The entire Berlin Process is directed towards developing regional cooperation to the level of self-sustainability and utilising this sustainable regional cooperation to build stability in the region.
You recently stated that the Western Balkans’ narrative of the 1990s, which was marked by wars, has returned. To what extent can the project to connect the countries of the Western Balkans within the framework of the Berlin Process reverse this narrative more permanently?
– The more common interests we identify and initiatives we launch in the region, the better and more efficiently we connect, such that the negative rhetoric will begin to wane. Such rhetoric has long been recognised and is most often used for populist purposes or even cheap “commercial” purposes. Whenever some elections are held in the region, then such retrograde thinking intensifies, supported, unfortunately, by the media. I don’t believe that’s a realistic picture of the situation in the region, because when we look at some of the research on the other side, fewer people believe it’s possible for new conflicts to break out. Due to European integration, common interests and regional cooperation and goals that began being formed before the Berlin Process, it is necessary to understand these new realities. Of course, we must be aware of abuses and fight against them. After all, it is most important for positive things to happen, devoted to the common interests of all countries in the region, and the Berlin Process is a good instrument for those common interests to be better recognised and converted into concrete initiatives and projects.
The Berlin Process is ambitiously imagined as tangible cooperation in various areas, from connecting youngsters via education and joint infrastructure projects, to a mini customs union. However, despite realisation reaching the halfway stage, are you concerned that the Berlin Process still has a longer wish list than a list of realised goals?
– It appears that way for now. However, if we take into account the fact that the Berlin Process is not yet an institutionalised process, that it is not a mechanism which requires measuring and results monitoring, and that it finances the mobilisation of some existing initiatives, one should not be overly critical. Ahead of the Fifth Summit, for example, everyone thinks it is a good time to devise the further continuation of the work of the Berlin Process in some other format. For this reason, I consider this a convenient moment to structure future activities, and to introduce effective principles, with prospective themes and initiatives that will have visible results. On the other hand, it is essential to reexamine the wish list and reduce it to what is realistic, and to implement those initiatives that are crucial for the region in the period ahead.
The EU is the best project to date, and I think this process has no alternative and is the only one that can essentially change the situation in Serbia, but also in the other countries of the region. I believe these crises are fleeting and that the EU will emerge from them and design its own future, which must happen
It has been shown that some ideas, such as those related to strengthening the region’s common market, and even creating a customs union, are not met with approval. Have you noted that the countries of the Western Balkans view each other to a great extent as competitors and not economic partners?
– The countries of the region are in the position that they have more interest in cooperating than they are competitors, because regional cooperation is one of the mandatory preconditions for EU enlargement. The essence here is that countries which have opened more chapters than others fear that their route to accession may be slowed down due to others, but that is not realistic, because – according to the new regatta system – we proportion each country’s results in approaching the EU and other countries cannot slow them down.
If the Berlin Process incentivises the strengthening of ties between the countries of the Western Balkans, defining them as a group that aspires to EU membership, how would you interpret the assessment of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that Serbia and Montenegro will be the first to achieve EU membership?
– All countries that satisfy the conditions of the enlargement process will become EU members and that has nothing to do with the Berlin Process, but it is a fact that Serbia and Montenegro have achieved the most and progressed the most in this process.
The European Fund for the Balkans, which you head, is this year commemorating a decade of its existence. Given that its mission from the start has been to strengthen democracy and establish European values, would you consider yourself successful?
– I consider that over the course of ten years we have established a new mechanism in the region, which has various instruments to work in key areas. We are doing a lot of work on building capacities in certain segments, for example, we are dealing with young civil servants and research organisations, working with thinktanks, with those who want to create new policies. We have also established a regional thinktank, which brings together people from Europe to analyse the situation in the region and in Europe and try to define some key positions in relation to current events and opportunities that would then trigger processes for improving and advancing this region in relation to the EU, and creating an orderly democratic society in the countries of the region. Our initiatives and processes have been recognised and adopted by Europe, and we are proud that we have become a key player in relation to the Berlin Process, but also in relation to advocating in favour of some very important ideas for this region. All this is thanks to our developed network, which makes it easier for us to initiate and implement ideas and processes.
The European Fund for the Balkans compiled a Report on the Regression of Democracy, a study which concluded that the democratic system has been significantly disrupted and that some of the more important institutional foundations of civil society have lost credibility
How much has Serbia changed during these ten years?
– Everything has changed in the last ten years – not only Serbia, but also in the surrounding countries, and the goals of the Fund that I head, which were defined at the outset, unfortunately still remain, despite all the changes. Some of the premises we started with have even disappeared today, so we have to redefine them. We implemented one study on the regression of democracy in which we concluded that there has been a serious disruption in the democratic system, and as part of the civil society of the region we see some signs that we are returning to the old way in which civil society was once treated. Generally, the situation has become so complex that it is very difficult to find a focus and direct yourself towards something that will mobilise new ideas and initiatives.
The recently published results of the annual survey of the views of citizens – the Balkan Barometer – shows that Serbia is at the bottom of the list when it comes to enthusiasm for EU membership and the benefits of EU accession. How would you explain that? Do you consider that Serbian citizens have not been informed sufficiently about the benefits of EU entry and, if so, who is responsible for that?
– This is a constant topic. I value the Barometer and the data it publishes, but I don’t believe citizen support for EU accession should be measured through surveys. The attitude towards euro integration changes in relation to daily political topics and messages, which are often placed intentionally in the media. That is why results can vary greatly from day to day.
It is also certain that the benefits of joining the EU have not been sufficiently explained to citizens, but I also think that ordinary citizens don’t need to know about the chapters and follow the technical details of processes related to Euro integration. They don’t need to know the contents of each of these chapters, because they are very narrowly technical things. That’s also why it’s a mistake to try to explain this process to citizens by insisting on opening and closing chapters, bidding for dates. The essence is to explain what good things this process really brings for us, and how we can use that to normalise the situation in the country and in everyday life. We should highlight those effects from the processes that show citizens in the most illustrative way exactly what that means. This is the only way we will get their support, but not only so that they will express their support in the next survey, but rather so they will support those reforms that are crucial for completing the process.
Do you believe in the veracity of the political elite in Serbia when they say that EU accession is the country’s absolute top priority?
– Political consensus exists, which is most important, but it is also important that the citizens of Serbia have voted in the last few elections for governments that are declaratively in favour of joining the EU.
On the other side, today many euro-enthusiasts express their disappointment at the fact that the EU has stopped being a promoter of values and a corrective factor for those striving towards membership. This was particularly evident during the time of the migrant crisis, then with the strengthening of populism and, finally, with the recent events in Catalonia. Can the European Union be a role model example again?
– The EU is the best project to date, and I think this process has no alternative and is the only one that can essentially change the situation in Serbia, but also in the other countries of the region. I believe these crises are fleeting and that the EU will emerge from them and design its own future, which must happen. It should be said, of course, that the EU will survive if it introduces these changes and identifies new challenges that are brought by future times.
A set of very precise technical rules that are measured by the opening and closing of chapters is why I wouldn’t confuse political and technical processes
If the success of Serbia’s EU accession negotiations are primarily measured by progress on the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština, does such a determination impact on the speed and quality of other social reforms that are essential for EU entry?
– I don’t think the success of negotiations is measured by progress in the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština. This is an important issue, but a specific political one, and apart from that there is also the accession process, which represents a set of very precise technical rules that are measured by the opening and closing of chapters, which is why I wouldn’t confuse political and technical processes.
How would you comment on the criticism levelled at the EU that the issue of the stability of the Western Balkans is subordinate to all others? Instead of insisting on strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law, the EU supports leaders who guarantee geopolitical stability, regardless of how it is achieved. Such a regime also has its own definition and is known as a stabilocracy.
– The European Fund for the Balkans and the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group coined the term and the phenomenon of stabilocracy in their Report on the Regression of Democracy. The process stagnated for one period and it really seemed to me that Europe was pretending to expand and Serbia was pretending to reform. That situation consequently led to a reduction in Europe’s influence in relation to those processes that are crucial for democratisation. Likewise, due to serious problems related to stability, one got the impression that priority is given to stability. It is important for us to emerge from that phase, because I believe everything can be fixed and I believe the enlargement mechanism has the possibility to change that and intensify it again, shifting the focus to fundamental changes in the countries of the region.