MURPHY QUESTIONS STATE DEPARTMENT ON U.S. AID FOR BALKANS, AMB. GRENELL’S DOUBLE APPOINTMENT

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Wednesday questioned Matthew A. Palmer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, on the successes and unfinished business in the Western Balkans. Specifically, Murphy pressed Palmer about the White House appointment of Ambassador Ric Grenell as Special Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, Kosovo and Serbia hearing unaligned messages from Europe and the United States as of late, and the impact of U.S. foreign assistance in the Balkans as the president continues to slash these funds.

On the double appointment for Ambassador Grenell, Murphy asked: “[Y]ou were appointed as Special Representatives for the Western Balkans on August 30, while you were still serving as the DAS for Southeast Europe. And then on October 4, the White House appointed Ambassador Ric Grenell as the Special Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo. This came as a surprise to the State Department and the leaders in the region. Prime Minister Vu?i? gave some fairly candid remarks about his lack of awareness regarding Mr. Grenell’s appointment. What can you tell us about how the responsibilities are going to be divided in the region moving forward? And how does Ambassador Grenell do both jobs at once?”

Murphy then asked Palmer about the mixed messages Pristina and Belgrade were hearing: “One of the things that Senator Johnson and I heard when we were in the region about a month ago was, and maybe I'll speak for myself here, but the concern that for the first time, both Pristina and Belgrade, were hearing different messages from the United States and from Europe. They felt that we were simply not coordinated in the way that we used to be and I know some questions were asked earlier about land swaps.”

Finally, Murphy then pressed Palmer about the importance of U.S. foreign assistance for the Balkans: “We've seen the incredible impact that relatively small amounts of U.S. aid has on the region. Every time I go, ambassadors tell us that enormous reward and payback we get for relatively small sums. But they also sort of see this withdrawal of American interest in the region.”

Full transcript of Murphy’s exchange with Palmer is below:

MURPHY: “Good to see you. Thank you very much for sticking around for another moment.

“I don't know if this is—I'm sorry that I'm just coming in—I don't know if this has been discussed. But one of the questions that I had for you was—there’s been some question as to the personnel authority right now over the region. I don't know if this is something that's been discussed as of yet.

“So, you were appointed as Special Representatives for the Western Balkans on August 30, while you were still serving as the DAS for Southeast Europe. And then on October 4, the White House appointed Ambassador Ric Grenell as the Special Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo. This came as a surprise to the State Department and the leaders in the region. Prime Minister Vu?i? gave some fairly candid remarks about his lack of awareness regarding Mr. Grenell’s appointment.

“What can you tell us about how the responsibilities are going to be divided in the region moving forward? And how does Ambassador Grenell do both jobs at once? Being Ambassador to Germany is a pretty significant responsibility in and of itself and I don't know that this committee would find it really attractive to have ambassadors to major NATO nations spending half of their time out of country working on really complex problems in other regions.

PALMER: “Sure. No, I appreciate that question, Senator. It's not an unfamiliar model. I lived for a number of years in Cyprus working at our embassy there, at which point there was a Special Representative for Cyprus, Tom Weston, and a Special Presidential Envoy for Cyprus, Al Moses. It was a model that worked pretty well.

“What I think you see right now in the Western Balkans, with both my appointment by Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Grenell’s appointment by the president, is a commitment on the part of the administration, a commitment on the part of the United States, to raise our profile in the region to demonstrate to the region that we are there and we are partnering with them and we are ready to put political capital effort and energy into helping the countries of the Western Balkans move forward.

“I think it's terrific, frankly, that Ambassador Grenell is there to work as the president’s Special Envoy specific to the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue. I think only good things can come with that. My mandate’s a little bit broader, covers the whole region. My focus may be a little bit longer term. I know that Ambassador Grenell is interested in trying to push the parties forward on an urgent basis to address challenges immediately and to identify areas of cooperation that can be put in place urgently.

“And so I think that that his role and my role will actually be quite complementary. I look forward to working with him. He certainly is someone that can bring the full weight and heft of the White House to this problem set. I think that's welcome. It's our responsibility to work well and closely together, and to coordinate carefully to ensure that we're staying on message.”

MURPHY: “One of the things that Senator Johnson and I heard when we were in the region about a month ago was, and maybe I'll speak for myself here, but the concern that for the first time, both Pristina and Belgrade, were hearing different messages from the United States and from Europe. They felt that we were simply not coordinated in the way that we used to be and I know some questions were asked earlier about land swaps. This is amongst the concerns that they had.

“Have you heard this concern as well? And what are the steps that can be taken to try to make sure that we are delivering a similar, if not very well coordinated message with the Europeans on our expectations of the two parties?”

PALMER: “Thank you for that question Senator. I would actually maybe frame it in a slightly different way. I think that what the region was picking up wasn't so much differences between the United States and in Europe as such, but differences amongst member states of the European Union and between the organizing institutions of the European Union and certain member states.

“So I think there was maybe different messages that were coming from different European capitals to Belgrade and Pristina, some of those messages were more closely aligned with the position of the United States than others.

“The relationship between the United States and the European Union's External Action Service, Mogherini and her team who were leading the negotiating process, was always very much in lockstep. I do know that there were some different messages coming out of different capitals in Europe that I think may have been fuzzing the message some. And yes, I agree entirely that we need to work to ensure coherent messaging from the United States, from European institutions headquartered in Brussels, and from EU Member State Capital.”

MURPHY: “I think it's harder to coordinate with the European Union on these questions when we have sent an ambassador there who reportedly told the Europeans upon his arrival that he's there to destroy the European Union, but I appreciate your recognition that this is a challenge we have to overcome.

“I think the region gets mixed messages from our administration as well because—well you've been appointed and then somebody who was appointed to layer on top of you. The budget that the president has submitted to us is a massive disinvestment in the region. It cuts in half the funding that we send to Kosovo. It cuts by two thirds, the numbers for North Macedonia. Similar, very big decreases.

“I mean, we've seen the incredible impact that relatively small amounts of U.S. aid has on the region. Every time I go, ambassadors tell us that enormous reward and payback we get for relatively small sums. But they also sort of see this withdrawal of American interest in the region. We have personnel that are committed to the region, I don't doubt you are. But it's really hard for you to carry that message effectively when you have presidential budget after presidential budget that tells the Balkan region they don't matter, at least from a funding standpoint.

“Do you believe that U.S. foreign assistance can make a difference in the Balkans? I mean, what do you say to the representatives there, who no doubt complained to you that these numbers seem to be perpetually decreasing, at least from the president's proposed budget?”

PALMER: “You know Senator, it interesting—but no Balkan leader has ever complained to me about that. I've never gotten a complaint that was based on the trajectory of U.S. budget number

“The complaints I get are about access. What they want is people. What they want is time and attention. What they want are meetings. What they want are visitors. What they want is the appointment of a Special Representative or Special Envoy. What they want is to know that they have our attention.

“And I would argue that that my appointment by Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Grenell’s appointment by the president, is part of delivering that message. Yes, foreign assistance is a vital tool, we can put it to good use. We have put it to good use in the Balkans and we will continue to do so. But I've never had a Balkan leader complained to me about budgets.”

MURPHY: “You may do different meetings than I do. But I hear it maybe more frequently from our embassy staff there.

“I mean, I remember my first visit to Belgrade, in which then Ambassador Kirby talked about the incredible impact that exchange programs had had. He could point to a cross section of leadership in Serbia that was sympathetic to U.S. asks and concerns in part because they had spent part of their life studying or doing business in the United States, thanks to programs that facilitated exchanges, and yet those programs were being largely shut down or dramatically pared back.

“I've heard it from Balkan leaders, but I've also maybe heard it more often from our personnel who are in charge of representing U.S. interests, who see their ability to get our case heard, often connected to our ability to run smart programming. But I appreciate your work in the region, thanks for sticking around for my questions.”

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