On March 31, 2024, Bulgaria and Romania became Schengen members: Bulgarians and Romanians can now go straight to their gates at the airport and skip any visa or passport control, even at sea border checkpoints. Yet they must take the bitter with the sweet as Austria’s opposition to full membership halts their free movement across EU lands. As Aleksandar Hemon would argue here, Bulgarians and Romanians are now close enough to being (in) Europe to fail perpetually at being Europeans.

Ironically, this is a far better condition than that of most citizens from the Western Balkans, trapped between stricter visa regulations to enter the European Union and the desperate desire to being (at least recognised as) Europeans.

In this regard, however another critical “paper recognition” happened on January 1st, 2024. Spain officially recognised ordinary passports issued by Kosovo’s institutions, allowing all citizens of Europe’s youngest country visa-free entry under this new visa liberalisation policy. This recognition followed suit the decision by the twenty-seven EU ministers at the Council of Internal Affairs in Brussels to liberalise visas for all Kosovars to enter the European Union.

Paradoxes are here just around the corner, though.

Spain does not recognise Kosovo’s sovereignty in order to avoid potential turmoil in Catalonia and the Basque region yet again. The country is not alone within the European Union: other four non-recognisers, meaning Slovakia, Romania, Cyprus, and Greece, still dug in their heels and paradoxically align with Russia, China, Brazil, and India, in not recognising the Kosovar statehood. Although Greece maintains closer ties with Kosovo than most EU countries that recognise it, Athens voted in favour of the visa liberation along with the other EU non-recognisers. This unclear path of conditional recognitions leaves Prishtina at odds and incapable of seeking a straightforward approach that could establish peace with Serbia and move the country closer to the EU and other international bodies. The standstill results from the so-far unsuccess journey of the EU-sponsored dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. More likely, Belgrade’s spoiling tactics aim at not recognising Kosovo’s statehood whatsoever, exploiting Brussels’s intent to drift it apart from the Kremlin’s influence, and unleashing timely tensions in North Kosovo to sabotage any solid agreement with Prishtina and Brussels under the guise of minority rights and security protection for ethnic Serbs.

Although Brussels woke up to the risks of further escalation within the Western Balkans after witnessing Russia’s military offensive into Ukraine in 2022, both political and economic support for Kyiv does not make much sense while keeping a blind eye on Serbia’s attempts to hegemonise the region. Nor does it make sense while remaining deaf (purposely?) to the words of Miroslav Dodik, leader of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which echo the specter of separatism and verbalise the desire to join the srpski svet, the “Serbian world”.

Just as Brussels’s appeasement strategy toward Russia utterly failed before 2022, throwing Europe into war and Ukraine on the frontline, an unclear position toward Serbia would unlikely pay off in the long run.

This cacophony of recognition raises more questions than provides answers regarding the series of conundrums eastwards. It also goes beyond the Union, as Brussels lacks a political vision over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict amidst the rise of radicalisation and high polarisation. Despite Spain declared recently to kick off a process of non-binding recognition of Palestine as a security guarantee for Israel, such an individual course of action would only engage part of the EU in the Mediterranean region. More polarisation would likely follow up instead, uncoupling different state members from a potentially coherent political roadmap to deescalate the taut circumstances on the external borders.

Russia’s war against Ukraine cannot go on endlessly, and Brussels will eventually come to talk with the Kremlin about a more comprehensive, regionally-nuanced peace agreement with Moscow. Some might like it or not, but rumors confirm that even US officials are focusing on empowering Ukraine for the peace talks after the debacle of the 2023 counteroffensive. From the EU’s side, the European Commission’s official opening of talks with Ukraine and Moldova has already made room for such a scenario. Both countries’ national sovereignty is currently jeopardised by Moscow’s boots on the ground; hence, the EU-sponsored talks might either untie the knot of the accession to the EU at once, or eventually turn out as yet another failure in the eyes of most EU citizens and the would-be ones.

This either-or condition is well known by Bosnians, who are most aware of the dangerous predicament that may result from the failure of the political strategy of the European Commission after the latest words by Ursula von der Leyen about the opening accession negotiations.

At present, we all need to come to terms with the fact the EU is still doing business with its declared regional foes via “new friends.”

For instance, Azerbaijan is pumping gas into the EU by importing Russian gas to meet the commitment to Brussels, as decided by the memorandum of understanding signed in July 2022. This not only embarrasses the whole EU and hits the nerves of the Ukrainian people, but it teaches a lesson in geopolitics: Russia won’t move away from EU’s eastern borderlands, and EU’s would-be member states will barely remain immune to the Kremlin’s tactics. Granted that, they would more likely benefit from constructively contributing to tailoring an EU security plan rather than simply hoping for NATO’s political will and military might.

This may sound westplaining, but there is a need for a new manifesto for the EU’s foreseeable future at both security and political levels. A manifesto that could facilitate the European Union and the would-be state members to drive a potential change rather than just being driven by it.

To put it mildly, today’s European Union plays the role of Hegel’s owl of Minerva: its institutions tackle any issue at stake just as they have already completely lost influence in it. We may here agree with Nikolay Krastev’s description of the European Union as a “slow animal”, but we cannot wait for another crisis, a bloodier war, and a more depressive economic stagnation to see Brussels pick a side and act accordingly. The clock is not ticking. We have simply run out of time.

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