In an exclusive interview for European Western Balkans, Member of European Parliament, and EP standing rapporteur on Serbia, talked about “Brexit”, opening chapters, Russian influence, dialog with Pristina…
European Western Balkans: Mr McAllister, thank you for your time. Let us begin with a topic that is not adequately covered by the media in the Western Balkans, the „Brexit“. What are the main consequences of this decision for the UK? What do you think will be the results of this referendum for EU enlargement?
David McAllister: On 23 June, the British people voiced their will to leave the European Union. For me personally, this is a very sad result and I deeply regret it. Now, in order to avoid a spell of prolonged uncertainty it is important that the European Union does not negotiate about the conditions of a withdrawal before Article 50 TEU has been triggered. The first step has to be taken by the UK Government. It must decide what sort of relationship it wants to have with the other 27 member states.
The outcome of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom should not have any effect on the EU’s determination to proceed with the enlargement process and to support the reform agenda in the countries involved. However, with the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, the countries of the Western Balkans are losing a key advocate of enlargement.
EWB: You will be a guest speaker at the international conference “The European Union’s Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy and the Western Balkans” this week in Belgrade. Can you tell us, from your perspective, what are the biggest threats for the Western Balkans countries at this moment in time? Abandoning of the policy of enlargement by the EU, or is there something else?
DM: The region is confronted with major tasks. The strengthening of the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organised crime, the stagnating socio-economic development, the involvement of Civil Society Organisations in the democratic process, the deteriorating situation of media freedom and the consequences of unresolved bilateral issues to just name a few. However, the countries of the Western Balkans have in the past experienced a process of political, institutional, legal, social and economic reform and transformation, with the objective of bringing the country into the European Union. This process is far from being complete. But sustainable change takes time and I am certain that Serbia and the other countries in the Western Balkans will continue on their respective paths towards the European Union.
EWB: There is a significant decline in support for EU membership in Serbia and certain Russian influences are visible, even regarding the composition of the new Serbian government. Do you think this Russian influence can be a serious threat for the EU integration of Serbia and where do you see the position on Serbia between EU and NATO on one, and Russia on the other side?
DM: The European Union has to become even more visible and vocal in the Western Balkans. The floods in 2014 are a good example. Serbia’s urgent request for high capacity water pumps and operational teams has been channelled through the European Commission’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre and was answered positively within a matter of hours. Until the end of 2014, the European Union had spent 172 Million Euros for humanitarian and emergency assistance and reconstruction in the flood areas. I am not aware of any support like this from Russia. These facts, however, are not perceived sufficiently among the Serbian public.
The Serbia-Russia relations have often been debated. Serbia has traditionally strong economic, social and cultural ties with Russia. However, Russia unilaterally changes European borders in order to try to expand its influence and expand its control over parts of territories of neighbouring countries. This is one of the reasons, why Serbia needs to make strong efforts in aligning its foreign and security policy to that of the EU, including the policy on Russia.
On the other hand I of course recognize Serbia’s very good and fruitful cooperation with NATO and encourage Serbia to deepen that relation. Serbia not seeking NATO membership is not an issue. The European Union has six member states – Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden – that are not a member of NATO.
EWB: Serbia’s commitment towards EU accession has been continuously praised, especially the progress made under the Vučić administration. Recent elections seem to have confirmed Vučić’s leadership, as well as the government’s firm path towards EU membership. While the country is advancing in this perspective, it is regressing regarding crucial internal matters, such as the constricting of democratic and media freedoms. This creates the impression that the Serbian government is dealing with these issues independently from each other, preaching regional reconciliation and European integration while seeding unrest and silencing critics at home. How can this cleavage be overcome?
DM: I am aware that many Serbs fear that certain policy areas are not addressed properly or are overshadowed by others. This is not the case. All 35 chapters are equally important. In order to join the European Union, 35 chapters have to be opened and closed. In this context, I welcome that chapters 23 and 24 will be opened at the Intergovernmental Conference next week. This is well deserved and overdue. As a direct consequence, Belgrade will establish a track record in important areas such as justice, internal security, fundamental rights, the fight against corruption and organised crime.
EWB: Several years ago, late Mr. Andreas Schockenhoff came to Serbia with a list of 7 conditions of the German Bundestag. Later these conditions have transformed into 11 conditions for the start of negotiations between Serbia and the EU. After Serbia started the negotiations, these conditions were largely forgotten and some of them remain unfulfilled. They were only recently mentioned in a Deutsche Welle article. Why did Germany change its approach towards Serbia and allow the start of negotiations without Serbia complying with all preconditions?
DM: Germany did not change its position on Serbia. On the contrary, Germany has been very consistent in its policy. Chancellor Merkel is in a close exchange and open dialogue with Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić and, among other means of support, has initiated the Berlin process in 2014. As the German Bundestag is concerned, the relevant document is the 2013 Bundestag resolution on Serbia. It puts a special emphasis on the normalisation process between Kosovo and Serbia and will continue to shape Germany’s approach with regard to Serbia’s accession negotiations.
EWB: Chapter 35 in the EU accession negotiations with Serbia, which is concerned with the normalization of relations with Kosovo, is both practically and formally the most important negotiating chapter. We already know that there needs be a “comprehensive normalization of relations” with Kosovo according to the EU negotiating framework with Serbia. How do you see this “comprehensive normalization”?
DM: The dialogue with Kosovo is closely linked with the EU accession process of Serbia. The engagement in normalising relations with Kosovo is most welcome and some progress has been made in this respect. The First Agreement on the Principles of Normalisation of Relations of April 2013 was a milestone which Serbia as well as Kosovo can still be proud of. However, this agreement was concluded three years ago and is yet far from being implemented. In substance, what is requested from Serbia is a continued engagement towards a visible and sustainable improvement in relations with Kosovo. This process shall ensure that both can continue on their respective European paths, while avoiding that either can block the other in these efforts.
EWB: This is your second report in the European Parliament. After these two years, what you can tell us about the sensitivity of institutions of the European Union and Serbia about the issues raised in the Resolution. How much of that has Serbia actually noted and addressed?
DM: Under Article 49 TEU, the European Parliament must give its consent to any new accession to the EU. The Parliament also has a significant say over the financial aspects of accession. Under the Treaty of Lisbon, Parliament’s approval is required for adoption of the multiannual financial framework. The European Parliament and the Council also establish the EU’s annual budget together. These budgetary powers give the Parliament a direct influence on the amounts allocated to the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance. Thus, I am convinced that the voice of the European Parliament is heard in Belgrade.
EWB: Bilateral disputes between the Western Balkans states and between Western Balkans states and EU member states are widely considered to be one of the major obstacles for EU enlargement in the region. What do you think that the EU can do to prevent states from blocking each other’s EU accession because of bilateral disputes?
DM: Enlargement is about bringing peace, stability and prosperity to the Western Balkans region. A stable Serbia will be beneficial for the entire region. Serbia has to align to the acquis communautaire, the accumulated legislation, legal acts, and court decisions which constitute the body of European Union law. Bilateral issues that do not belong to this body should be resolved bilaterally.
EWB: Do you consider the growth and expansion of the far right movements to be an important threat for Serbia? True, there is a European trend in increase of support for the far right, but with such a violent recent past and an unstable geopolitical position, Serbia seems particularly vulnerable to this far right extremism. Would you agree with this assessment?
DM: It will be indeed a change for the Serbian democracy that representatives from the far right are now represented in the “Narodna skupština”. It is important that all democratic forces and the civil society explain to the Serbian people that radical politicians don’t offer tangible solutions. They are backward-looking and play with people’s fears.
EWB: Mr. McAllister once again thank you for your time. We are looking forward to see you in Belgrade this week.
Author: N. T. ŠTIPLIJA
This text has been produced with the support of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. The content of this text and the opinions expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the interviewee and the portal European Western Balkans and in no way reflect the views and opinions of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.