Former European justice commissioner and Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini has for several years been helping the President of Serbia in the European integration process with his advice. At the recent Belgrade Security Forum, he reiterated that he is optimistic on the issue of Serbia’s entry into the EU, while in this interview for CorD he criticises the European Commission President’s statement that Serbia and Montenegro could become EU members in 2015.
At the Belgrade Security Forum you discussed the region, Serbia and the EU. Do you think Serbia has a European future?
– Yes, I think it is the only possible option. I don’t consider any alternative because Serbia is not only geographically and politically, but I would say systematically, part of Europe. I cannot imagine concluding the unification of Europe, which started in 2004 by bringing in countries like the Czech Republic or Hungary, without having Serbia in. So, my answer is yes!
When it comes to Serbia’s record of European integration, what do you think was done right and what do you see as obstacles on the road to full membership?
– The obstacles are of a political nature. There is a shared feeling in Europe called “European enlargement fatigue”. There is a feeling that, after the accession of Croatia, Europe needs to take time before further enlargement. This is a political obstacle that could and should be overcome. My view is that there are more positive than negative elements to this. The positive aspects consist of at least three main elements. First, Europe is facing fragilities within the governments of the member states. The incoming German government, for example, will be more fragile than the previous one, because it might include Greens and Liberals whose views differ from those of the CDU on many topics. Furthermore, there is uncertainty regarding the outcome of Brexit, then there is the infiltration of instability and insecurity caused by migratory flows and terrorism – all these elements need a political response badly, in terms of the stability of the Balkans. The stability of the Balkans is in the interest of Europe even more than it is in the interests of Balkan citizens. I can understand that citizens of the Balkans share the feeling of enlargement fatigue when they complain “We are waiting for Europe for so many years! That’s enough”. It is understandable. But they should also realise that we, EU member states, are even more interested now in having countries like Serbia, because it is a pillar of stability in the region.
Secondly, the Western Balkans as a whole, and Serbia in particular, represent a new, promising market. We are slowly emerging from the crisis and new markets are needed. In Italy, industrial production boomed during July and August 2017, mainly because of export demand. In order to keep that level of export, we need to find new markets. Serbia, which is vital in offering opportunities for foreign investments, is one those new markets, along with the rest of the Western Balkans. Finally, there is the element of having geostrategic meaning. We cannot imagine leaving this region as an enclave surrounded by EU states. Leaving the region as an enclave would be a time bomb, because it might become a place where all those who would want to plot against (the EU) would establish themselves. All those elements justify speeding up the accession process.
I cannot imagine concluding the unification of Europe, which started in 2004 by bringing in countries like Czech Republic or Hungary, without having Serbia in
Jean Claude Juncker said that Serbia and Montenegro could be ready for EU membership by 2025. Do you think the goal is achievable in eight years?
– That statement is a ridiculous! I appreciate very much Mr Juncker; I’ve known him for a very long time and we have worked together, but as a president of the European Commission he should avoid such statements. From my experience, if there is political will, it is absolutely possible to open and close all the negotiating chapters in two or three years. I have already said that, in the case of Serbia, I would like to see the conclusion of the negotiating process by 2020, maybe 2021. But let’s avoid fixing the ridiculous target of 2025. Nobody knows how the world will be in 2025! Rather, let’s say transparently that, for the moment, there is no political will to go ahead with enlargement. That would have been a much more serious statement, because this one is like saying we are leaving everything for our great-grandchildren to decide. It is necessary that countries like Serbia or Montenegro speed up the process of reforms. Much has to be done. But how can you push governments for change when you say that the target is 2025? This was quite an unfortunate statement, and I hope it will soon be forgotten.
However, that statement made the Albanian prime minister quite unhappy, given that Mr Junker singled out Serbia and Montenegro from the rest of the Western Balkans group.
– Well, Albania has to do more. Albania is still lagging behind. A number of political crises in Albania affected its path to Europe. I’ve was working on achieving the goal of Albania gaining candidate status when I was Italian foreign minister. I was also involved with Albania’s bid for NATO. But we have to recognise that more stable political leadership is needed in Albania. Though the government has to go ahead with more concrete results, Albania is absolutely essential to the process of the Western Balkans’ EU accession. We cannot leave it behind.
Regarding Kosovo, Mr Thaçi said that EU failed keeping its promise to accelerate Kosovo’s European integrations after the establishment of the Special court for war crimes. Now he seems disappointed?
– Mr Thaçi has to be aware that Kosovo, together with Bosnia- Herzegovina, is the most behind schedule. It is undeniable that Kosovo is facing a political crisis. There were so many problems to get a majority to form this government, which now functions with just a slight majority. They have a number of domestic political problems, while there are still problems preventing the continuation of a dialogue with Serbia… So, before blaming the EU, they should do their homework. This is my honest piece of advice to Kosovo.
In the case of Serbia, I would like to see the conclusion of the negotiating process by 2020, maybe 2021. But let’s avoid fixing ridiculous targets like 2025. Nobody knows how the world will be in 2025!
How do you see the proposed “internal dialogue” in Serbia on the future of Kosovo talks? It looks like that some in Brussels have very high hopes about it. Do you think that internal dialogue can change Serbian official policy that Kosovo’s self- declared independence is unacceptable?
– I don’t think so. The sentiment that independence of Kosovo is not legitimate is deeply rooted in Serbia. We have been facing moments of frank exchanges of opinions at the time my country recognised Kosovo in 2006 – during the time of my predecessor as foreign minister, Massimo D’Alema. I don’t think people in Serbia will overcome this stance. This is why it’s even more important to launch an internal political dialogue and civil society dialogue, as decided by president Vučić. This is not only depoliticising the issue of Kosovo, but de-dramatising the issue of Kosovo. One of the merits of President Vučić is that he is ready to discuss Kosovo – it is no longer taboo.
There will be a very important review exercise before the end of the year, when a delegation from the EU, for the first time comprising judges and prosecutors, will come to Serbia to explore fight against organised crime and corruption, freedom of the judiciary and so on
Back in 2008, when Kosovo declared independence, western diplomats were saying it was a “unique case”. After that, we have seen a “unique case” in Crimea, and now the referendum in Catalonia. After all that, do you think it was more a precedent than a “unique case”?
– It is very dangerous to multiply the number of unique cases, because we give the idea of double standards. Silence from the international community about Kosovo’s declaration of independence at the time, or even open support for it, and today’s almost unanimous “NO” for the referendum in Catalonia, gives the impression that there are double standards. It is important to remain linked to international laws and principles. The International Court of Justice came with an advisory opinion affirming general principles of trying to work for independence, but the court did not take a position on Kosovo’s right to secede from Serbia and become independent. This was the ruling of the International Court of Justice and the case was solved only at the political level, not at the legal level. How was the problem solved? It was solved through the initiating of a political process in the UN. In Catalonia, the referendum was held and a few days later the leader of Catalonia called for a dialogue with no precondition. Why? Because he realised there was no right to secession. This is a clear principle and the same applies to the Crimea, because otherwise we couldn’t justify even thinking about sanctions against the Russian Federation. I am against sanctions in principle, but the basis of sanctions is that there was no right to secession of Crimea.
I have to confess that my personal advice to then Prime Minister Vučić was also to play an excellent role in bridging the gap with Russia, instead of antagonising Russia. This kind of positive attitude is proving to be right
Despite the fact that praises are heard from the EU on President Vučić’s account, both the European Commission and European Parliament often speak about problems with the rule of law, judiciary and media freedom in Serbia. How do you see that?
– There will be a very important review exercise before the end of the year, when a delegation from EU, for the first time comprising judges and prosecutors, will come to Serbia, to explore the fight against organised crime and corruption, freedom of the judiciary and so on… That will be a good opportunity for Serbia to present the situation and demonstrate whether the country is on the right track when it comes to strengthening the rule of law, according to Chapters 23 and 24. By the way, those were the chapters that I was responsible for during my time with the European Commission. I used to look at the press in Serbia, by translating it to Italian or English. The large majority of media are against the government, against the regime, against the president – similarly to what happens in Italy. And, of course, we have to fight to try to find the right balance. I don’t think that media should be in principle in favour of or against the government. They have to honestly report what happens or what doesn’t happen. It is in the interest of government to give full transparency on media freedom. I think President Vučić is pragmatic enough to understand that he is very strong; he has nothing to fear from opening completely to the media. It is something that Europe will continue to explore.
One of the future problems for Serbia on its EU path could be presented by its relationship with Russia. So far Belgrade has refused to implemented sanctions against Moscow, despite repeated calls from some European capitals to harmonise its foreign policy with that of the EU. How do you see future developments in that respect?
– Cooperation with Russia has never been one of the general criteria to be fulfilled by candidates within the Copenhagen criteria. These elements are completely outside the framework of negotiating chapters. I have to confess that my personal advice to then Prime Minister Vučić was also to play an excellent role in bridging the gap with Russia, instead pf antagonising Russia. This kind of positive attitude is proving to be right, because everybody in the world is realising that, without cooperation with Russia, we cannot achieve anything in fighting terrorism, in stabilising Libya, Syria and the Middle East. Everybody realises that Russia is a global player with whom we have to cooperate. I think the sanctions will be overcome soon and the fact that Serbia was able to be a bridge between Russia and the EU is another added value for us. It’s no secret that from the very beginning Italy was among the countries advocating for the restoring of cooperation with Moscow.