The new European Strategy for the Western Balkans gives a clear, unequivocal and credible perspective for the EU integration of each Western Balkan country, says Christina Danielsson, Director General for Enlargement at the European Commission, in this interview for CorD. At the same time, he stresses, the Strategy leaves no doubt that there are no shortcuts to membership and that progress on reforms will be key. The rule of law, combatting corruption and organised crime, economic reforms and regional reconciliation remain at the top of the list for Balkan countries wishing to join the EU club.
Mr Danielsson, what do you consider the most important elements of the EU’s strategy for the Western Balkans, which was adopted in February?
– With this new Strategy, adopted on 6th February, the Commission is reaffirming that the European future of the Western Balkans is a geostrategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe based on common values. The Strategy aims to generate a renewed reform momentum in the region, in order to address the specific key challenges faced by the Western Balkans. It also enhances EU support to the efforts of the Western Balkan countries on their European paths, including through additional funding.
Was it easy to reach consensus on the Western Balkan strategy among Member States and given that it has been accepted by all members, how much weight does the strategy carry in a legal-formal sense?
– The Western Balkans Strategy is a political document adopted by the Commission, in which the Commission presents its views on future EU relations with the Western Balkans and clearly points to the issues that are crucial to their enlargement perspective becoming a reality. An EU-Western Balkans Summit will take place in Sofia on 17th May, at which EU-Leaders and their Western Balkan counterparts will discuss relations between the EU and the region. The Strategy will provide a good foundation for these discussions.
Does the strategy for the Western Balkans see the region as a group of country that will join the EU together, or will it respect the principle of the countries that meet all criteria acceding first, which would make Serbia and Montenegro the front runners?
– The Strategy specifically mentions Serbia and Montenegro as current negotiating countries in the Western Balkans. But the EU perspective on offer, and the instruments to achieve it, are valid for the region as a whole. Other countries can catch up, and present frontrunners can fall behind if they don’t deliver.
The enlargement perspective of the Western Balkans is first and foremost in the hands of the countries themselves. They must act with determination and urgently redouble their efforts, address vital reforms and complete their political, economic and social transformation.
The overall pace of its accession negotiations depends on Serbia’s ability to implement reforms across the board and, in particular, in the area of the rule of law. Member States expect to see real, substantive progress on the rule of law – not only on paper, but on the ground
Your partners in Belgrade have expressed their concern over Commission President Juncker’s recent statement that the countries of the Western Balkans will join the EU “when they satisfy all the criteria”. Can Serbia satisfy all the criteria by 2025; and has any candidate country joined the Union under such conditions?
– The new Strategy gives a clear, unequivocal and credible perspective for EU integration, for each and every one of our six Western Balkan partners. At the same time, it leaves no doubt that there are no shortcuts to membership and that progress on reforms will be key. So, we expect these countries – including Serbia – to tackle the existing challenges forcefully and with a clearer commitment. The rule of law must be strong, and corruption must be rooted out. We must see concrete results in the fight against organised crime. Economic reforms are needed to reduce unemployment and improve employment opportunities for young people. Leaders must make reconciliation and good neighbourly relations a true part of their political agenda.
Regarding Serbia, we have been very clear from the beginning that progress on the European paths of both Serbia and Kosovo is firmly linked to progress on the normalisation of their relations. The Strategy is also clear on this. It is urgent now to reach such a legally binding agreement on comprehensive normalisation. A legally binding agreement with Pristina will have to be negotiated, agreed and concluded several years ahead of accession. The EU will also want to see full implementation of this agreement before Serbia can join.
The strategy also allegedly insists that all regional issues be resolved prior to EU accession. Does this create room for bilateral issues to become obstacles to the EU accession process, which has not been supported by the EU to date?
– Indeed, the Strategy is very clear that all remaining bilateral disputes between countries in the region need to be resolved before EU accession. The EU will not accept the importing of these disputes and the instability they could entail. Therefore, definitive and binding solutions must be found and implemented before a country accedes. All countries must refrain from misusing outstanding issues in the EU accession process. As a matter of principle, the frontrunners on the EU path have a strategic interest in being advocates, not spoilers, of the aspirations of their neighbours. The countries of the region are interdependent and will progress faster if they help each other along the way.
A legally binding agreement with Pristina will have to be negotiated, agreed and concluded several years ahead of accession. The EU will also want to see full implementation of this agreement before Serbia can join
It is already being interpreted that the strategy envisages resolving the issue of relations between Belgrade Pristina by 2019! If this is true, does the strategy contradict the EU’s earlier position that, along with chapters 23 and 24, the last chapter to be closed would be Chapter 35, which addresses this issue?
– There is no contradiction. We have been very clear from the beginning that progress on the European paths of both Serbia and Kosovo is firmly linked to progress on the normalisation of their relations. The EU-Serbia Negotiating Framework requires a comprehensive normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo in the form of a legally binding agreement. Progress on the normalisation of relations is also essential for Kosovo to advance on its European path.
The strategy is also clear on this. A comprehensive, legally binding agreement on normalisation of relations will have to be concluded if the accession perspective for Serbia is to be achieved. The EU will want to see irreversible implementation of this agreement before Serbia can join.
Are you concerned that a strategy formulated in such a way could be perceived as exerting pressure on Serbia?
– We are not concerned about exerting pressure. Instead, we hope that the strategy will open a window of opportunity for Serbia and Kosovo to resolve this matter once and for all. The time to do this is now.
Considering that Serbia’s EU accession process is inextricably linked to negotiations on the normalisation of relations between Belgrade-Pristina, how would you evaluate the current status of that process?
– Let me reiterate that we consider progress on the normalisation of relations as ultimately for the benefit of citizens in both Serbia and Kosovo. It is also key to progress and the stability of the entire region.
A significant number of agreements are already widely implemented, but both sides need to take the necessary steps on the implementation of all agreements reached.
Given that Kosovo also aspires to join the EU, do you consider that the EU has utilised all opportunities to compel Pristina to fulfil the obligations it accepted under the Brussels Agreement, particularly those concerning the formation of the Community of Serbian Municipalities?
– In August 2015, Serbia and Kosovo agreed to accelerate implementation of important agreements. We have seen progress on some of them, while implementation has been lagging behind in other areas. High-Representative/ Vice-President Mogherini has repeatedly urged both sides to implement all agreements reached. The Dialogue serves the interests of both Kosovo and Serbia. As a facilitator, the EU would like to see an acceleration of agreeing, implementing and showing concrete results. Yet, it is the political will of the two parties that determines the pace and eventual success of the Dialogue.
The EU seems to be paying very close attention to announcements of the so-called “internal dialogue on Kosovo”, initiated by Serbian President Vučić. In this regard, it can be heard that the expected ultimate end result of the normalisation of relations would be for Serbia to accept Kosovo becoming a member of the UN. Do you share that view?
– I believe that the internal debate in Serbia on Kosovo will contribute to establishing an environment that is conducive to finding a solution to a comprehensive normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. The exact parameters and elements for such a comprehensive normalisation are for both sides to identify and ultimately agree upon. High-Representative/Vice-President Mogherini is currently facilitating this.
What would happen with relations between Serbia and the EU if President Vučić is proven right in his prediction that the chances of reaching a deal with Pristina are slim and no agreement on a lasting solution is reached?
– In general, I think it is important to be optimistic. Of course, far-reaching reforms are not always easy or popular. Tough choices will have to be made. But the goal of EU accession is clear. As already mentioned, progress on the European paths of both Serbia and Kosovo is firmly linked to progress on the normalisation of their relations. It is crucial to find a lasting solution to this issue. The EU therefore expects a constructive engagement for the full implementation of all agreements reached within the EU facilitated Dialogue. We have so far been encouraged by the commitment and engagement of the two presidents.
Judicial reform and the fight against corruption are important areas on which Serbia needs to make progress. For the EU, reforms on the rule of law are not a paper exercise. They are not only about laws, strategies or action plans, and Serbia needs to strengthen its efforts considerably
Can you predict the pace at which negotiation chapters will be opened with Serbia in 2018?
– It is up to Serbia to set the pace of its accession negotiations. The overall pace of its accession negotiations depends on Serbia’s ability to implement reforms across the board and, in particular, in the area of the rule of law. Member States expect to see real, substantive progress on the rule of law – not only on paper, but on the ground. This needs to become a political priority for the government.
During your last visit to Belgrade, you stated that you had the impression that Serbia is “determined on its European path” and that it is very good that is “keeping in mind” the path along which it is headed. In the context of the current story about Belgrade sitting on two chairs, is there actual pressure being applied by some EU members to open negotiations as soon as possible on Chapter 31, which covers the harmonisation of foreign policy with the EU, primarily in order for Serbia to align with sanctions against Russia?
– Serbia has decided to move towards EU membership. In the area of foreign policy, Serbia already contributes to EU missions and operations, which we welcome. Serbia’s commitment to EU membership also implies that it progressively aligns with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy in the period up to accession. Serbia needs to exert additional efforts in this respect. The EU Common Foreign and Security Policy leaves room for developing bilateral relationships with countries that are not EU members, as long as the common framework is respected.
You have stated that, as part of the EU integration process, Serbia must resolve basic issues like judicial reform and the fight against corruption. Many domestic stakeholders note that there is no progress in this area. What is your impression?
– Judicial reform and the fight against corruption are important areas on which Serbia needs to make progress. For the EU, reforms on the rule of law are not a paper exercise. They are not only about laws, strategies or action plans, and Serbia needs to strengthen its efforts considerably.
In fact, rule of law reforms are about deep, transformational changes: strengthening the independence, impartiality and efficiency of the judiciary; stepping up the fight against corruption and organised crime; creating an environment that fully guarantees freedom of expression and of the media. These are some of the key challenges that have a direct and tangible impact on citizens’ lives.
Strategy represents firm confirmation that addressing reforms in the area of the rule of law, fundamental rights and good governance remains the most pressing issue for the Western Balkans and Serbia
You have expressed interest in the state of freedom of the press in Serbia on several occasions. What is your conclusion regarding the situation at present?
– A free press is vital for having a democracy that works. Freedom of expression is one of the EU’s fundamental values and one of the core elements of Serbia’s European integration process.
Independent, pluralistic and strong media are the cornerstone of any democratic society. Their role is to hold governments accountable, promote good governance and transparency, and facilitate the free flow of quality and well-researched information on matters of public interest.
Any labelling or attacks on the integrity of journalists that can hinder their professional work go against the values of media freedom. The EU will continue to monitor the situation in this area in the context of Serbia’s accession negotiations.
Serbia needs to address the findings of the latest ODIHR election observation mission report relating to media, including extending the oversight of the media regulator to all aspects of media coverage of elections and by introducing more effective sanctions. It also needs to improve the transparency of media financing, particularly at the local level.
We believe strongly that ensuring freedom of expression needs to increasingly become a political priority in Serbia. This will have a direct and tangible impact on citizens’ lives, but also, we believe, in employment and business opportunities for the media sector. Furthermore, a pluralistic media landscape where citizens can be well informed and where open debate can take place is essential for every modern democratic society.
How would you respond to the fairly widespread belief in Serbia that the EU’s priorities when it comes to Serbia are Kosovo and relations with Russia, such that everything else – including the rule of law and media freedom – remains a minor issue in dialogue with the authorities?
– The direct answer to this short and simple: absolutely not! In fact, the Strategy represents firm confirmation that addressing reforms in the area of the rule of law, fundamental rights and good governance remains the most pressing issue for the Western Balkans and Serbia. It is a key benchmark against which the prospects of these countries will be assessed by the EU. These fundamental EU values must be embraced much more strongly and credibly. Strengthening the rule of law is not only an institutional issue; it requires societal transformation.