EWB Interview, James Ker-Lindsay: "Days of UK championing EU enlargement are probably over"

James Ker-Lindsay
James Ker-Lindsay

In an interview for European Western Balkans, Dr James Ker-Lindsay from the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and LSE’s Research on South Eastern Europe research unit (LSEE), spoke about “Brexit”, its consequences for EU enlargement, and other burning issues in the Western Balkans.

European Western BalkansFirst I would like to ask you a question that we ask all of our interviewees – what does the European Union represent to you?

James Ker-Lindsay: It is a very difficult question to answer as it means so much to me. At a very personal level, I feel myself to be European. I like the idea of a shared European culture, of being able to feel comfortable moving around Europe and feeling ‘at home’. The European Union is the embodiment of that sense of shared identity. At the same time, the EU means peace and prosperity. It means political and economic cooperation. As should be clear, I am an ardent supporter of the European Union and its goals.

EWB: Let us begin with a topic that is not adequately covered by the media in the Western Balkans, the possibility of „Brexit“. Do you believe that there is a good chance that the United Kingdom might leave the EU and what consequences do you think might “Brexit” have for EU enlargement?

JKL: Worryingly, I think that there is a very real danger that the United Kingdom could vote to leave the European Union. While the polls had seemingly been moving towards Remain, they have suddenly started to shift towards Leave. There are a number of reasons for this. For a start, while those who want Britain to stay in the EU have won the economic argument, the leave campaign has focused on immigration. This is a huge source of discontent for many people in Britain. Sadly, it does not seem to matter that all the evidence shows that EU immigration helps the country. Many people refuse to see it that way. Secondly, under the rules of the campaign, the government and civil servants, can no longer campaign to remain. (Although individual ministers and the prime minister can.) This has meant that a very powerful voice has now gone quiet. Thirdly, there is a sense that many people see this as a chance to kick the government, rather than address the specific issue of EU membership. This is always the danger with referendums. Many on the far-left now see the referendum as a chance to get back at David Cameron and will vote to leave the EU just to bring him down – even though it could lead to a far more right-wing government. For all these reasons, there is a real sense that Britain may vote to leave on 23 June.

As for the impact of a Brexit on enlargement, it is difficult to say at this stage. There are just too many factors that have to be considered to be able to make any sort of firm predictions. Broadly speaking, much will depend on how the EU chooses to respond. Many fear that Brexit could lead to other members leaving. In the worst case scenario, this could even lead to the disintegration of the EU. However, it could also lead to the reformulation of the EU. A multi-level EU, with various models of integration, could take hold. (Perhaps even with Britain providing a model of some sort of associate membership.) This could potentially mean that the Western Balkans could integrate more quickly. They could join an outer circle of ‘trade only’ members and move further in when they want to and are able to meet the conditions. Alternatively, Brexit might mean that the remaining members push ahead with deeper integration. If so, this will mean that the Western Balkans will face an ever tougher job to catch up, especially as the EU is now determined to make sure that future members are far abler to meet the demands of membership than they were on previous rounds of enlargement.

EWB: We have recently seen a statement by the UK Home Secretary Theresa May, who claimed that while UK should stay within the EU, the enlargement process and the integration of states such as Albania, Serbia and Turkey needs to be questioned because of poverty, organized crime and corruption in these states. This was followed by an even stronger statement of pro-Leave Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who warned about the dangers of giving immigrants from candidate states access to UK public services and the labour market. Do you think that these statements, given by members of the ruling Conservative Party, should be considered important for the future UK stance on enlargement, or just a part of the referendum campaign?

JKL: Traditionally, Britain has been at the forefront of calls for EU enlargement. If the United Kingdom does vote to stay in the EU, I do think that this will no longer be the case. Indeed, this shift has been taking place for the past few years. Since 2010, when the Conservative government took office in coalition, London has been less vocal on enlargement than it was in the past. This was largely because the government wanted to keep the EU off the domestic political agenda. Matters were also made worse by the rise in immigration. Although people have very little knowledge about the Balkans, and don’t understand that enlargement in the region will only add another 17-18 million people (Bulgaria and Romania added 30 million), there is nevertheless a fear about the next wave of enlargement. This has come out very strongly in the referendum campaign. This has forced the government to take a much harder line on further enlargement as a result. The problem is that even if the country votes to stay in, it will therefore have done so on the basis of commitments by the government to control enlargement. The government will not want to be seen to suddenly change its position after the vote, and thus be accused of having lied to the British people. Sadly, therefore, I do think that the days of the UK as a loud champion of EU enlargement are probably now over, at least for the foreseeable future.

EWB: The EU and its member states have supported the governments of Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia and Nikola Gruevski in Macedonia despite widespread accusations that their governments are authoritarian, corrupt and cracking on media and political freedoms. There is an impression that while the EU is interested in their pro-EU stance and cooperation in the refugee crisis, it is not concerned about their democratic credentials at home. Do you think that the employment of this strategy by the EU might prove detrimental for the support to European integration within these states?

JKL: This is an incredibly difficult problem for the EU. On the one hand, the European Union has been at the forefront of efforts to promote democratization. However, it has also had to confront questions of stability and security. Sometime, the two come into conflict with each other and tough choices have to be made. This does not mean that fundamental principles should be abandoned. But it does mean that strategies have to be developed that carefully balance the problems. Overall, I do not see this as a problem in the same way as I know many others do. It is worth remembering that EU accession is a process that covers a huge range of issues, and it is not until all these issues have been resolved that a country can join. This means that there is room for prioritizing different aspects at different times, with the understanding that in the end they will all have to come right. This is the approach that is currently being taken in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

That said, at some point, one has to recognize that a line may have been crossed and that a government has gone too far in abandoning fundamental values. I think that this has happened in Macedonia. The various actions taken by the government there, which have been revealed in the wire taps, have been an affront to basic democratic principles and the rule of law. The EU has done its best to broker an agreement between the government and the opposition, but this has failed largely due to the behavior of the government. At this stage, I do believe that the EU has to adopt a far tougher approach. I think that the time has come to suspend Macedonia’s EU candidacy until such time as the country starts back on the road to a fully functioning political system. However, it must also be recognized, that in this case, the EU’s leverage has been compromised by the ongoing name dispute with Greece. This also needs to be solved.

EWB: After the 24 April parliamentary elections in Serbia, both pro-EU and anti-EU opposition parties have stood together against an alleged electoral fraud and supported the right-wing and anti-EU coalition of DSS-Dveri to pass the 5% threshold and enter the parliament. The polls show that the support for European integration in Serbia is constantly dropping and now there will be at least one major openly anti-EU party in the parliament, maybe even a few of them. Do you expect this might significantly change the political landscape in Serbia and reopen the debate regarding European integration?

JKL: I have mixed feeling about this. While it was nice to think that all the parties on the parliament supported EU accession, it was clear that this was not representative of the Serbian people as a whole. Like elsewhere in Europe, to varying extents, there are people who oppose the EU. I think it is important to have some voices in parliament that take a more Eurosceptic, or even Europhobic, position. For a start, the element of the population that is Eurosceptic needs to feel that its voice is being heard in decision making. Also, giving a voice to those who strongly oppose the EU actually serve to strengthen and unite pro-EU voices. It helps to prevent complacency and hopefully forces those who support EU membership to make their case more loudly and clearly. To this extent, I am not quite as worried about the presence of eurosceptics in parliament as some people are.

What worries me more, is the fundamental nature of those voices. If they are parties of the broadly mainstream right or left, then that is obviously fine. What becomes more of a problem is when those voices belong to extremists. This is why I think many are worried about the results of the elections in Serbia. Then again, we are seeing a lot of far-right popularism and anti-EU sentiment across Europe. To this extent, Serbia is not unusual or different from many other places in Europe. This is not to say that we should not be worried about these trends. We should be extremely worried. Rather, it means that we should recognize that there is a far more widespread problem that needs to be addressed across the European Union. Indeed, it is now widely understood that this is now one of the key challenges to the very existence of the European Union and must be a priority for Europe’s leaders.

EWB: Kosovo has made considerable progress in European integration during the past year, but the ongoing political crisis is creating serious doubts regarding the continuation of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, which is fundamental for this process. What are your expectations regarding the future of the dialogue?

JKL: The dialogue has to continue. In truth, for as long as they want to join the EU, neither Serbia nor Kosovo can afford to let this process fail.

EWB: The European integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina is overshadowed by internal issues such as the controversy regarding the referendum in Republika Srpska and possible reform of the Dayton Agreement. How do you see the future of European integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina in light of these challenges?

JKL: Bosnia and Herzegovina obviously remains a huge challenge for the European Union. Indeed, it is one of the few places where the lure of EU accession appears to have had almost no real effect. Elsewhere, such as in the case of Serbia and Kosovo, the EU has been able to leverage its so-called ‘power of attraction’ to encourage reform and fuel conflict resolution. However, this is just not happening in Bosnia. This makes it a real puzzle – as much for policy makers as for academics.

My own sense is that the problem is being caused by the way the EU is viewed by the largest communities. They want diametrically opposed outcomes and see the EU as the way to further or prevent their goals. The Bosniaks see the EU as a chance to centralize power. The Serbs see EU accession as a challenge to their autonomy. In truth, the EU should not be used in this way by either side. Yes, accession will require some centralization in some areas. After all, the EU needs members to speak with one voice on certain issues. But in many other areas the EU makes no demands for centralization. Instead, it even makes the case for the devolution of power from the central government – the principle of ‘subsidiarity’. I have always felt that what is really needed is an impartial commission of experts who would look at the overall political system in Bosnia and weigh it against the requirements for EU accession. They would then draw up a clear map of where powers must be centralized, and where they can be devolved as part of the process of EU accession. I think that this would help provide some much needed clarity to the debate over the debate about what exactly needs to be done to prepare the country for EU membership.

Also, it should be recognized that centralization and decentralization should not always be thought to be direct competition with one another. You can have them both. Even if certain political powers need to be handed to central government, this does not mean that the physical location of the responsible ministry or body has to be in Sarajevo. It could be in Banja Luka or in Mostar, or anywhere else in the country. Obviously, this would have all sorts of spin off benefits, such as providing jobs where they are needed. It would be good if people started to see things in this way. One community’s gain need not be another’s loss.

EWB: Mr. Ker-Lindsay, thank you very much for your time and your answers. We wish you the very best in your work at the London School of Economics and Political Science and hope to hear from you after the much-anticipated UK referendum on 23 June.