In almost six months, elections to the European Parliament will take place, which will have important consequences not only for the EU, but also for other European countries, especially for the Western Balkans. On the current EU policy on the Balkan region, how it can change after the European elections and what the consequences it can lead - in an interview with former Deputy Foreign Minister of Bulgaria Lubomyr Kuchukhov.
Today, the Balkans remain a zone of interests of various world players, including the EU. How would you characterize his contemporary policy on such an important region?
Quite often, in its history, the Balkans were the subject, not the subject of international relations. Today, this situation, unfortunately, is repeated again. The EU, which surrounds the whole region of the Western Balkans, naturally has its own interests in it. These interests were marked by both an increase in activity and a complete passivity. For a rather long period, after Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia became members of the EU, he was not very interested in the region. As a result, today the accession negotiations with the rest of the Western Balkans to the EU have become a routine that lacks dynamics and intensity. Moreover, the region generally has the feeling that inertia in the EU has replaced the strategic vision of the unification of the continent.
At the same time, this approach can be understood by the EU, as the Union itself faces today a difficult issue to solve the accumulated internal problems and crises. In addition, the EU itself must decide for itself in which direction it will be moving - whether it should deepen integration, or should take a step back, returning more powers to its members.
In this regard, the partial loss of EU interests in the Balkans may seem logical, but on the other hand it negatively affects the region and the countries that seek to become members. First of all, because the EU has deprived them of the horizon and pushed their entry too far, while adding to the old conditions, new ones. As a result, today among the population of the Western Balkans there is a strong sense that the EU is constantly trying to postpone the final decision. In addition, this, of course, negatively affects regional reforms, which makes the European perspective of the Western Balkans even more foggy.
To what extent are the interests of other states in the Balkans, in particular Russia, influencing EU policy towards the region?
As for Russia, I do not believe that it has sufficient political weight and attractiveness to divert the countries of the region from the European perspective. First, because they all officially announced their European (and most of them - their Euro-Atlantic) aspirations. Secondly, Russia can no longer offer them an ideological alternative. Thirdly, it does not have the economic potential (other than energy), which could be attracted to the West-Balkan countries.
On the other hand, Russia acquires some secondary, artificial alternatives through its confrontation with the EU and NATO. Such rivalry has led to a situation where today the EU is more interested in the Balkans from the point of view of security in the region, not because of the desire to host its own country.
That is, today we have a rather paradoxical situation, when the EU's renewed interest in the Balkans is the driving force behind the opposition of the interests of the United States, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, radical Islam, etc., but not the desire to unify the continent.
Did you mention turkey ...
Yes, because, today, it is not only part of the region, but also has great ambitions for a regional leader and a global player. Ambitions that have found their ideological basis in the concept of "neo-osmation", which involves the spread of Turkish cultural, religious and economic influence in the territory of the former Ottoman Empire. And this concept is today a key aspect of Turkish politics in the Balkan region.
How far is the Balkan policy of the EU today correlated with US policy?
First, it should be noted that, like the EU, the US also lost interest in the region at the same time. After the degree of tensions around Bosnia and Kosovo fell asleep, the United States moved its attention to the Middle East and other regions.
Today, American interest is again present in the Balkans, but the main thing that interests the United States is not the countries of the region itself, but the neutralization of Russian influence in it. Therefore, in terms of stability and security of the region, the US and EU interests coincide. On the other hand, growing Russian interest in the Balkans leads to a paradoxical situation: the more active is Moscow, the more it loses its position in the region. This is clearly seen in the example of its tense relations with Montenegro, the problems with Macedonia, even with Greece and Serbia.
Even with Serbia, its main ally in the Balkans?
So. One of the striking examples of this is the official statement of Moscow that the EU enlargement will not bring anything positive for the Western Balkans, including Serbia. In response, the Serbian President noted that while Russia remains Serbia's friend, the country's strategic goal is to become a member of the EU.
If the EU today looks at the Balkans first and foremost through the prism of security, what should its actions be so that it is not broken there?
In my opinion, for this there is one possible solution: the EU should take seriously the question of the integration of the Western Balkan countries. As the dilution of centuries-old national, ethnic, religious, cultural, economic tensions and rivalry between the countries of the region in a broader unification, it could stabilize the region and reduce the risk of new conflicts.
Is it possible today to speak of a clear EU strategy for the Balkans?
In the 2003 year, the EU adopted a long-term strategy for the Balkans entitled "The Thessaloniki Agenda", which set the goal: to integrate the entire region into the EU. Unfortunately, because of the internal problems of the Union about it, gradually began to forget about it.
In February this year, the European Commission adopted a new, rather ambitious strategy for the Western Balkans. It provides a road map for the integration of the countries of the region into the EU, and even defines the 2025 year as the possible year of accession of the first new members - Montenegro and Serbia. However, this is the strategy of the European Commission, which was not approved by the European Council.
Later in the spring was adopted so-called The "Sofia Declaration" concerning the Western Balkans, which though again included the region in the EU agenda, however, at the same time, unfortunately, has been a step backwards from the "Thessaloniki agenda" and the European Commission's strategy. There was no mention of expansion and membership of the Western Balkan countries as about the EU's immediate goals. Instead, these concepts have been replaced by the term "European perspective", which is devoid of any obligation. This situation was the result of a strong opposition from a number of EU Member States, especially France and the Netherlands, who are not ready to discuss the issue of further enlargement of the Union.
Can the EU offer the Balkan countries something else, instead of membership?
That is exactly what the Balkan countries are afraid of. Any "semi-membership" does not correspond to their ambitions and will only mean a step back for them. And the question is not only about membership, but also in the principles and vision of the unification of the continent, since nobody in Europe, particularly in the Balkans, wants to be a sort of "second grade" compared to others.
In the first half of this year, the EU presidency belonged to Bulgaria. One of the priorities of the Bulgarian Presidency was to promote the European integration of the Western Balkan countries. How do you generally value the euro-driving of Bulgaria? What are the main achievements and miscalculations?
In general, this presidency was quite positive. Bulgaria included quite a lot of issues in the agenda and decided on a significant number of European affairs. On the other hand, there were no spectacular breakthroughs either.
As such a priority during the presidency of the Western Balkans, despite the sufficient number of positive developments in this direction, they, unfortunately, were not always characterized by adequate results.
What were the main reasons for this?
This is a natural explanation: for almost a decade, Bulgaria has largely neglected the region, as did the EU. By the end of the last decade before joining NATO and the EU, Bulgaria was quite active in the Balkans. All our partners who visited Sofia emphasized that they expect the country to have added credibility for the EU and NATO political positions in three main directions: the Balkans, the Black Sea and the post-Soviet space. However, unfortunately, this did not happen. Bulgaria's current position in foreign policy discussions in Brussels can be described more as a "presence" rather than an "activity". She did not formulate and resist her position and interests, while she felt more comfortable in the main European-wide position.
The second is the "Coordination and Verification Mechanism" that the EU has applied to Bulgaria and Romania in areas such as organized crime and corruption. In view of this, the Bulgarian Government has preferred not to offer other approaches and other political positions, and thereby not open new fronts with other member states. As a result, it had negative consequences for defending Bulgaria's foreign policy interests in general and for promoting the issue of European integration of the Western Balkans, in particular.
What is Bulgaria's position on the Balkans after its chairmanship in the EU?
Today, some measures and initiatives are being implemented in this direction, but they still lack the focus and key vision.
In your opinion, will the European Parliament's future attitude towards the Balkans change in future elections?
It seems that there are still some important changes in the EU itself. Today, we can observe the rise of the populist and far right-wing parties and movements at the national level practically throughout Europe. This means that after the elections in May of next year, their presence in the European Parliament may be much larger, which will lead to the fact that the future European Parliament is likely to be more euro-skeptical than the current one.
For the Balkans, this may mean that they will be even further from the main discussions in the EU. And this will have an impact not only on the countries of the Western Balkans, but also on Turkey, whose accession to the EU seems no longer a goal for either the country itself or for the EU. The European integration of Turkey has become the context of its relations with the EU rather than the goal. And today we can observe a situation where both sides are waiting for who will be the first to assume responsibility for saying that Turkey will not be in the EU.
Comparing the Eastern Partnership and the Balkan policy, which is more important for the European Union?
Inequalities in relations between the EU and its neighbors. The Eastern Partnership is an instrument to support the stabilization of a number of countries from the former Soviet space and to develop cooperation between them and the EU. The European Union has always argued that it supports their European perspective and their ambitions to become members. But discussions on ratification of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU and the referendum on this issue in the Netherlands show that it is still too early to speak about the desire of the EU to expand at the expense of the countries of the Eastern Partnership. When it comes to EU membership of the Western Balkan countries, the question is raised "when" rather than "whether they should integrate with it."
Even after the "Sofia Declaration", which became a step backwards on their European integration path?
Even after the Sofia Declaration, the process is still in progress. The EU has always insisted that the process should be as important as the act itself and the fact of joining. It should also be borne in mind that the countries of the Western Balkans on the question of European integration are at different stages and in different situations. Negotiations are ongoing with Serbia and Montenegro, and Macedonia and Albania have been assured that by June 2019, they will be offered a date for the start of negotiations. For Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina this is still a rather long process.
At the same time, it should be recalled that possible negative changes in the European Parliament may further delay the negotiation process. In this case, the most important task will be to save this process. In no way do it stop, because if it is stopped, it could be a catastrophe for the Balkan countries because the real and threatening alternative to the European integration of the region is the rise of nationalism and ethnic rupture. The only way to prevent this is to give the Balkan countries clear European or Euro-Atlantic prospects.
Speak to Igor Fedyk ("TsDAKR-Balkan")