Time for the EU to Deal Fairly with the Western Balkans

Interview with Eduard Kukan

11 February 2022

They are tired of waiting. Particularly when they have not always been treated fairly.

Lucia Najšlová: A number of V4 declarations stipulate that the Western Balkans is a foreign policy priority and that the V4 contributes to integration of the region within Europe. How is this done?

Eduard Kukan: Well, in the first place, we regularly publish declarations. I believe we even mean them, and we are serious about the topic. But the practical engagement comes more from individual members of the Visegrad Group, not so much from the group as a whole. Activity toward the Balkans comes principally from Slovakia and Hungary, as I do not see such activity in Poland and the Czech Republic. During its EU presidency, Hungary was really active in the EU enlargement process, trying to finish up many things, for example in negotiations with Croatia. But on the V4 level, I do not see much joint, coordinated effort, perhaps with the exception of organizing conferences. Our leverage could be bigger if we acted jointly.

What prevents the V4 from stronger cooperation when the declared priorities toward the region are the same? Do the individual countries in question want to keep their respective successes — as in, “we the Czechs or Poles did this”?

It seems there has never been enough political will for joint steps. This is not only the case with the Balkans – it is true in many other contexts. As you suggested, when the individual members of the V4 have the opportunity to have a moment of individual visibility, they prefer it to coordination. Very often, cooperation falls victim to efforts to increase the prestige or respect of individual V4 countries.

At the same time, the V4 keeps recommending to the Balkans that they should strengthen regional cooperation.

Regional cooperation is in the first place reiterated by the European Union. In the EU’s evaluation of reform progress in the Balkans, their engagement in regional cooperation is an important criterion of progress. And here, certainly, the V4 experience might be an added value for Balkan politicians. As a practical example – look, we did it and it helped us.

Don’t they think it’s ironic that we recommend regional cooperation, while the V4’s own engagement in the WB is mainly on an individual basis?

This is our own critical self-evaluation, and we need to pay attention to this. But the Western Balkan leaders do not analyze whether the V4 acts collectively or not – they focus on individual countries.

Is the V4 easily understood in Serbia or Albania?

Not exactly. The Visegrad Group is composed of diverse partners. We have a big state like Poland, which has its own interests and sometimes gives them precedence over the joint action of the whole V4. So, our Balkan colleagues do not even expect we are going to be coordinated.

Looking at individual engagement – there are a number of activities going on at the level of states – what about civil society projects?

Well, civil society cooperation certainly is important. And the civil societies of the Western Balkans need our support –to learn about the functioning civil society organizations in the V4. Here we need to do more. But sometimes our colleagues from Balkan administrations or parliaments tell us that there are cases when the donors just give resources to selected organizations, without being aware of what these organizations actually do, and it may happen that the resources are wasted or even misused.

Looking at the broader EU dimension of working with the Balkans, perhaps the major challenge remains the non-recognition of Kosovo by some member states. Given this, can the EU have meaningful policy toward the region?

That’s certainly the most difficult question. Yet, I believe we can. For example, at the moment there is a joint effort to eliminate the discrimination of Kosovars in visa-free travel to Schengen. Here, the European Parliament is certainly the most active body pushing the European Commission to take more action and our powers to do so have increased after the Lisbon treaty was adopted. Visa-free travel, in the end, is not a policy towards a “state” but towards people. So even in relation to Kosovo, I believe we can make positive progress. Of course, sooner or later the question of Kosovo’s status will come up. But the more pressing issue at the moment is broader: the EU’s credibility and real intentions to pursue a European perspective in the Balkans is in question.

However, at the level of rhetoric the promise seems to be firm — EU leaders have reiterated their pledge to the Western Balkans on every occasion possible.

Take Montenegro, for example. They have fulfilled everything we wanted from them. And yet, they still do not have a date. The Council sometimes comes up with some other reason for delay. Such as “ok, they adopted the reform, let’s wait for implementation”. Or take Macedonia – a candidate country for years. The Commission does not even know what to write into its progress report. It is “they fulfill Copenhagen criteria”, year after year. If we say that if you fulfill this task we will open the negotiations, we should do it. Not “let’s wait six more months”. That is not credible on our side.

What is behind all the delays? The usual “enlargement fatigue”?

In my view, it is always concrete events concerning one of the larger EU players that slow the process down. For example, the candidate status of Serbia was postponed because of the recent clashes in northern Kosovo. Chancellor Merkel said that she could not explain to her voters that the EU would do something positive for Serbia when German soldiers are being attacked with stones. It’s always these little things and issues with individual countries. But not “enlargement fatigue”. There is a lot of talk on enlargement fatigue and sometimes it is exaggerated.

Let me come back to Serbia & Kosovo for a moment – can you imagine a situation that only one of them makes it to the EU, while the other is left out? Wouldn’t we be facing a situation similar to that of Cyprus?

It seems to me that the big players in the EU are extending pressure on Serbia to resolve the relations with Kosovo before moving forward with accession process. For example, recently a couple of German MP’s put it very bluntly in Serbia: if you do not recognize them, there are no negotiations. However, at the moment there is not any formalized EU position on the recognition – just individual statements. But it is logical to expect that this will have to be solved before the accession.

Several public opinion polls have recently shown that euro-optimism in the Western Balkans is on the retreat. How can we explain this? Is it that the process has been going too long?

They are tired of waiting. Particularly when they have not always been treated fairly. And of course, perhaps it was not expected that all reform process would be so closely monitored and controlled by EU institutions. Even though the enthusiasm has fallen, the EU perspective is still a strong factor for all these states. You can see it in election results – the political forces interested in joining the EU usually win.

But then, don’t the internal EU crises weaken our foreign policy and capacity to be engaged with neighbours?

Of course they do. That is also the reason why some activities, also towards the Balkans, are less intense. The slowing down of negotiations and longer waiting time for aspirants is one of the consequences of the tough challenges we are facing on the domestic front.

How long might this last? None of the EU crises – economic, loss of confidence in politics and politicians – is about to be resolved in the near term.

It will take longer — my estimate is seven years. That could be the time to bring us from the worst back to normal. I am a euro-optimist. I believe the European project will not fall apart. But let’s be honest: we are still only thinking, and when we come up with something… We have in fact not yet implemented a measure that would really improve the situation.

Interview conducted by Lucia Najšlová

From the first edition of Visegrad Insight 2012.

Photo: “MEP Eduard Kukan on the New Neighbourhoo” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by European Parliament

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