Probably the most interesting formulation in the Zagreb Declaration concerns the EU’s assistance to fight COVID-19 and its impact on the Western Balkan countries. In the Article 5 of the Declaration in connection with the assistance, it states: „the fact that this [EU] support and cooperation goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region deserves public acknowledgement“. It is an apparent reaction to exaggerated over-appreciation by the Balkan leaders of assistance from countries such as Russia and China. At the same time, the EU’s help was somewhat overlooked and understated. EU is investing a lot in the region, providing by far the highest amount of development and technical assistance, yet falls short in getting credit for it. This is EU’s long-term problem, despite significant amounts of money invested in its neighbourhood, visibility and recognition of this assistance has been somewhat weak. Finally, the EU representatives expressed they had enough of this and expected at least fair recognition of what the EU was contributing to its partners. The fact it needed to be written in a plain language in the Zagreb Declaration means the EU also wants to fight disinformation and propaganda about who helped, how much and how in the Western Balkans during the COVID-19 crisis.
The need for strategic communication that is „essential“ made it also to the Declaration. Quite strong-worded Article 8 calls for the intention to „reinforce cooperation [between the EU and WB6] on addressing disinformation and other hybrid activities originating in particular from third-state actors seeking to undermine the European perspective of the region. Closer collaboration is needed in resilience-building and cybersecurity.
Security issues are in general high on the EU – Western Balkans agenda, Articles 12 and 13 of the Declaration were dedicated to the security challenges, cooperation at the operational level specifically in the area of “preventing and countering terrorism and extremism, including the financing, radicalisation and return of foreign terrorist fighters“. The Summit also called upon Western Balkan partners to cooperate more closely at the intra-regional level and where beneficial drawing on EU tools and frameworks.
In Article 18, the EU appreciated the „contribution of Western Balkans’ partners to the EU missions and operations“. At the same time, however, the EU expects a „further deepening of cooperation in the area of Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and reiterates its calls on all partners to progress towards full alignment with EU foreign policy positions, notably on issues where major common interests are at stake, and to act accordingly“. This is a clear nod to Serbia, that has been criticised for years already, for its foreign policy towards Russia and China that does not necessarily align with the EU’s positions.
The only person that „earned“ an Article in the Zagreb Declaration (No. 9) was the Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajčák, newly appointed „EU Special Representative for the Belgrade – Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues“. The EU member states „welcomed his recent appointment“, thus aligning behind him, strengthening the legitimacy of his mandate, that came under fire from a couple of Balkan leaders even before he was physically able to move to Brussels.