Exclusive interview with Sven Mikser, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, which is due to assume Presidency over the Council of the EU in July 2017.
European Western Balkans: Estonia is set to assume Presidency over the Council of the EU in July. This will probably be a time of great challenges for the European Union. How high on the list of priorities of Estonia’s Presidency will be the issue of European enlargement?
Sven Mikser: We have agreed during the cabinet meeting recently on the priorities for the Presidency, but obviously, the full agenda for the Presidency will emerge during the course of the Maltese Presidency. Obviously, Estonia has always been and continues to be a very pro-enlargement country. During our presidency, we will have to deal with a set of issues, such as security in the broadest sense of the word, both internal and external security of the EU, including the migration issues. We also want to focus very much on the what we call digital agenda. We are going to focus on the European neighborhood, including the Eastern neighborhood, but that does not mean that we are not focusing on the enlargement, we are a pro-enlargement nation. We are well aware of the considerable challenges, such as the enlargement fatigue in several countries. There will be very full political calendar this year in Europe. Many important and large European countries are going to have elections this year, some before our presidency but some during our presidency, so these are considerable challenges. However, we want to move ahead as smoothly and quickly as possible. Obviously, there are some stringent criteria requirements that have to do with democracy and rule of law, as well as the socio-economic agenda, but we are very supportive of the concept of enlargement and also of the expectations of those countries that expressed their desire to join the European Union.
EWB: When it comes to the Western Balkans, what do you see as the main challenges or obstacles the Western Balkans states are facing on their path towards EU membership
SM: We believe that all the countries are free to make their own decisions without interference by third parties or third countries as to a what degree of integration they wish to seek, and obviously the first thing is that it will have to be a clearly expressed wish by the respective countries to seek membership in the European Union. Once a country has expressed this wish, then there are criteria as to the rule of law, fundamental rights, democratic institutions, public administration, but also the economic development. Therefore, the negotiating process has well established rules and regulations as to the reforms, and we believe that it should be sort of a merit based thing, the enlargement in general. When the reforms have been implemented and when the negotiations regarding the chapters are successfully completed, I think that on behalf of the EU and EU member states there should be no additional political obstacles.
EWB: Russian influence in the Western Balkans appears to be strengthening in recent years, and there are many historical and cultural ties between Russia and several Western Balkans states. Do you see this Russian influence as a problem for EU accession of these states and the whole region?
SM: Naturally, cultural and historical ties are no obstacle, but when see undue interference in decision making of other countries then that is a major problem. We have seen increasingly active Russian tendency to interfere also in the political processes and campaigns in various Western countries. There have been allegations of attempts of interfering in the US presidential elections, and there are also many European politicians that have expressed fear that there might be an attempt to influence the election outcome on the European continent this year. Obviously, when it comes to the Western Balkans, we are very much concerned about the recent allegations about Russian participation in the last year’s coup attempt in Montenegro, so there are definitely concerns in that regard. As to the cultural ties, they are obviously not the problem.
EWB: Serbia and Macedonia, which are both candidates for membership in the EU, have not joined EU sanctions toward Russia and the alignment of these states with the EU foreign policy declarations continues to decrease. Do you think this should be the focus of the EU when it comes to assessing the readiness of these states for EU integration, or the focus should be more on internal reforms?
SM: It is obviously an issue. It is an integral part of the whole thing. There are various criteria, but obviously the alignment with the CFSP (EU Common Foreign and Security Policy) is something that is important from the Estonian point of view and I believe from the point of view of the European Union as a whole. Obviously, we appreciate very much the decision by those countries who have fully aligned with the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. Montenegro, which I recently visited, is one such example, but when there is no readiness to align whit the European decisions then it is certainly an obstacle.
EWB: You have recently stated that your country strongly supports NATO membership of Montenegro. How important do you think NATO membership is for EU accession of Western Balkans states?
SM: Well, obviously I will say it is another principle that any country should be free to seek its own alliances and define its own security orientation. Montenegro reached the final stretch, if I may say so, with 24 out of the 28 allies having already ratified direct accession protocol and with only four more to go. I think that it is very important that it is going to be a speedy process. Regarding the attempted coup last year during the parliamentary elections, it is pretty reasonable to assume that the goal or the aim of that coup was to derail Montenegro’s accession process to the Alliance, so as soon as we get this process completed the better we are going to minimize the threat of any further provocations.
Nikola BURAZER, EWB Executive Editor