What happens in the Western Balkans directly influences Austria. This is why we have such a clear interest in the stability and economic prosperity of Serbia and the entire region. We believe strongly that Serbia and the other countries of the Western Balkans firmly belong to the European Union – Alexander Schallenberg
The global diplomatic lockdown, caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, was broken with the Austrian foreign minister’s visit to the countries of the Western Balkans. He came to Serbia bringing medical assistance and an offer that, if required, patients with Covud19 could be treated in Austria. In this interview for CorD Magazine, Minister Alexander Schallenberg reiterates his support for Serbia’s European integration, which, as he notes, depends on the speed with which Serbia implements reforms and meets the criteria set.
How would you summarise your overall impressions following the culmination of your mini-tour of the Western Balkans, during which you visited Serbia and Kosovo and Albania?
The visit to Serbia, Kosovo and Albania was my first visit abroad since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Austrian government has decided to send medical equipment and test kits to the region as a sign of solidarity and support. We have also offered to treat ICU patients from Serbia and other countries of the region in Austria.
The visit showed that Austrian-Serbian bilateral relations can weather good and bad times – and indeed it is our goal to offer support, particularly in times of crisis. My impression of the visit was very positive. I have seen a strong commitment by Serbia to tackle the Covid-19 crisis and its consequences with determination and efficiency, and an eagerness to re-open the economy and social life of the country. This phase is a great challenge for all of us.
Did you get the impression that a favourable climate exists for the resumption of the dialogue on normalisation between Belgrade and Pristina?
We had a very good and frank exchange on many topics, also concerning Kosovo. I underlined the importance of resuming the dialogue in good faith as soon as possible, under the facilitation of Miroslav Lajčak, the EU Special Representative for the Dialogue. Miroslav Lajčak has our full support. All parties have a responsibility to re-engage in the dialogue and I have the impression that there is a strong commitment to do so among all parties. I believe we have a good window of opportunity for the resumption of a meaningful and constructive dialogue.
There is no doubt: the closer the U.S. and the EU work together on this, the better we can support the parties to come to a solution. What we need is a comprehensive solution that is durable and in line with international law
Could the EU bring that dialogue back under its wing? Kosovo’s president is openly turned towards the U.S. How would you comment on that?
Miroslav Lajčak is facilitating the dialogue, he is engaging all parties and stakeholders. He has the full support of the European Union. The aim of the EU facilitated dialogue is the conclusion of a sustainable, mutually acceptable and comprehensive agreement between Belgrade and Pristina that will contribute to long-term peace, as well as to the stability and security of the region. This requires the political will of both sides to come to an agreement.
The EU is committed to working towards achieving this goal. We have a strong interest in the success of this process. There is no doubt: the closer the U.S. and the EU work together on this, the better we can support the parties to come to a solution. What we need is a comprehensive solution that is durable and in line with international law.
You have stated that cooperation with the countries of the Western Balkans remains high on Austria’s list of priorities. In which directions could this cooperation develop?
Our bilateral relations have developed very positively over recent years, based on very strong historical, political, economic and human bonds. The countries of the Western Balkans belong to our immediate neighbourhood. What happens in the Western Balkans impacts Austria directly. This is why we have such a clear interest in the stability and economic prosperity of Serbia and the entire region.
We believe strongly that Serbia and the other countries of the Western Balkans firmly belong in the European Union. We will, therefore, continue to support the region and Serbia as a frontrunner in the accession process, to advance on the path towards full EU membership. Austria will also continue to support the necessary reforms and the improvement of regional relations, in particular the resolution of bilateral disputes. This will be to the benefit of everyone.
Political players within your country continue to insist that the Western Balkan countries should become parts of the EU. You have advocated strongly for the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, which are still being awaited. Could it be said that those who are enthusiastic about enlargement are becoming a minority in the EU?
I don’t think that this is a fair assessment of the situation in the EU. On the contrary, what we have seen during the last presidencies, including the Austrian presidency in the second half of 2018, was a strong recommitment of the EU to the Western Balkans. The Western Balkans are at the top of the EU’s agenda.
We hope that the new methodology will lead to the re-invigoration of the enlargement process, in particular through enhanced political engagement. But it is also important to see a re-invigoration of reform efforts in the candidate countries, particularly on the fundamental question of the rule of law. We need to have a positive dynamic in the enlargement process.
What happens in the Western Balkans impacts Austria directly. This is why we have such a clear interest in the stability and economic prosperity of Serbia and the entire region. We believe strongly that Serbia and the other countries of the Western Balkans firmly belong in the European Union
The Zagreb Declaration, as the latest EU document on the Western Balkans, refers only to the prospects of membership. Why is that?
Let’s not get hung up on semantics. Until all conditions are met to become an EU member and the accession treaty is in force, candidate countries indeed only have a “prospect” of membership, there is no entitlement to membership. Accession is a rigorous, “strict but fair” process.
Recent analysis conducted by the World Bank warns of the possibility of the world economy plunging into a large-scale recession. Do you see hints of a crisis in Austria and will the newly emerged situation lead to a reduction in interest in investing in countries like Serbia?
It is quite obvious that we will all face the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Austrian government has therefore decided on a very significant financial package of around 50 billion euros to support our citizens and businesses. Every crisis opens up new opportunities and I am sure that Austrian companies are assessing new business opportunities in Serbia very carefully. Austrian investors have been present in Serbia and the region under difficult circumstances in the past. They are here for the long term.
The media noted that your Balkan tour was your first trip following the end of the global lockdown caused by Covid-19. What is it like to enjoy the return of direct meetings with people?
It was good to see Ivica Dačić and Jadranka Joksimović in person again – such direct contacts are essential for diplomatic progress. We still had to keep the necessary distance for preventative health reasons. We wore masks and did not shake hands or embrace.
We will continue to support the region and Serbia as a frontrunner in the accession process, to advance on the path towards full EU membership. Austria will also continue to support the necessary reforms and the improvement of regional relations, in particular the resolution of bilateral disputes
The first few months of this year saw world diplomacy reduced to online contacts and addressing only a single topic – overcoming the pandemic. How will you remember that period?
The Covid-19 pandemic presented us with an unprecedented and highly demanding situation that affected each and every one of us, both in our private and our professional lives.
The pandemic exposed the fragility of our highly interconnected economies and, indeed, lives. However, modern communications technologies and our well-developed networks of international cooperation – with our neighbours, within the EU and with countries around the globe – simultaneously highlighted the resilience and usefulness of this interconnectedness.
Thus, constant exchanges with my counterparts – although on a virtual basis – became part of my daily routine, and exactly this – the utmost importance of close cooperation and coordination in times of crisis – is also what I will take away from this period.
You brought aid to Serbia for the Red Cross at the end of May, as part of your support for citizens. Do you believe that the idea of solidarity, which was revived by the Coronavirus, has returned to the world to stay?
As far as Austria and Serbia are concerned, solidarity in times of crisis has been there before, such as in 2014, when we supported Serbia immediately after it was hit by major floods. It was clear to us that we will also show solidarity in this crisis. We have equally shown solidarity with our friends in the European Union, for example by treating ICU patients from France and Italy in Austrian hospitals or supporting repatriation efforts of other member states. The EU has also shown enormous support for Serbia and the countries of the Western Balkans: 93 million euros for Serbia in order to cope with the pandemic and its consequences. Overall, the EU supports the region with 3.3 billion euros. The EU certainly passed the test of solidarity.
With this in mind, the question of whether the EU passed the test of solidarity imposes itself, with criticism having come from Italy and other member states that were hit hard by Covid-19. Do you think that solidarity was lacking?
As healthcare is considered a matter of national and not EU competence, we encountered some initial difficulties in this unprecedented situation. However, we very quickly realised collectively that we are not living in a Gallic village holding out against the Covid-19 pandemic. We realised that only together can we mobilise our resources to confront this global health crisis. The repatriation of hundreds of thousands of stranded European citizens, the delivery of medical supplies or the admission of intensive care patients perfectly demonstrate these acts of European solidarity during times of crisis. Solidarity and helping our partners in need is a matter of course for Austria.
The EU has also shown enormous support for Serbia and the countries of the Western Balkans: 93 million euros for Serbia in order to cope with the pandemic and its consequences. Overall, the EU supports the region with 3.3 billion euros. The EU certainly passed the test of solidarity.
The government in Rome stated in June that Austria’s decision not to allow the opening of borders between the two countries was discriminatory. How would you comment on that?
There was no discrimination at all – Austria is strictly applying one and the same principle to all measures when it comes to loosening Covid19-related restrictions: As early as possible, as late as necessary. For some time, the epidemiological situation in some parts of Italy seemed to warrant special caution. As you know, by now this issue has been settled and I earnestly hope that we will soon be at this point regarding travel between Austria and Serbia.
How will Austria treat Serbian citizens in that process, until the complete reopening of borders?
Austria is opening up borders gradually and according to epidemiological developments. We have opened borders with 31 countries. There are constant discussions going on among EU member states. We hope that the epidemiological situation will soon allow for the reopening of borders and the loosening of restrictive Covid-19 related measures.
Austrian-Serbian bilateral relations can weather good and bad times – and indeed it is our goal to offer support, particularly in times of crisis
I underlined the importance of resuming the dialogue in good faith as soon as possible, under the facilitation of Miroslav Lajčak
We believe strongly that Serbia and the other countries of the Western Balkans firmly belong in the European Union