EWB Interview, Angelina Eichhorst: It is clear that the WB6 are part of Europe

Angelina Eichhorst; Photo: Wikimedia Commons, EUinLebanon

In an interview for European Western Balkans, Angelina Eichhorst, Director – Western Europe, Western Balkans and Turkey in the European External Action Service (EEAS), spoke about the European integration of the Western Balkans and the role of EEAS in this process.

European Western Balkans: Dear Ms. Eichhorst, thank you for your time. In this interview we would like to hear what the EEAS and you personally think about the EU integration of states of the Western Balkans.

Let us start with Macedonia. The European Union did not give its best in resolving the Greek blockade and also the ongoing political conflict, which led to a very weak support for European integration in Macedonia. Why was not the EEAS involved more as a mediator, primarily in the dialogue with Greece?

Angelina Eichhorst: It is interesting we get this question very often, and it is true that decisive steps are needed in Skopje, on all fronts. The day Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia can agree on what is called a ‘negotiated and mutually acceptable solution to the name issue, under the auspices of the United Nations’, will be a very important day.  I believe nobody contests the notion that, good neighbourly relations have a real positive impact, politically and economically, on the region. As EU, we support the UN-led process.  And all 28 EU Member States in the European Council continue to stress that maintaining good neighbourly relations is essential.  It is equally important to resolve the internal disputes around domestic power sharing formulae, justice and rule of law, dealing with impunity and moving the country forward. At the recent Foreign Affairs Council, the EU Foreign Ministers agreed that the Przino agreement should be respected at all times. Not respecting the agreement sends the wrong signals to the citizens in the country, to the region as a whole and to the EU Member States and the EU institutions who want to help move the country forward. The agreement needs to implemented and conditions for credible elections created as soon as possible. Support for the work of the Special Prosecutor is crucial, as is the implementation of the Urgent Reform Priorities. By the way, on what you say about weak support for the EU, the most recent polls show that 76% of the population in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are in favour of EU integration.

EWB: Albania is the country with the biggest support for European integration in the region. Still, after almost two years of candidacy, Albania still does not manage to start the negotiations process because of weak administrational capacities. What will be the biggest support that Albania will receive from the EU?

AE: I believe the EU partnership with Albania is very intensive. You have to see events as part of a process, over time, and look at where the EU and Albania were, let’s say 10 years ago and where we are now. As you know, membership moves in steps. One has to go through the steps to make the path complete. The next joint step is a recommendation, from the Commission, to open EU accession negotiations. We have been working together over the past two years in order to ensure that conditions will be met for Albania to move to this next stage of EU integration. A lot of progress has been made, I would say real and steady progress, on reforms, and yes, there is still a lot of work to do in a number of areas. In particular, reforming the judicial system – together with improving the track record on fighting organised crime and corruption – will be crucial to consider any future step.

Here again, the EU is strongly engaged in supporting the reform process in Albania.  I believe the most important support Albania is receiving from the EU at this stage is expert assistance in taking forward the judicial reform, which is one of the most comprehensive changes proposed in the enlargement countries. A huge majority of the people of Albania want this justice reform. A good package has been worked on with experts from the Venice Commission, from the EU, the US. Now the political parties have to agree and all political actors have a responsibility to take the package forward. Once implemented, the judicial reform will be truly transformative for other areas too, so the country will have a more predictable, transparent environment for business and investors. A lot of people living in the European Union take this for granted in their countries: a fair justice system, an attractive environment for business, forgetting that a lot of hard work has preceded this. Making sure that our institutions are irreversibly strong and viable is hard and steady work where sometimes difficult choices have to be made.

EWB: Britain and Germany have launched an initiative on Bosnia and Herzegovina after which a lot of things have improved in certain ways. But what will happen with the conditions which remain in front of BiH, such as Sejdić-Finci case which is essential for the rule of law?

AE: It is true that a lot of progress has been made by Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2014. This was first and foremost enabled by the citizens and authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina who put a lot of effort into reforms and remained focused on moving the country forward on its EU path. The EU’s December 2014 initiative and the strong engagement by the EU HR/VP Mogherini and Commissioner Hahn have facilitated this positive momentum, which needs to be maintained.  Entry into force of the SAA in June 2015, the holding of the first EU-BiH SA Council in December 2015, the submission of the EU membership application in February 2016 – all in a relatively short time – prove that with sufficient political will, the country can move forward. Looking ahead, the requirements for moving further are clear, and the country’s leaders have committed themselves to deliver.

Also for BiH, continued strengthening of the rule of Law, including the protection of citizens belonging to national minorities, remains among the key priorities. The EU’s Council has spoken clearly about the conditionality involved and also as regards implementation of European Court of Human Rights rulings. The country’s political leadership has to find a way to address these issues in line with EU standards and without affecting the momentum in the EU process. And there will be a point in time when this will all be dealt with. The country has to go through the necessary steps. There is for the moment no straightforward answer to when Sejdić-Finci will be resolved, meaning, when the constitutional change will take place, but the matter of fact is that change is inevitable, and the leadership know this.

EWB: Chapters 23 and 24 are also important for Montenegro since they will include many outstanding issues that now exist concerning the rule of law and freedoms. It is visible that there are no harsh words nor criticism coming from the EU on the lack of media and political freedoms not only in Montenegro, but also in Macedonia and Serbia where this question arose as well.

AE: Chapters 23 and 24 are at the heart of the accession process, they are about rule of law and fundamental rights, and they touch the core of our shared values.  I believe Montenegro is ready to go all the way. We have a very frank debate on rule of law and justice in the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Agreements. The European Commission issues a detailed assessment of the situation for all accession countries in its annual reports and, in addition for Montenegro, in its spring report on the rule of law situation.  We are clear and transparent on the nature of the challenges the countries face, and we are determined to help countries address them in a European way, through dialogue, negotiation and support. There is no hidden agenda, nor is there a deliberate push towards an agenda that would exclude positive relations with others. I am glad that Montenegro has moved forward.

EWB: After the developments regarding the Croatian blockade of Serbia, the danger that EU member states might threaten European integration of Western Balkans states because of bilateral issues seems evident, especially since there is a large number of current or potential bilateral disputes in the Western Balkans. How will the EU address this problem?

AE: As I said, a key message in our contacts with political leaders in the region is the need for good neighbourly relations, a central obligation, even a condition, in the accession process, and for overcoming bilateral disputes. The EU encourages political leaders to address bilateral issues as early as possible in the EU integration process and in a spirit of good neighbourly relations.  Resolving bilateral disputes is part of political leaders’ responsibility to the population. And there are good examples, such as the meeting between Croatian President Grabar-Kitarovic and Serbian Prime Minister Vucic on 20 June. Their political commitment can help create conditions for a breakthrough in bilateral relations and provide a positive example for others.

You are right there are a number of disputes that still have to be resolved, within the proper framework and with the right interlocutors, yet I hope you are wrong on the large number of potential bilateral disputes, as right now it is important that all the Western Balkans Six, as we say, take steps ahead, not backwards.  And I believe that leaders in the region know that.

EWB: The EU facilitated dialogue between Belgrade in Pristina is in a deadlock for some time now. The reason for this is the unfavourable political situation in both Serbia and Kosovo. What will be the new topics to be opened in the dialogue? What will happen with other agreements that are not fully implemented? The EU can put pressure on Serbia through negotiating chapter 35, but what are the consequences for Kosovo if it does not respect the agreements?

AE: The leadership in Pristina and Belgrade have agreed to normalise their relations through the Dialogue, which the EU, in the person of HRVP Mogherini, facilitates. Both sides want to advance on their respective European paths and to improve the lives of their people.  The Dialogue by necessity touches upon sensitive issues, which are often controversial and difficult to implement, and progress is indeed materialising too slowly. But we must not lose sight of the bigger picture: numerous and substantial improvements, bringing concrete benefits to the people, have been achieved through the Dialogue. These range from free movement, to trade, to the inclusive delivery of justice and police services.

There is still a good list of agreed topics that need to be worked out between the parties – civil aviation and rail links are examples. The previous agreements have not yet been implemented to the full. New topics are brought to the Dialogue only when the two sides jointly agree to address them. With respective elections behind us in both Belgrade and Kosovo, there is again a moment of picking up from where some topics were left during the last high level discussions in January. In the meantime the work – at technical level – has not stopped. We continue to have both sides meet and work out agreed arrangements. This is not always visible, except for the negotiators and the facilitators, but the work has not stopped.

EWB: Kosovo has recently signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU, which will be probably soon be followed by visa liberalization. What is the next step for Kosovo? Can Kosovo, like other states, apply for membership in the EU?

AE: The SAA is a milestone in EU-Kosovo relations and on Kosovo’s European path. Its importance for the future of Kosovo and the entire region cannot be underestimated. It is key to implementing what was agreed. Making full use of the SAA will give a boost to economic growth, prosperity and job creation, and will help strengthen the rule of law and improve the quality of public services. All this will be of immediate benefit to the people living in Kosovo.  Of course there is the desire from the leadership and from the public at large to move ahead along the European path. I believe with the most recent decisions, it is clear that Kosovo will not be left in isolation from the rest of the Western Balkans.

EWB: Since enlargement is currently not one of the top priorities of the EU and there is a lack of enthusiasm for it among the EU citizens, should Western Balkans states be worried about their European future? Can this jeopardize the stability of the Western Balkans, taking into account that democratization and reconciliation in the region are tightly connected with the process of European integration?

AE: I believe institutionally we have moved beyond the notion whether the Western Balkans are top priority or not. The matter of fact is that through our daily work of accession, reform process, stemming the migration flow, countering violent extremism and terrorism, it is clear that the WB6 are part of Europe, and stability and prosperity across our whole continent is vital for the Western Balkans and vice versa. There is no other perspective for the Western Balkans than the European one.  So much has been achieved over the past 12-18 months: continued progress in accession negotiations with Serbia and with Montenegro; political leaders in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia need to resolve their internal political crisis – with the Przino Agreement as a solid framework to share power and move forward – and they have moved forward, but in times of internal political upheaval one tends to forget that.  There is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU membership application; Kosovo signed the SAA; Albania’s deep judicial reform potentially opening the way to accession negotiations; all of these steps forward, and many more besides, show that the European endeavour remains our clear goal and that both the EU and our partners in the region remain determined to achieve it.

EWB: At the end, we would like to thank you for your time. We wish you the very best in your work in the EEAS and in the Western Balkans.

Author: N. T. Štiplija, EWB Editor-in-Chief