As a senator during the 1990s, Joe Biden was profoundly affected by the wars in the former
Yugoslavia, where he travelled in April 1993. As he recalled during his election campaign in
messages targeted specifically at voters of Bosnian or Albanian origin,  he endeavoured
throughout the 1990s to convince the Democratic occupant of the White House, Bill Clinton,
that the US should intervene through NATO (air campaigns in Bosnia-Herzegovina in
August-September and in Serbia and Kosovo in March-June 1999) in order to prevent further
war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Given this emotional attachment to the region, which he also visited several times as vice-
president  - as did the man he has selected as Secretary of State, Antony Blinken  - his
election should help restore equilibrium to US policy in the region after its marked shift
towards the nationalist Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, under his predecessor. The
Trump administration even engineered the overthrow of a democratically elected government
in Kosovo in order to remove the nation’s largest party from power, having deemed it to be
insufficiently compliant with the US president’s short-term objectives. 
1. US-EU cooperation will be the keyword…
In congratulatory calls from the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the
president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen,  the president-elect expressed
his ‘belief that a strong European Union is in the United States’ interest’. He also stressed the
importance he places on cooperation with Europe on ‘issues of mutual concern’, including
the Western Balkans as well as Iran, Belarus and Ukraine. This brief list of hot topics may
seem frustrating to those who support the EU’s ambition to be a global player, but so is Washington’s analysis so far of the limitations of this still developing power. It will have to
be enough for now, and the Balkan region at least seems to be included in the programme of
priorities for the transatlantic relationship.
As for the EU’s global ambition in the context of its strengthened partnership with
Washington, the efforts made by the European Council and the European Commission to
prepare for discussions with the future US administration and, more immediately, the
conclusions of the EU summit of 10 and 11 December, demonstrate the Union’s desire to be
treated on equal terms as an independent strategic ally, without being naïve about the
competitive nature of the relationship in certain areas or the new shape of global power
In this world that has changed so much, we read an insider’s report of an informal
conversation about the Balkans with the former Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
and close adviser to the president-elect, Nicholas Burns. 8 Burns apparently supports a return
to long-term objectives, in stark contrast to the outgoing president’s erratic hunt for quick
fixes. The diplomat referred broadly to the former bipartisan goals of a ‘Europe whole and
free’ that characterized the bygone age of Western triumphalism following the fall of the
Soviet Bloc. He believes that the threats posed to Europe by Russia and China make it more
important than ever to integrate the Balkan states into the EU and NATO.
2. …which confirms the return to continuity…
Although the reference to the 1990s is a painful reminder that it was European and UN
impotence that made decisive US intervention necessary, Burns thinks the duty to lead a
diplomatic dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo falls squarely on the EU. This attitude does
not just imply that the US’s geopolitical and geoeconomic priorities are elsewhere. It also
attests to the gradual assumption of responsibility by Europe for managing the affairs of its
direct neighbours. We should bear in mind that, after the first tragic mistakes in Bosnia-
Herzegovina, Europeans came forward to act in the shared interest of peace in the former
Yugoslavia. They also reacted more quickly in Kosovo, both politically and militarily.
In December 1998, the Franco-British summit at Saint-Malo set out the framework adopted
the following year for the European Security and Defence Policy, and the Stabilisation and
Association Process with the Western Balkan nations was launched in June 1999. Those
nations later confirmed their ambition to join the EU at the Zagreb (2000) and Thessaloniki
(2003) summits. These developments, which were the fruit of lessons learnt during the
Yugoslav wars, are important indicators of the EU’s increasing influence in the long-term
resolution of the aftermath of the former Yugoslavia’s decade of violent disintegration.
The first decade of the twenty-first century clearly demonstrates the guiding role assumed by
the EU in the stabilisation of the region and the strengthening of its ties to Europe. 9
Meanwhile, the US’s contribution essentially concluded with the settlement of the status of
Kosovo by its independence, proclaimed on 17 February 2008 and confirmed on 22 July
2020 by the International Court of Justice. The United States was deeply concerned at that time by the rising power of China (driven in particular by the 2008 global financial crisis 10 ).
In 2011, then-President Barack Obama officially announced the pivot to the Asia-Pacific
region, as epitomized by the concept of ‘leading from behind’ used during the US
intervention in Libya earlier that year.
3. …or the strategy of ‘accompanying from behind’?
Nevertheless, if we gloss over the Trump years, characterised by an approach to Europe that
was as intrusive as it was exclusionary, Obama’s second term can be seen as marking the
return of the United States to Europe’s backyard. Frustrated by Europe’s slowness in
fulfilling its promises of integration and concerned about external rivals taking advantage of
its enlargement fatigue and strategic vacuum, the White House began to display clear signs of
impatience.  But as the EU prepares to enter its fourth decade, the regional situation is very
different from when the previous Democratic president was in power.
First, the US’s main security goal has almost been achieved with the help of NATO, which
consolidated its presence and joint protection capabilities with the accession of Montenegro
(2017) and North Macedonia (2020). Podgorica will fill a gap in NATO’s coverage on the
Adriatic Coast, while future challenges for its new political order, a coalition government that
ended a quarter of a century of Milo Đukanović’s rule this summer, will be among the
priorities of its relationship with the EU.  Skopje (and Tirana, which joined in 2009), is being
called upon to play an increasingly important role in the context of deteriorating EU and
NATO relations with Turkey, but it has already passed several key tests  since 2017 that
deserve to be rewarded by the official launch of accession negotiations. The same applies to
Albania, which is also awaiting its first Intergovernmental Conference. Bulgaria’s obstruction
of North Macedonia’s accession because of a dispute about recognition of the Bulgarian
language is, like the response to Albania’s efforts to fulfil the supplementary conditions
imposed upon it, a matter involving the authority and credibility of the EU alone (although
this does not rule out US support).
In that respect, while responsibility for mediating the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue should remain
primarily in European hands, Bosnia Herzegovina represents an opportunity to develop a
stronger partnership between Brussels and Washington a quarter of a century after the Dayton
Accords. In Bosnia Herzegovina, traditional parties suffered losses in the municipal elections
in mid-November, and a highly anticipated election in Mostar will take place on 20
December (for the first time since 2008).  Both developments are a clear signal of a desire for change that could lead to a positive turning point in the legislative and presidential
elections in 2022, if properly supported and coordinated. 
Finally, the new US administration will have to acknowledge that the last few years have
been a wake-up call for Europeans in terms of Brussels’s political involvement in the
Western Balkans. What is at stake in future accessions is no longer just the perspective
outlined at the beginning of the century; it has now become a vital question of credibility, not
just of the commitment of the candidates but also of the EU.
Faced on one side with an integration process that, in rewarding critics of democratic values
and the rule of law, has lost its transformative power, and on the other by increasing
stagnation that has created opportunities for external powers that do not share its values, the
EU is looking for a way to regain control. At the very least, it must persuade Washington that
it has things in hand. To start with, it needs to demonstrate that the new accession negotiation
tactics introduced with great fanfare by France in the autumn of 2019 do indeed lead to
agreement between all parties. It must also allay suspicions that the new tactics were
motivated by a desire to stall the accession process. Finally, the aid provided to the region to
fight the pandemic (3.3 billion euros) and the Economic and Investment Plan announced this
autumn (9 billion euros)  also constitute concrete commitments on the part of a Union that is,
hopefully, determined to accept the six candidate nations as ‘a pressing responsibility’ in
order to achieve its ‘finalité’. 
Now that the United Kingdom is no longer around to plead in favour of the liberal integration
of the Balkan market or to block the political deepening of the EU, and with member states
like Hungary arguing for the integration of the Balkan nations in order to expand the sphere
of illiberal values at the expense of fundamental European ones, it seems that the United
States hardly has any strategic option but to rely fully on the EU and to support its efforts. At
the same time, Washington will want to make sure that Brussels’s ambition of strategic
independence does not jeopardise NATO. That has never been the intention, but European
and transatlantic misunderstandings are going to have to be overcome before the sought-after
partnership can take shape.
The president-elect of the US accepts that a strong Europe would regain its status as a reliable
and credible ally. Will he also concede that, in this new era, the success of the accession
process depends both on the demonstration of leadership by Europe – the only thing capable
of thwarting the influence (which should not be overstated) of external actors  – and on the
nature of US support?
 6 February 2018, ‘A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans’, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/communication-credible-enlargement-perspective-western-balkans_en.pdf
 17 October 2020, on his vision for relations with Albania and Kosovo: http://illyriapress.com/joe-bidens-vision-for-u-s-relations-with-albania-and-kosova/; 20 October 2020, on his vision for relations with Bosnia-Herzegovina: https://twitter.com/mikercarpenter/status/1318327672448102402
 Sarajevo was one of the first places he visited outside the US in 2009. He returned to Kosovo with his family in 2016 to inaugurate a motorway (leading to the US army base, Camp Bondsteel) named after his son, who had died the previous year. His son had worked in Kosovo as a legal advisor after the end of the war.
 23 November 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/nov/23/antony-blinken-joe-biden-secretary-of-state-appointee-is-sharp-break-with-trump-era
 By the same author, 2 April 2020: https://jean-jaures.org/nos-productions/kosovo-reglements-de-compte-au-temps-du-coronavirus
 25 November 2020: https://buildbackbetter.gov/press-releases/readout-of-president-elect-bidens-foreign-leader-calls/
 1 December 2020, ‘EU extends a hand (or two) to Joe Biden’, Politico: https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-extends-a-hand-or-two-to-joe-biden/
 28 November 2020, remarks reported by Dr Leon Hartwell (Center for European Policy Analysis), ‘The Biden Administration will Return to the Long Game in the Balkans’, Balkan Insider: https://www.balkaninsider.com/biden-administration-in-the-balkans/
 For example: High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina is always European; from 1999, the EU Pillar of UNMIK for the reconstruction and development of Kosovo; EU Special Representative (with a US counterpart) to resolve the conflict in FYROM (2001) and the first CSDP mission (2003); the transfer of NATO missions to the EU in BiH (2004, EUFOR Althea).
 2 July 2009, discussion at NATO about the future prospects of Chinese power: https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2009/07/02/will-the-financial-crisis-make-china-a-superpower/index.html
 For example, in 2015 it argued, against EU advice to the contrary, that the extended powers of the High Representative should be used to cancel a referendum intended to bring Republika Srpska closer to independence, and in 2016 it directly threatened Albanian politicians with reprisals if they continued to block a vote on judicial reform required by the EU.
 26 November 2020, the Center for Democratic Transition (Montenegro) describes the potential challenges: https://en.cdtmn.org/analize/potentially-critical-points-in-the-functioning-of-the-new-government-in-montenegro/
 By the same author, 18 April 2019, Fondation Jean Jaurès in collaboration with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the magazine Challenges – Journal for social issues: https://jean-jaures.org/nos-productions/macedoine-du-nord-pour-l-ouest-du-nouveau
 18 November 2020: https://www.courrierdesbalkans.fr/Elections-locales-en-Bosnie-Herzegovine-sursaut-citoyen-imprevu
 25 November 2020, see Daniel Serwer’s suggestions: https://www.peacefare.net/2020/11/25/restoring-individual-rights-and-hope-in-bosnia/
 6 October 2020: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_1811
 October 2020, analysis carried out on the initiative of the former Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ditmir Bushati, in collaboration with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation office in Tirana: ‘Make-or-break moment: EU enlargement in Southeast Europe in pandemic times’ (Matteo Bonomi, Albana Merja, Theresia Töglhofer, Dušan Reljić) http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/albanien/16595.pdf
 30 July 2020, Dr Ardijan Sainovic, IRSEM, ‘Le positionnement stratégique des États des Balkans occidentaux face aux puissances extérieures; 30 October 2020, Srdjan Cvijic, ‘Mechanical Lions and Potemkin Villages: Why is Montenegro Different From Belarus?’ https://europesfutures.eu/archive/mechanical-lions-and-potemkin-villages-why-is-montenegro-different-from-belarus
The article gives the views of the author, not the position of ‘Europe’s Futures
Ideas for Action’ project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).