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Failure in the Western Balkans means a failure of the European project

Interview with Florent Marciacq, a senior fellow at the Centre international de formation européenne. Interviewer: Iwona Reichardt

May 24, 2019 - Florent Marciacq Iwona Reichardt - Hot TopicsInterviews

IWONA REICHARDT: Many people say that the upcoming elections to the European Parliament will be different than the ones we had in the past. From the perspective of the EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, what could we expect?

FLORENT MARCIACQ: The election campaign, to start with, has been quite detrimental to enlargement. In France, the decision in June 2018 not to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania reflected the intention of the ruling party and President Emmanuel Macron to avoid that any topic related to the enlargement comes on the agenda of the EU before the elections. The same goes for the postponement of the publication of Western Balkans’ country reports. Questions related to enlargement had to be kept out of the campaign. They had to wait. After the elections, what we will probably see is a greater fragmentation of the European Parliament with the two main parties unable to rule as easily as before. Ad hoc coalitions will need to be formed with other parties, depending on the issues at play. And as enlargement is not the most consensual topic anymore, it may at times be more difficult to form coalitions pushing for the topic to stay high on the agenda. That will be a challenge, as the European Parliament was traditionally more supportive of enlargement than the council or the member states. Finally, there may be next week a larger number of the Euro-sceptics in the European Parliament. If they unite, which seems unlikely at this point, enlargement may be stalled. And even if they do not, they may been quite successful in shaping the agenda, and enlargement may not be much part of it.

Yet, the integration projects are ongoing and will be continued after the elections. We have the Berlin Process, for example, which is aimed at integrating the Western Balkans with the EU, and soon after the elections its summit will take place in July. This project was actually meant to end last year, but it continues. Who is steering it now?

The Berlin Process is not a process that is well structured. It has no steering mechanism and no institutional framework. It is, in fact, a very loose process, which is both its strength and its weakness – a weakness because each chairmanship defines its own the priorities for its yearly summit. Past priorities are sometimes included, new elements are sometimes added, others are just get forgotten along the way. There is not enough continuity in terms of priority setting, I would say. For example, when Austria chaired the Berlin Process in 2015, they pushed for the adoption of a declaration on regional co-operation and good neighbourly relations. The idea was that we need to work on bilateral issues in the framework of the Berlin Process. This priority has lost ground in the past few years, and it is not among Poland’s highest priorities for this year’s summit. But this loose structure is also the strength of the Berlin Process. It opens new avenues, allows for more creativity and brings enlargement questions closer to the capitals of key member states – where decision power has de facto shifted in the past few years. 

Poland, which will be the host of the July Summit, has indeed shown greater interest in being an active member of this process. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs supports it and has a vision for it…

Poland supports the Berlin Process and Poland has defined priorities for its chairmanship, namely economy, connectivity, civil society and think tank development. Poland will also do other things, of course, but that will be where Poland invests its diplomatic capital. Now, how successful has the Berlin Process been? It was launched in 2014 with one goal: to make “real additional progress”. The context, back then, was not favourable to enlargement. So, the initiative was launched to demonstrate that it was possible to advance reforms, real ones in the region. Not shallow ones, only visible on the paper. And this gives new impetus to enlargement. But there was another goal: to make additional progress that goes beyond the accession policy framework, and add value to it. And here is the real potential of the Berlin Process. We already have some concrete achievements in this sense, like the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO). But can’t we be more daring, more ambitious?

How can we be more daring?

I think the real achievement of the Berlin Process on which we should all invest more energy is regional co-operation. Not as an additional element, but as a game-changer. The Berlin Process has put all the countries of the region in the same boat, it has created a sense of shared responsibility and made co-operation very profitable. This is new, because the EU rather dealt with the countries of the region in a bilateral way. The regatta principle is a good example: it posits that each country should progress at its own pace, that each country should be judged on the basis of its own merits. This approach relied on the belief that competition between the countries would be constructive. But it has not. In a post-conflict environment like the Western Balkans, it should not come as a surprise. Competition has fuelled tensions and the regatta principle has not helped the region to move forwards, on the contrary. The Berlin Process was in that sense very innovative because it put all countries in the same boat and opened new ways for co-operation.

Unfortunately, the last enlargement strategy has emptied most of the Berlin Process of its substance, except for its most innovative element. The new enlargement strategy keeps the regatta principle unchanged, it keeps its faith in competition. It is unfortunate, we could achieve so much more if we defined regional solidarity as a cornerstone of the EU’s approach. It is not too late to do so, though. That would be a new vision – a vision defining EU accession as a regional priority rather than a national priority. A vision, requiring the countries of the region to stand for one another. Is it not what we need? The next thing is that the aims of the Berlin Process should be seen in a wider European context. Namely, this initiative was meant to relaunch the interest of member states in the enlargement. When it was launched, Russia and China were gaining influence in the Balkans so there was a feeling of “we have to do something” to get the others interested…

Make Europe attractive again?

And also to illustrate to the EU countries that progress can be made. However, here unfortunately we have seen a failure. We’ve seen a decline of engagement in the participation and hosting of the Berlin Process, starting with Germany, which was very active in this process, and Austria which was active first but later its engagement decreased. Also the UK, unfortunately, sent very mixed signals last year. It has not convinced other member states to the need to maintain it. So in that respect we see the limitations of this initiative. I think that the future value of the Berlin Process will be that it can look for things that the enlargement policy is not doing.

For example?

A strategic emphasis on regional co-operation, as I already explained, but also more engagement in fostering reconciliation. The enlargement policy is not very effective in this regards, so we should do something differently here. Also, we could maybe discuss the role of geopolitical actors. This is also not in the enlargement policy per se. The countries participating in the Berlin Process have very different views about the role of Russia, China or Turkey. So why not use this process to discuss how to best co-ordinate the different approaches? The issue is not one that is specific to the Western Balkans. We have similar questions in the EU. The added value of the Berlin process is to look at what is missing in the enlargement policy, and sometimes, what is missing are topics that are extremely relevant to EU countries as well.

Do you think there is political will for this kind of thinking?

I think that at one point there will be. Especially, when some problems will become very obvious. Think about it: one-fifth of Kosovo’s population has already left the country in the past ten years. The same dynamic can be found through the region. The lack of socio-economic development, democracy and perspectives is just emptying the region of its people. If you add fertility, it means that the region is confronted with the problem of an aging population. Now about 16 per cent of the population is 50+ while by 2050 it will be 25 per cent. That is a problem: who will carry out the transformation we all strive for? Therefore, there’s a need to think about the region a little bit differently. Not as a region which is at the periphery, at the margins, of the EU but as a region which is already in the EU. In Vienna 28 per cent of the students come from the region. One million of the people from the region are already in Germany, half a million in Austria, half a million in Italy…

So the parents live in the Balkans, but the kids live in Europe?

Yes, and when the parents can move, they move too. Also, economically the Western Balkan states are already integrated. 60 per cent of their trade relations are with the EU. EU states also invest there; for example, Austria has over 500 companies in Serbia, it employs 15,000 people. France, which is not that much supportive of enlargement, is planning to build a subway in Serbia. Europeans bought all of the banking systems and all of the communication systems there. These states are also fully integrated in the security area. Serbia participates in EU missions; Albania and Montenegro align themselves systematically with EU declarations on international issues. I am talking about a very deep economic, human and also political integration. Everything… except formal accession. If we do not realize that at one point this gap will not be sustainable then…

We might lose the Balkans?

People will just continue to move out and we can forget about democratic or economic transformation. The problems will just become bigger. We should realise that these problems are not problems that are located far, far away from us, at the EU’s periphery. What is at stake here is the credibility of the EU. Not only as foreign policy actor. We risk losing credibility in something much deeper. If we fail in the Western Balkans, it will be a failure of the European project, of our integration project itself. Deepening or widening will not matter anymore as a choice, because we’ll have lost the appetite for both. It would be an integration failure. And external actors will not just wait and remain passive.

Speaking about other actors you have already mentioned China. Can you tell me what is your interpretation of the One Belt, One Road policy and how is the Chinese engagement in Western Balkans perceived by local leaders?

Let me start by saying that there is a huge infrastructure gap in the region – this information is nothing new. In transport, energy and telecommunications this infrastructure gap is estimated at about eight to ten per cent of the GDP over the next five years. 30 per cent of roads and railways need maintenance or repairing in the region. The electricity system is also extremely outdated. The region loses twice the yearly consumption of Kosovo in electricity every year because of bad infrastructure. The EU has a strategy for the Balkans in that area, it is the connectivity agenda. But it is not alone to advance new projects. Chinese investors have come, with the Belt and Road Initiative and the 16+1 initiative. Both are part of China’s grand strategy of “going out”, launched in the late 1990s.

But don’t get me wrong. The Balkans are no priority for the Chinese. Their ambition is global, and it just happened that one of their grand projects to connect with Europe goes through the Western Balkans. For the leaders of the region this is an extremely welcome move because receiving EU funding is a complicated process. EU funding comes with strings attached. And EU grants always have to be combined with other funding mechanisms, from international institutions or state funds. This means that countries have to prepare very complex funding schemes, which is a problem for many of the countries of the region, given their limited administrative capacities.

China, by contrast, comes with no strings attached. It offers state-to-state loans, brings workers on the construction site, even the material needed. You ask and they give. They are even ready to give something you have not asked for. This is an opportunity for many local or national strongmen in the region. They can show their voters that they are the guys who build things around, who modernize their town, their city, their country. And offer extra money to their clientelist circles. But these loans will have to be repaid at some point. We see that the debt of Montenegro has risen tremendously because of Chinese so-called investments. If the debt is not repaid, then China can seize the assets, as in Sri Lanka. And that is the real problem. China does not care about the economic sustainability of the projects, if there are commercially viable, if there is money for maintenance, if civil society is consulted, environmental risks are taken into consideration, if good governance standards are applied. It is important here to look at how things are done. Not just at what China does.

Looking at the region, we have nonetheless seen some progress. For example, North Macedonia has broken the status quo with the name agreement with Greece. Is it, in your view, realistic to think that states like Serbia, Montenegro and perhaps North Macedonia have a real chance of joining the EU in 2025 as outlined in the 2018 strategy: A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans?

Honestly, I do not believe that 2025 is a very credible date. For several reasons. If we look at the Copenhagen criteria, we see that the Western Balkans are still far from reaching them. In fact, they are not much closer now than they were 10 or 15 years. That is a sobering reality. Of course, most have progressed on their way to the EU – becoming candidate status, opening accession negotiations and so on. But that happened regardless of their actual progress in terms of transformation. As a matter of fact, there is only little correlation between formal progress and actual convergence. Over 75 per cent of the people living in the Western Balkans believe that the political parties, the administration and judiciary are corrupt. 70 per cent believe that anti-corruption policies have been ineffective and yet the EU has been pushing anti-corruption laws for 20 years. Studies show that it might take decades for the countries of the region to comply with the acquis communautaire, and it would certainly require even more time to ensure adherence to EU norms and values. The problem is that we focus so much on compliance with the acquis in preparation of accession, when we should equally raise the readiness of these countries to tackle post-accession challenges. We need to anticipate future problems.

In terms of economic development, likewise, the Western Balkan countries have not been catching up with the EU. Twenty years ago, their GDP per capita was estimated at being between 40 and 60 per cent of that in Central European countries. Today it remains on the same level. There has been no catching up. If you look at Croatia when it joined the EU, its GDP per capita was 60 per cent of that of the EU. Serbia, which is the frontrunner, is now at 37 per cent. To reach Croatia’s accession point, it would take Serbia 50 years at least, depending on growth rates.

In terms of democratization, finally, there is no progress, except for North Macedonia. Freedom House indicators are quite clear about that, there has even been some backsliding. If we take the Copenhagen criteria seriously, we do not see that things are working very well. And these criteria are not the only ones to consider before accession. We now have other criteria, like good neighbourly relations, sovereignty issues, territorial disputes, etc. And we have the absorption criteria. In other words, the EU and its member states need to be ready for enlargement, no matter how well the countries of the region perform. They can tick all the boxes, but if the EU says it is not ready, then enlargement will not happen. And most European, 49 per cent, do not want enlargement. In the region, this opposition translates into a widespread belief that enlargement will never happen. In Serbia one-third of the population shares this view. At the regional level, it is more than one-fourth of the population. That is why I do not think that a 2025 accession will take place. But we should not be focusing so much on the accession. It is not a strategic goal. Instead, we should ask ourselves what we can do to help transform these countries. And set the strategic goals right.

So what can we do?

I support the idea that at one point the countries of the region and their societies will realize how uncertain and unpredictable the accession process is. They will realise that the EU recipe is not a panacea. It will not solve their issues and may even fall short of offering them perspectives. Acknowledging that is the first step. The second step is to question this recipe, to look for a better one and engage in political fight to make it prevail. The countries of the region need to know how uncertain their future is, to take it in their hand, look into the EU as if they were already part of it, find out what is the number one thing missing in the EU today. And offer a solution to make their accession, their transformation virtually inestimable to the EU.

In my opinion that number one problem in the EU is the lack of solidarity between the member states. In the EU, we have an obvious lack of solidarity; we saw it during the refugee crisis and during the financial crisis. We see it in environmental and intergenerational matters. We talk about solidarity, but these are only words. Solidarity is yet a fundamental value of the EU. It is enshrined in the EU Treaty and the Schuman declaration. The EU emphasised it until the 1980s when it advanced the cohesion policy. But we have started to lose sight of this value with globalisation and instead started to emphasize competition. Yet the two should work together and we should keep this in mind when we design our policies for Western Balkans. The regatta principle is the antithesis of what we should have done in the region. It did not help heal the divides and allowed ethno-national politics to thrive in the region. It prevents solidarity to flourish.

I believe that if people in the region understand that accession will not happen in the predictable future, the need to organise themselves around the value of solidarity will emerge more strongly. It will be a transnational mobilisation, where societies will have to stand for one another in support of their accession and the accession of their neighbours. It implies saying that all the countries will join the EU together, not one by one. And walking the walk, support each other instead of blocking or refraining from blocking each other. That would allow the countries of the region to increase their lobbying capacities for the enlargement. Not only in Brussels, but also in Paris, Berlin, and so on. As a whole region, the Western Balkans stand a better chance. But the beautiful thing here is that it would be a game-changer. Such an approach would corner nationalist leaders. How could they claim to be pro-European and at the same time block their neighbours for instance? It would open space for a new generation of leaders who think in terms of regional cohesion, regional solidarity. It would be very beneficial for the region, transforming the region’s political culture, but it would also demonstrate to the EU that countries, which were once opposing each other, can act cohesively in decisive moments. That solidarity can prevail. Is it not what the EU and its citizens need right now? More solidarity? That would be the best lessons the Western Balkans could give to the EU. Their recipe for effective transformation and their laissez-passer to membership.

Florent Marciacq is an expert on enlargement policy of the European Union, the Western Balkans and the Eastern dimension of the EU’s neighbourhood policy. He is a senior fellow at the Centre international de formation européenne (CIFE) and deputy secretary general and a research fellow at the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe.

Iwona Reichardt is the deputy editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.

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