Expectations for the German EU-Council Presidency on EU-Enlargement in the Western Balkans. From previous disappointments and disorganisation to the desire for stability and peace in the region.
Viola von Cramon, Rapporteur in the Foreign Affairs Committee for Kosovo, Romeo Franz, Chair Delegation Relations with Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Kosovo - both Member of the European Parliament for the Greens/EFA - and Petar Todorov from the Institute of National History (Skopje), member of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung’s Western Balkans Strategy Group in a conversation with Walter Kaufmann, Head of East & Southeast Europe Division of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Berlin.
Walter Kaufmann: It is great to have you all in this round discussing the EU Enlargement Policy, focusing on the Western Balkans, which are key regarding the enlargement policy for the upcoming EU presidencies. Petar, I would like to start with you as a representative from the region and a member of our strategy group on the Western Balkans. Last summer, when we discussed the upcoming Croatian and German presidencies, there was some scepticism, but still quite a bit of cautious optimism for these upcoming presidencies – governments would take over that have had at least some experience with Balkan policy. Then came October, when the Council, after the French and Dutch veto, refused to give accession negotiations to North Macedonia and Albania, against all previous promises.
At the March summit, the October decision was reversed: Albania and North Macedonia finally got the green light for accession talks. Recently, we had the Zagreb Summit that reiterated former commitments regarding the integration of the ‘West Balkans Six’. Where are we today? Has the EU recovered from the October shock and has the region recovered? Looking at North Macedonia, where do you see the EU’s credibility today and North Macedonia’s perception of the EU?
Petar Todorov: October’s decision was a huge blow for the EU’s credibility, particularly in North Macedonia. There was a wave of frustration and it was big because of what North Macedonia’s government did in regard to the relations with neighbouring countries. Speaking about the agreement for good relations with Bulgaria and then the agreement with Greece, the October decision was very disappointing.
Luckily, the Macedonian society did not repeat the same mistake as after the 2008 Bucharest Summit and the Greek leader’s veto for NATO membership. True, they did decide to go on with parliamentary re-elections, but there was not the wave of nationalism that we experienced in 2008. They did not exploit the disappointment about the EU’s decision of October for nationalist anti-EU-sentiments, instead they kept on with their pro-EU-orientation. The main decision to open accession talks has been nearly unnoticed due to the coronavirus pandemic. People were more concerned about public health and how the institutions of the state will handle the problem than thinking and talking about EU accession talks and negotiations.
The topic was debated in the media, but it was not topic number one. The credibility of the EU in the region was more endangered by some of the decisions made by the EU during this pandemic. How would the EU handle the pandemic? Where are the Western Balkans in this situation? Some people in the Balkans thought that the EU did not show solidarity with the region, that the region was going to be left to fend for itself. Later, the situation got better and there was support for public health coming from the EU, but also very much needed financial support for the economies of the region.
There was an attempt by some external actors to show that the EU is completely disorganised. An attempt to spread the feeling of disappointment in EU institutions, but I have to say that if we compare this to other countries, such as Serbia, the North Macedonian society was much better in this regard – the government and the political parties did not heed this discrediting of the EU.
Viola, Petar was just talking about the discredited EU enlargement policy from an external perspective. In many ways, enlargement is also discredited internally among EU member states. Sometimes regional governments promote ‘EU fatigue’, saying ‘oh the EU is not delivering, we have other options’ and so on. With the Greens, is there a commitment towards EU enlargement regarding the Western Balkans? What are the discussions on how to overcome this form of fatigue, on how to handle a resistant political elite?
Viola von Cramon: Yes, there is commitment for the Western Balkans from the Greens, also for the enlargement process. It was always there, and it will be there, but, and this is important, that shouldn’t be taken for granted. We surely look at the impact on the citizens, so it must be in our interest to look at what kind of reform agenda the different governments have proposed and how that affects and influences the situation of citizens.
We have always said that the key issue of our common foreign and security policy in the European Union is the enlargement of the Western Balkan states. In the situation of the current pandemic, the EU gave 3.3 billion euros to this region. This is a lot of money, so we therefore also need highly controlled monitoring. This is a two-direction process. We see the necessity to enlarge, and we see the interest of many external actors, such as China or Russia. They are flooding the region with propaganda and disinformation, so the EU needs to be better at communication.
We have to work on better describing the situation of the Western Balkan states to other member states, but on the other hand we also need to put more pressure on the very authoritarian states, such as Serbia, who are reluctant to fulfil the conditions for accession. This is the dilemma we are facing.
Walter: Romeo, I know that you have been to Bosnia and Herzegovina several times. This year is the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre as well the Dayton Agreement, and after 25 years Bosnia is quite behind regarding the EU integration process. How would you approach Bosnia and Herzegovina? Does the EU have to be more proactive, and why do we have to care?
Romeo Franz: Bosnia’s fragile stability depends largely on Serbia and Croatia. Zagreb and Belgrade bear direct responsibility for the situation in Bosnia because they have a great influence on the Serbian and Croatian ethnic groups there. The national and ethnic conflicts flare up again and that is really dangerous, which happened during the Bleiburg commemoration.
Leading politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in Croatia have to acknowledge that national chauvinist policies are dangerous. The stability of Bosnia must receive attention during the German presidency. The EU cooperation with the Balkans is also important because of the external borders, namely Croatia’s border with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
How do you observe the role of Croatia and how do you assess the Croatian presidency? They had the Zagreb Summit that could not take place because of the coronavirus pandemic but had to take place online, and they are still promoting themselves as the bearer of the EU enlargement flag. What is your assessment of Croatian Balkan policies, Viola?
Viola von Cramon: I cannot assess Bosnia that much, but for the region, I think it was good that Croatia had the presidency because it was an important signal to the region that the online summit could happen despite the pandemic. This helps to show that the EU still has a big interest in integrating the region; even if you have very sceptical member states, the majority must be aware of the importance and the developments in the region. Without further integration of the Western Balkan states, we will never have stability in the region.
When I was in Belgrade and Pristina talking to the people, I understood their perspective to be that, especially in Kosovo, they will finally get the green light for the visa liberalisation. This is overdue, and it is an embarrassment of the member states and of the council that it hasn’t happened. I hope this is one of the highest priorities on the agenda for the German presidency.
Petar, what is your thinking when you read the Zagreb Declaration? We have the role of EU member states bordering the region, be it Croatia itself, with Bosnia, be it Bulgaria, with Greece and North Macedonia. They all have their own problems and the Zagreb Declaration mentions good neighbourly relations several times as a priority. Where are we with this?
Petar Todorov: Good relationships with your neighbours are crucial. Even without a European context we should have good relationships with neighbouring countries. Regarding the last experience we witnessed in Bosnia with the Bleiberg commemoration or with what is happening in Serbia, or in other countries in the region, whether EU members or countries aspiring to become EU members, we can see that history plays an important role. Historical perspectives can be conflictual and have the potential to destabilise the region. As an historian and someone who is participating in the work of the bilateral committee trying to solve this historical political dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, I found this very important.
When it comes to the credibility of the EU, it can be undermined by not starting accession talks with countries, but it can also be undermined by how EU member countries in the region are treating their neighbours. Whenever it comes to a very nationalistic statement from officials representing the Bulgarian government, the Croatian government, or any government that is neighbouring the Western Balkan countries, it endangers EU credibility among citizens.
Romeo, on EU credibility and its values, I think another policy field where credibility has been undermined over the last years is policy regarding ethnic minorities.
Romeo Franz: We must see that the topic of minority policies is very special. I have good minority connections in the Western Balkans, and the information I get from them is sometimes very sad, it can be very dangerous for them, and particularly for people with Romani background, for example. It’s a delicate topic to speak about minority rights and the reality on the ground.
For the concluding question, let’s focus on the upcoming German EU presidency. For the upcoming months, where do you see priorities? Recovery is one, and the Zagreb Summit has committed some money for the region, but where should the EU be under the German presidency regarding the Western Balkans? Petar, would you like to start?
Petar Todorov: The coronavirus pandemic revealed all the problems that exist in our societies. We noticed a number of symbolic divisions, and here I refer to the discrimination against people with Romani background that Romeo mentioned. These divisions can be used to see what the underlying problems are, which can destabilise the region, but that are important issues for the development of a society. The institutions and civil society in the region should deeply analyse the performance of societies during the pandemic. We will have to work hard to improve the problems that we face – symbolic divisions, the economic performance, the public health system etc.
My opinion about the German presidency and the region is that we need to continue working on the problems that exist within society in regard to nationalism and relations with neighbouring countries that could destabilise the region. We who live in the region have to work on this, but we also need support from EU countries: they have to support the liberal agendas and condemn nationalistic agendas.
In regard to the Green policies, I think the German presidency should be aiming to support societies and to fight air pollution. This is something that will really show the people, the citizens living in the region, that there are some positive effects of the EU in the region.
Romeo, what are your priorities for upcoming presidency?
Romeo Franz: From a Green perspective, we have to try to change course and convince the EU enlargement sceptics, like Germany, that there is no alternative to EU enlargement that includes the Balkan countries. From a geopolitical point of view, we do not want our direct European borders to lose democratic influence or lose economic dominance. Furthermore, this is very important to us Greens, the Balkan War was not long ago, and people are still suffering from the consequences today. Peace is very fragile because there are still national and ethnic conflicts and because minorities are still not protected. So the EU has a special responsibility to both maintain peace in the region and strengthen democratic forces.
Viola, looking at the upcoming six months, what are the kind of immediate issues or immediate battles to be fought?
Viola con Cramon: I would like to stress as a Green that all six Western Balkan states have signed the Energy Community agreement in 2005, which means they are committed to a more green energy direction. The implementation of this treaty – and now in the pandemic we can see that the health of people in the region is bad, as Petar has mentioned – has an impact on the overall economic cost as well as the health of the people. And this is very much linked to another point: we need better oversight, we need better controls where the money goes.
A second point concerns the enormous pressure the media is under in some states. For Germany, I think it would be a very important signal to name the states where the media is under heavy repression. After all, for the economic and cultural development of a region we need checks and balances, the rule of law, but also an independent and strong media.
Thank you all very much.
The conversation took place on 25 May 2020.