. “A possible land swap might be in any case, if you like, a final parcel in a bigger picture.

“The only precondition we have raised was that any kind of bilateral agreement has to contribute to more peace and stability in the region.”

A political agreement that comes at the cost of others, Hahn said, would be unacceptable to the European Union.

As for the idea expressed by some who live in and work on the region — that the United States’ retreat from leadership in the western Balkans is destabilizing — Hahn, whose stint as commissioner for E.U. enlargement ends later this year, offered a different take.

“It’s a kind of silent return to normality,” he said, noting that 75 percent of trade from and to the region comes from E.U. member states. “What is now — so to say — daily routine, that we are taking care about the situation, in a way is simply a reaction to the situation on the ground,” he said, explaining that the United States has “hardly any” business interests in the region.

The United States was in the lead earlier because of NATO intervention, he said. “The situation has changed. . . . If I look across a longer time frame, there is progress in the region. As an example, today, if there are on the ground, for instance, between Serbia and Kosovo, some clashes, in the past, this could have led easily to some violence. Today the leaders pick up the phone and call each other.”