The Future of EU Enlargement in the Western Balkans: Interview with Eduard Kukan
Maria-Antoaneta Neag: Since both the Commission and Council made positive recommendations regarding some Western Balkan countries, can we say that the era of enlargement fatigue is over? After Croatia will become an EU member next year, how long until the next country will join? Are your bets on a country in the region or rather on Iceland? What timeframe should we envisage until the following enlargement?
Macedonia has a very strong position given the verdict of the International Court of Justice, says Chairman Kukan, adding that there is no logic to continue this kind of situation related to the name issue.
Eduard Kukan: Personally, I am very glad that there is possible movement regarding the Western Balkan region concerning European integration. I think that those countries that received positive responses from the Council in December 2011, meaning both Serbia and Montenegro, deserved that decision and I firmly believe that in June 2012, Montenegro is going to start the accession negotiations.
So far, it was fair that EU institutions recognized the progress which countries achieved and objectively, I think the Montenegrins have fulfilled everything they have been asked for and today there are no grounds for any further postponement of the starting of the formal negotiations.
Things are moving well; the same goes for Serbia, but in its case it will be more complicated given the internal political developments: elections, all the related events which are going to take place, Kosovo etc. Montenegro does not have these problems, meaning that things could go much faster.
Even Bosnia and Herzegovina recently made some good steps, although its still lagging behind the other Western Balkan countries.
Concerning the timeframe and which country will join the EU next, I think its going to be Iceland; that is if they still insist they want to become a member of the European Union, because I know that right now, the opinion polls show that the mood of the citizens is changing. It should be in their interest as well to become an EU member and, given the nature of the country, society etc., its only normal to expect that accession negotiations will take a much shorter time than for the countries in the Balkan region.
Turning to the Balkans, I think that the next country from the region to join the EU will be Montenegro.
MN: How optimistic are you regarding the future of EU?
EK: I am realistically optimistic. When speaking to colleagues from the Western Balkans, I always tell them time is important but its not the most important thing. Its better to be ready for the membership, to be full-fledged member which is not going to make problems to its partners and to the EU when it will become a member.
Realistically, it will take another 7-8 years until the next enlargement. It is important that after the accession of Croatia, the frame of enlargement is kept. It is in the interest of the EU, as well as of the institutions and all those people devoted to the enlargement process, that they follow something and should not get used to sitting back. Thats why we need to start the accession negotiations also for Montenegro, as already planed.
MN: Will EU survive until the complete Western Balkans enlargement?
EK: I believe so, as shown by these recent positive developments in the Western Balkans. I wouldnt say that the enlargement fatigue is over, even though I have never actually believed that there is such thing as enlargement fatigue. I think this phenomenon was exaggerated by many colleagues. The EU is facing a very difficult situation, but in 7-8 years, all these difficulties will be resolved and things will change for the better. Given that timeframe, the accession of the Western Balkans together will not endanger the functioning of the European Union.
How Deadlocks Could Be Addressed
MN: Kosovo gained a lot after the last round of negotiations with Serbia. Among other things, regardless of the fact that a few EU countries still do not officially recognized Kosovo as an independent state entity, it is now able to represent itself in diplomatic meetings of the Western Balkan states and have a name with an asterisk containing a footnote (i.e., Kosovo*), which makes reference to Resolution 1244 of the United Nations Security Council of 1999 (as Serbia demanded) and to a ruling by the International Court of Justice from 2010 (as Kosovo wished). Could this precedent be an option for solving the Macedonia name issue?
EK: Kosovo is a completely different case. Macedonia is a different issue. I am glad that this kind of agreement was reached by Serbia and Kosovo. I dont think that the two situations should be compared because doing so will be very artificial. However, some inspiration could be found in the solution of the Kosovo issue compared to Macedonia.
MN: In these times of crisis that severely affected Greece, which was bailed out several times already, is this name debate which affects the future development of a Western Balkan country justified? How would you see the way forward out of this deadlock?
EK: This situation is not justified. Its ridiculous that this kind of issue, developing for such a long time, is preventing the EU perspective of a country which got the positive progress report for the third consecutive time. This is the only remaining issue that prevents Macedonia from moving forward. It is unjust, but this is the political reality which we are facing.
Personally, Im glad that Macedonians still believe in their European future, that they are still doing a lot in order to continue with the all necessary reforms concerning the future EU membership.
Especially, I am glad that, under these circumstances, the European Commission came up with something which is giving some hope, which is giving something to Macedonia: the high level accession dialogue which was started by Commissioner Füle and PM Gruevski.
I know there are still three more rounds planned already. Theres a timetable for that and will continue because this is really something tangible they are getting. All the issues that they are going to discuss, i.e. the chapters 23 and 24, will be positively affecting the process of formal accession negotiations.
Going back to your question, Im only supporting Macedonias faster progress towards the EU. The last resolution of the European Parliament is speaking about the starting of the accession negotiations without further delay, which was also recommended by the Commissioner and upheld very much by the EP with an overwhelming majority, and I think they really deserve that.
It is also in the interest of Greece. I am aware of the sophisticated arguments that Greek colleagues are using; although some of them are good arguments, they are artificially created. I believe that we should really look to the future.
The problem is more complicated because of the situation in which Greece is finding itself- without a proper government, with a unity government which is going to be there only temporarily thus making it more difficult to adopt substantial, serious decisions. Lets hope that with a new government, Greece is going to take this issue seriously- and the same we expect from Macedonia.
Macedonia has a very strong position given the verdict of the International Court of Justice, which supported its case. Given all these facts together, there is no logic to continue this kind of situation related to the name issue.
MN: As Chairman of the European Parliaments Delegation for relations with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo and AFET member, you have been very active on latest developments regarding Macedonia. What should Macedonia do in practical terms? How should Macedonia plan its future strategy?
EK: I think they should be broadminded in accepting compromise proposals for the name, with a geographical reference like Upper or Northern, some adjective maybe I dont want to criticize Macedonia; I am trying to help them as much as possible. But, if there is a Greek proposal, Macedonia should be broadminded in trying to accept it. However, first they have to receive a proposal!
MN: Can Kosovos EU perspective be envisaged? What kind of dialogue should the EU have with Kosovo, as several MS still didnt recognize it as a state entity?
EK: I think that Kosovo is developing well. We are all glad that agreements on the IBM (Integrated Border Management) and the representation of Kosovo in regional relations were concluded. It is important to implement and materialize them, because it will be still a very difficult environment (considering, for instance, the situation in the North of Kosovo, the upcoming elections in Serbia etc., which complicate the general state of affairs). It will be a test for both how ready they are to implement the agreed solution on these two issues.
Nobody, not even those five non-recognizers to call them in short are against the European future of Kosovo. A couple of days ago, we had a meeting with Baroness Ashton and she informed us about all these issues. When questioned why she is not more active against the five non-recognizers, Lady Ashton answered that this is a decision that each MS is responsible to take.
She mentioned that when these issues are being discussed concerning the feasibility studies, the visa liberalization for Kosovo all these five countries do not create any problems, on the contrary, they are very cooperative.
I think that the main message for Kosovo is that they should fulfill the necessary criteria for Europe and, sooner or later, when theyll show concrete results and progress, everybody will recognize that.
Im from one of those countries who didnt recognize the independence of Kosovo and I know that at least my country is very closely developing relations with Kosovo and Serbia, and concrete results by both partners will affect Slovakia much more serious than any resolution of the European Parliament containing an appeal to recognize Kosovo.
MN: Elections will soon take place in Serbia. Considering the latest achievements in the EU dialogue, will the current government pass the electoral test? Did you notice any other political force or leader emerge as a credible counter-candidate for Tadić?
EK: Its very tricky to bet on results. It is really difficult to give any credible tips on how the elections are going to end and what kind of government we shall see in Serbia after the elections.
The most important thing is that the new government of Serbia will continue to work towards Europe, as it was done by the previous government. President Tadić proved several times that he really managed to go forward with the European agenda. We know him: he has been tested and we know what to expect from him.
The elections are the real expression of the will of the population. I could only hope that all the work undergone so far by Serbias government concerning the reforms, the fulfillment of the criteria will not be wasted. We all hope that the country will continue along the same way after the elections.
Russia: A Cause for Concern?
MN: In view of Tadićs recent statements regarding Serbias close ties with Russia, how do you see their future relationship with Russia and the ex-Soviet satellites? Should this be a cause of concern for the EU?
EK: Its not the only case when Serbias relations with Russia are being mentioned. We know that there are some politicians from smaller parties now who even say that Russia is the alternative to the EU. The way Serbia develops its relations with Russia will be followed much more closely. Serbia is a candidate country and we should follow this aspect very carefully and they should be aware of that. We expect them to behave as an EU candidate country.
Theres nothing wrong in developing relations with Russia. We all have relations with Russia, economic, trade-related relations, etc. All Western democracies, including the United States, have relations with Russia. Basically, the issues surrounding the future direction of the country should be very clear and in that respect any movement towards Russia will be followed and assessed.
MN: How do you see Serbias relations with Turkey, as the latter has invested a lot in the Western Balkans?
EK: I have very definite opinion about that. Turkey is a very big, important country. Its influence in the Western Balkans is growing, they are very active. I think that the European Union should try to find as many ways of cooperation with Turkey as possible and not to compete, block or try to stop the relations or influence of Turkey. This kind of approach will be good for Turkey, for the Western Balkans and for the EU. No unnecessary competition or blocking would be wise, so lets cooperate!
MN: Bosnia and Herzegovina made small steps towards political normality and resuming a constructive dialogue with the EU. Will this compromise last? How will Republika Sprska adapt to these new political developments?
EK: We are again all glad that, after a very long time, it was possible to achieve these small steps. They are concrete steps and if they manage to find a solution to the Sejdić and Finci v. BiH case, then the Stabilization and Association Agreement can be signed; there were two conditions, they fulfilled them, but it is disturbing that the constitutional change challenge remained.
Solving this would be another concrete example that they can do things together. I would say that Im a little bit optimistic about the continuity of this positive trend in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I think that the European Commission is doing a really good job for the country.
The dialogue on the reform of the judiciary in Republika Sprska, which was suggested by Commissioner Füle, has started and these discussions are going to continue. I think that they will change into a more cooperative approach to Republika Sprska and Milorad Dodić.
Sometimes, the bad image of Republika Sprska is not reflecting the reality and its being exaggerated and treated with a negative approach. The politicians of the country used enough time to come to the conclusion that there are no reasonable arguments not to go ahead faster on the European way.
MN: As a final question, do you believe that the presence of the international community and EU in the region has an added value? Which countries have benefited more of this presence?
EK: The presence of the international community and the European Union is definitely positive. It is even becoming more pragmatic, in order to help with the necessary things for the countries in the region. The dialogue in the last couple of years has been intensifying. Within the European institutions there is an understanding about what is really necessary for those countries in order to help them to get closer to the EU.
I wouldnt like to single out which countries were helped or assisted more compared to others. I think that the situation must be analyzed in each individual country. The European institutions, especially the Parliament, are always supporting enlargement and gently pushing the Commission to move faster.
For each country the Commission is trying to introduce some maybe even new instruments to support the faster integration: the high level accession dialogue with Macedonia, the structured dialogue on the reform of the judiciary with Republika Sprska etc. I know that the Commission is very active in Albania concerning the overcoming of the stalemate that took a very long time, and there are some positive signs from Tirana as well. Regarding BiH, much more attention has been given to the country by Baroness Ashton and Commissioner Füle. The same goes for Serbia.
In conclusion, I think that the activities of the European institutions are helpful for the countries in the region and I am glad that this is the case. I am very much supporting the future inclusion of the whole region in the European Union. Without this we cannot speak about Europe being one and whole.