Everyday tales and stories from the border regions of Europe and beyond, with the aim of explaining why we border-crossers are as obsessed as we are about this subject, why it is important to all of us, and why the co-operation community needs a little bit more visibility than it normally gets.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Into the Baltic

The South Baltic cross-border programme is having its launch event today in Gdansk, which is a good a reason as any to take a closer look. It's a brand new programme, created as a result of the expanded approach to maritime cross-border co-operation (anything up to 150km). Even then, the programme wouldn't exist if the island of Bornholm was not conveniently located just under 150km from almost everywhere.

This results in a five country cross-border programme, which is almost a contradiction in terms in itself, stretching across the whole southern Baltic Sea. It involves Sweden, Poland, Denmark, Lithuania and Germany (in roughly that order of enthusiasm). The Swedes were so delighted to get support for the programme that they were happy to let the Poles manage it: the Poles seem to want to manage every co-operation programmes they are involved in.

To be fair, the programme has made a good start. To be even fairer, the advantage of Poland managing so many co-operation programmes is that they are actually rather good at it, and have put in plenty of resources to get this programme moving forward. Consequently, despite the complexity of the partnership, and the fact that it is completely new, the programme is at the same stage of implementation as many more experienced programmes.

Having said all that, I still have my doubts. Maritime co-operation, by its nature, is not the same as land-based cross-border co-operation. Even close maritime co-operation is different, although it has sufficient similarities with terrestrial co-operation that it can be justified (and has been shown to work in some places). But cross-border co-operation across the southern Baltic? This is most of the way towards transnational co-operation, which is a very different kettle of fish.

It will be interesting to see the results that come from the South Baltic and how cross-border they truly are. On one level, it may not seem to matter much - once eligibility for cross-border co-operation is achieved, it is unlikely to be taken away at a programme level, no matter what the results (witness Greece-Cyprus for an example). But, on a higher level, too many poor or uninspiring results in too many programmes, and people could start to question the whole cross-border co-operation policy. And that would be a heavy price to pay for allowing long-distance maritime co-operation as a political compromise.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

A Serbian Paradox

What with everything that is happening at the moment (the Border-Crosser drafts neutrally), you might imagine that Serbia would be feeling less than enamoured with the European Union and all its constituent parts at the moment. And in general, you would be right. Lots of bellicose noise is coming out of Prime Minister Kostunica and company, and there are threats of refusing to work with the EU at all.

Any yet, next week will see a cross-border conference in the middle of Belgrade, organised by the Serbian government, celebrating the Neighbourhood Programmes (“Serbia’s Success Stories”) and looking forward to the new cross-border programmes for 2007-2013. So what’s going on?

In all probability, a number of things. Firstly, a majority of Serbs realise that they do need to keep working with Europe and that they do need to get on with their neighbours, regardless of their disagreements over the future of Kosovo. Secondly, the EU considers that engagement with Serbia remains vital for the region as a whole, and all good news stories must be encouraged (see the EU’s latest Western Balkans Communication from 5 March:
ec.europa.eu/enlargement/balkans_communication/index_en.htm); and thirdly, there is a key team of Serbian officials who have been driving the cross-border agenda forward in recent years since they have recognised the potential and added value of this co-operation for their country.

This group of people have a difficult task in the current climate. I wish them well.

Monday, 3 March 2008

The hidden borders of Europe

Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence has sparked off further tensions elsewhere is Europe. Kosovo's supporters claim that Kosovo is a unique case, that the attempted genocide by Serbia in the late 1990s meant Serbia had lost all moral authority, and that Kosovan independence has no impact on frozen conflicts elsewhere in Europe. Russia and Serbia argue the opposite, and even have support from within the European Union, with countries like Spain, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia all concerned about the precedent being established in Pristina.

In truth, both sides are being disingenuous. A unilateral declaration by a region or province of a country, without that country's consent, could obviously trigger parallel declarations (in fact, other declarations have been made years ago, without the level of recognition that Kosovo has already achieved). Equally, however, the only way something similar could happen in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, for example, is with full Russian backing – so the only way it becomes a precedent in these cases is if Russia wants it to become a precedent.

There are 6 principal areas of concern across Europe where the Kosovo situation is being watched very closely: the already mentioned Abhkazia and South Ossetia; Transnistria; Nagorno Karabakh; Republika Srpska; and northern Cyprus. (For a perspective from further away, see the Sri Lanka news story on the right-hand side.)

The first three cases are linked directly to Moscow – no-one is going to recognise these countries as independent unless Moscow does. Moscow is perfectly happy to keep all three territories hanging since it keeps them dependent, and gives Moscow leverage against Georgia and Moldova.

Nagorno Karabakh is occupied by Armenia; Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh are in positions of power in Yerevan – yet, even Armenia has not recognised Nagorno-Karabakh's declaration of independence. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been spending very large sums on defence equipment (or, rather, attack equipment) and this is one area where the conflict could unfreeze rapidly.

Northern Cyprus has also declared its independence many years ago, but is recognised only by Turkey. The recent Cypriot presidential elections seem to have opened a possibility of resuming talks on the future of the island, and there are some hopes here. The Cypriot government's strong reaction on Kosovo's declaration is evidently directly linked to concerns that it strengthens the UDI of northern Cyprus. Again, this seems overblown, as no-one else is planning to recognise the UDI.

Republika Srpska is, of course, particularly problematic given the Serbian ethnic links. Demonstrations have already taken place in Banja Luka against Kosovan independence. If Srpska wants to declare independence on the basis of a referendum, how and why would this be different from Kosovo? Territorial integrity must apply to Bosnia, but must not apply to Serbia? This is a fundamental weak link in the argument of those who recognise Kosovan independence.

Of course, one further area where the Kosovan situation has an immediate impact is – northern Kosovo. If the majority population around Mitrovica says that it wants to be part of Serbia, why should Kosovan territorial integrity count for any more than the Serbian equivalent has done? Here, I think, we will actually see something happening in the short term, for the simple reason that Pristina’s writ will be unenforceable north of the Ibar, and Mitrovica et al will continue, de facto, to be linked to Belgrade.