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From Thessaloniki to Athens

A flatbread may well have cost a dinar in Thessaloniki, but – when it comes to EU membership – Thessaloniki is a hundred flatbreads away (as the old Serbian proverb goes)

In the absence of a better alternative, Vučić remains a credible EU partner, as demonstrated at the August meeting in Athens between EU representatives and those of Western Balkan countries, Ukraine and Moldova. Vučić signed a declaration supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and thus distanced himself from Russia in a sufficiently euphemistic way (by condemning crimes without imposing sanctions) and indirectly through his meeting with Zelensky. 

Compensating for his pro-Western stance in Athens is the propaganda rife in Serbia, which fills a pro-Russian public opinion stance with appearances by Milošević-era cadre. 

Support for Western Balkan efforts to join the EU is emphasised in the Athens Declaration, but that doesn’t provide reason for optimism, given that Ukraine and Moldova are supported for the same efforts, which suggests some kind of disheartening “package”. 

Everything is made even more depressing by the fact that the Athens Declaration comes two decades after the famous EU-Western Balkans Summit of Thessaloniki, when the region’s countries were also promised a European accession perspective. 

The Summit in Thessaloniki only proved to be an encouraging gathering for Croatia – the only country from the Western Balkan “package” to have since joined the EU. In Athens this time around, Croatian PM Plenković was certainly there more as a leader from the EU than as a leader from our region. 

The essence of the relationship between the EU and the Western Balkans since Thessaloniki in 2003 was perhaps best described by Carl Bildt, when he said: “That promise would be as hard to keep as it was important to make”

A flatbread may well have cost a dinar in Thessaloniki, but – when it comes to EU membership – Thessaloniki is a hundred flatbreads away (as the old Serbian proverb goes). Another popular phrase at the time spoke of the regional “regatta” that Croatia would lead towards the EU, only for Croatian officials to expressly distance themselves from such metaphors (rightly so, as it would turn out) by stressing that each country should advance according to its own merits. 

What seems more surreal: from the current perspective, the fact that the Serbian Prime Minister in 2003 was Zoran Živković; or, from the perspective of the Thessaloniki summit, the possibility that Aleksandar Vučić will be Serbian president for 20 years, and in a second term!? Back then, Živković had showed great enthusiasm as a representative of the “level 2007” stance (on Serbia’s EU membership). Hey, membership in 2007!!! Can we today even imagine that level of naivety? Živković was introduced in Thessaloniki as a fighter against Milošević and against crime – representing an advertisement that Serbia doesn’t have today in terms of personnel. The country was in a tough situation following the assassination of Đinđić, whose political capital Živković utilised. We also mustn’t forget that Milo Đukanović spoke in Thessaloniki about the European consensus of Serbia and Montenegro, as had also been done by Slovenia and Estonia. 

It was an atmosphere of European idealism, and perhaps also a time of European innocence. Brexit, the migrant crisis and the war in Ukraine were still far away. The Constitution for Europe, as it was dubbed by its creator, former French President Giscard d’Estaing (a champion of Greece’s EU accession), which was adopted in Thessaloniki was supposed to create the framework for a functional community. The then 77-year-old European constitutionalist had hoped that the EU would be at full capacity and fully operational in another 20 years – so by today, when Macron is absurdly seeking EU reform. The essence of the relationship between the EU and the Western Balkans since Thessaloniki in 2003 was perhaps best described by Swedish diplomat and regional expert Carl Bildt, when he said: “That promise would be as hard to keep as it was important to make”.

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