The implications of a leaked memo proposing to re-draw Western Balkans borders along ethnic lines are too far-reaching to be brushed under the carpet, expert Florian Bieber told Euronews.
The European Union has yet to react almost two weeks after an explosive memo allegedly advocating redrawing the borders of countries formed after Yugoslavia’s breakup was leaked to the press.
The unsigned document was claimed to have reached the EU's highest circles, including President of the European Council Charles Michel.
It proposed Serbia, Croatia, and Albania being expanded to swallow up parts of neighbouring Bosnia, North Macedonia and Kosovo.
It is alleged the "non-paper," an EU term for an unofficial document shared confidentially between governments or institutions, originated from the office of Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, who refused to confirm or deny those claims to Euronews.
The idea to redraw borders along ethnic lines -- in direct contradiction with EU and international efforts to foster multinational states in the Western Balkans -- sent shockwaves throughout the region traumatised by years of war.
The controversy comes as Slovenia is due to hold the EU's rotating presidency in the second half of 2021.
While several MEPs and individual countries strongly voiced their opposition to the ideas outlined in the document, EU institutions have so far remained silent.
Reached by Euronews, Michel's office refused to comment while the European Commission said it hadn't received the non-paper.
"We never comment on various documents published by the media. In addition, in this specific case it is not up to the European Commission or European External Action Service to express ourselves on the issue of the alleged non-paper since the Commission has not received anything and is not aware of the alleged content of such document," said Peter Stano, lead spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy at the European External Action Service in a statement sent to Euronews.
Only the EU delegation and EU-led peacekeeping force EUFOR in Bosnia issued a statement on April 15 asserting the bloc was "unequivocally committed to the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina".
Euronews explores the reasons behind the bloc's leaders non-reaction and its implications.
Doubts over authenticity and origin of the document
Florian Bieber, a professor of southeast European history and politics at Graz University, told Euronews that one reason why the EU didn't react was likely that "we don't know if this non-paper really exists".
"I think we always have to be careful because it has not been confirmed. Just two people have confirmed it, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said he has seen it, but we haven't. I haven't seen enough confirmation that it really exists, although it seems plausible."
Asked about the reasons why EU leaders had not reacted yet, MEP Ilhan Kyuchyuk (Renew Europe), European Parliament's Standing Rapporteur on North Macedonia, said it was "probably because they were not sure about the origin of the document."
"One of the intriguing things about this paper is that it doesn't have an author. So it's just been circulated, allegedly coming out of Slovenian circles but we've heard all sorts of news denials," said MEP Vladimir Bilčík (EPP), European Parliament's Standing Rapporteur on Serbia.
He added that the document came at a "very difficult time" for the bloc's relations with the Western Balkans.
'Killing the idea by ignoring it'
"Traditionally, the whole point of non-papers is that they are not official documents and one doesn't discuss them in public," Bieber said.
In this specific case, EU officials may also try to kill the idea by not giving it publicity, the expert told Euronews. "This could be that they don't really want to put it out in the open as a kind of big debate on the matter."
Several MEPs interviewed by Euronews echoed this view.
MEP Viola von Cramon-Taubadel (Green/EFA), European Parliament's Standing Rapporteur on Kosovo, told Euronews that while the non-paper's alleged content should be vigorously rejected, it "was not even something to be debated".
"It shouldn't even be included on any of the agendas of either the European Council or the Commission or here at the Parliament."
Even a mere consideration of the proposals would spark fear in countries such as Kosovo or Bosnia, the lawmaker warned.
"In some respects, being quiet about it, not working on it in any way, is a good approach," said Bilčík. "If something is a non-issue, let's keep it a non-issue. And then of course, if it does come back, let's be very loudly opposed to any such suggestions."
'Clear stance' needed from EU
But according to Bieber, the non-paper is "too serious to be ignored."
"Of course, it is such an outrageous document that it seems important to react to it.
"It's actually more helpful to bring it into the open and in a certain way, put that idea to rest rather than leaving it lingering on, as it is the case now," Bieber told Euronews.
While he hadn't seen the original document, Kyuchyuk said he was "deeply worried" by its content if true and warned that it risked "opening the pandora box in the region."
"A strong international approach" is required, he said, which is why his Renew Group has requested a meeting of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee to address the issue.
He told Euronews that the EU needed to take "a clear stance saying that division is not acceptable."
"We need stability and peace in the region," Kyuchyuk said, which is why "the integration process is so important."
"We should reassure all states and all ethnicities in the Western Balkans that they are safe, that there will be no change of borders," von Cramon-Taubadel insisted, advocating for a "very clear, direct and blunt rejection."
Slovenian presidency of EU 'discredited'
Bieber said that if the non-paper was real, it would "effectively undermine" the Slovenian presidency of the EU starting next July.
"All of this creates an image of somebody who is very open towards confrontation and alienation," the expert noted, also referring to Janša's recent performance before the European Parliament.
Last month, the Slovenian prime minister abruptly disconnected from a debate on attacks on press freedom in his country after accusing chair Sophie Int'Veld of "censorship". She had refused to let him play a video during the short time allocated to his statement.
"I think this is going to play very badly with many member states who are looking for a constructive, consensus-seeking presidency and not for somebody who is polarising," said Bieber. "Lots of member states will be quite worried about how this will play out."
"He has discredited himself as the future head of the European Council," von Cramon told Euronews. "It's a shame not only for Slovenia, it's a shame for the European Union to see him representing the institutions, the European Council."
On a more positive note, the Green MEP said she hoped that "Slovenia, as a former part of ex-Yugoslavia, would have an interest to bring peace into the region and integrate it into the European Union."
Asked about the impact of the leaked document on the Slovenian Presidency, Bilčík told Euronews: "I wouldn't read too much into it at the moment."
"It's important to underline that any such ideas -- and this is not about Slovenia but about anybody who might come up with these ideas -- are not the way forward," the EPP lawmaker said.
'Strong pushback' to be expected
Even if the Slovenian presidency of the EU attempted to advance such an agenda on Western Balkans borders during its six-month term, it would likely face strong pushback in Brussels.
"If he tried it, I think he would be very quickly shut down," Bieber told Euronews. "So in that sense, I don't really see that being successful."
But while there is generally no appetite from the bloc to redraw borders, especially on such a scale, there are people in Brussels and among some EU member States who may find the idea tempting, the scholar noted. "Not because of their knowledge of the region, but rather because of their ignorance. It seems like an easy solution, at least at first glance."
Ultimately, "the ones who might be the most supportive of the idea are the kind of people who have very strong nationalist worldviews and believe that multinational states are doomed to fail. And those are the likes of Viktor Orban in Hungary," the scholar said, noting that Orban and Janša were very close.