Interview with Dejan Jović, professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Zagreb, member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) and former foreign policy advisor to Croatian president Ivo Josipović. The interview was conducted at the Petrovac discussions 2017 international conference, where Jović was one of the participants. Jović will also be a speaker on the Belgrade Security Forum 2017 on the session “Soft power revisited: Alternative facts for a post-truth reality”.

European Western Balkans: President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently announced that an action plan will be drawn up according to which Serbia and Montenegro should become members of the EU by 2025. Does that date surprise you and do you consider it to be good or bad news for Serbia and Montenegro?

Dejan Jović: I think it is good that there is a date, even in this form in which Juncker announced it, and which is not completely binding. Namely, he did not say that any of these countries will enter the EU in 2025. Some might enter sooner, some later, and some might not enter at all, because, in addition, Juncker and the Commission are not the ones who decide on this in the end. Such decisions are actually made by the member states and any of them may, if it wishes, slow down the entire process. It would be difficult to accelerate the process without the consent of all member states, but a single state can definitely slow it down.

However, the mere fact that a date has been pronounced should have a positive effect, as the impression has been created in the Western Balkans that the enlargement process has been going on for too long, that it is infinite. So, we do not talk here about the speedy reception of countries that are not yet in the EU, because this process has been practically in effect for most countries since 1991 and for some of them since 2000, following the events of 5 October (2000). Therefore, the very fact that a certain deadline exists would, in my opinion, have a motivating role.

Secondly, what seems to me to be important and good is that Juncker has imposed a term of eight years. It seems to me that politicians generally want to see some results within one or two subsequent terms. Thus, they are primarily interested in what can happen at the time while still in power, and eight years is a logical period in which democratically oriented politicians expect to remain in power. Any further deadline or lack of deadline would surely play in the hands of those politicians who endlessly want to stay in power and who use the fact of a long accession process to find an excuse why they have to remain in power for so long – to further monitor and guide the process of EU accession. So, these politicians appear as the guarantors of stability, which is a precondition for joining the EU.

The third thing concerns Juncker, who has been seen in the Western Balkans in a negative light because he had previously made a statement that in his mandate, i.e. in the mandate of the current Commission, there would be no enlargement. He did not say that there should not, but that there would not be enlargement – he uttered a fact that has finally proved correct. So, although his statement was correct, it was partly demotivating and interpreted in a way that there would be no further accession in a foreseeable future.

Lastly, I think it is really important that the statement appeared before the prospective negotiations on the EU budget, because if a clear indication that it is actually possible to receive those countries in the next 7, 8 years was omitted, there would probably be certain consequences even for the budget planning of the Union, and that would be bad for the countries of the Western Balkans.

EWB: What effect can this have on other Western Balkan countries, in the sense that they are not mentioned, and that Juncker’s announcement excludes the Western Balkans “big bang”? Do you think it can have a demotivating effect on other countries?

DJ: I think that this stems from the current policy of the European Union, which is not prone to the idea of a “big bang,” that is, grouping the countries of the Western Balkans into one whole, which I personally consider being an error. I think it would be more beneficial for both the Western Balkans and the EU to think about accepting those countries in the “package”, among other things because the previous single-admission policy has produced or instigated some problems in bilateral relations, as it has enabled countries that are members or who will sooner become members to use that new power to condition and then partly slow down the process of admitting those other countries on their borders with which they have open bilateral issues over the borders, about the attitude towards the 1990s, about the missing people, and other bilateral and identity issues.

However, I see that the European Union has resorted again to somewhat individual or almost individual admission, which is a reflection of the current reality, but which is not good and not productive in my judgment, because it would be most useful to consider those remaining countries as one whole. For example, if you compare them to the 2004 big bang, it seems to me that this approach was beneficial because it encouraged cooperation between the candidate countries and somehow instructed them to solve problems between them in order to join the EU at the same time. In addition, they were quite different at that time, so the argument that there is now a fairly large gap between the countries that await admission, which therefore cannot be grouped, is not convincing enough, because it seems to me that the differences between Malta and Estonia, or Cyprus and Latvia were greater than the differences between the remaining candidate countries.

EWB: Do you think that other countries, primarily Macedonia and Albania, as the remaining two candidates for membership, should be discouraged, as it was in some way implied that they would not enter the EU by 2025?

DJ: These are countries that have some specificities, but I think they will, in fact, be partly discouraged. The specificity of Macedonia stems from the unresolved issue of the name of the country, but the current government is trying to achieve, or at least it announced that it would try to achieve a compromise on the issue. But, if the European Union is serious and if it really wants to use its power, it should talk to its two members, Greece and Cyprus, which create a problem for Macedonia, because the problem stems from the European Union itself. In this sense, the EU has some kind of responsibility.

When it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, and Kosovo, there are also specificities, but I would like to be absolutely sure that they do not derive from perceptions in the European Union that these are countries that are different due to their of cultural differences, because they are predominantly, at least nominally, Muslim countries. I think that the message, if sent in this way, could create an additional dimension of the problem, and the problem would again be created by the EU, and not by the candidate countries.

EWB: Juncker also said one interesting thing. He has brought in direct connection the EU’s enlargement and stability – that enlargement is in some way an instrument for achieving stability within the Union itself, or its “neighborhood”. Do you think that the fear of instability and the possible strengthening of Turkey, Russia, and other actors was a “driving force” for this new enlargement announcement and do you think it will have significant consequences in relation to how this enlargement will look and what the EU’s priorities vis-à-vis candidate countries will be?

DJ: For some time now, there has been talk of the so-called “stabilitocracy”, that is, the insistence of the EU itself and the leaders in the candidate countries on the element of stability. Given that in Europe a discourse has changed and became more and more focused on security issues, and less on issues of common values, I think that such a statement and such a policy is also the expression of that new time and a change in discourse, which is becoming more and more conservative and based on the issues of Europe’s security, related to the migrant crisis, radicalization pertinent to Islamic terrorism, etc. It seems to me that this is a logical expression of the present state of affairs. On the other hand, it is rational that candidate countries use this new discourse so that even if they do not become full members of the EU because they are now needed as security zones for Europe itself, then at least to integrate partially, or integrate into security structures within the European Union.

EWB: What consequences do you expect when it comes to strengthening the so-called “Balkan strongmen”, in the context of prioritizing security and stability by the EU in relation to democracy and reforms? Do you think this can have an effect on the leaders of the candidate countries?

DJ: I think there are two aspects. First, there are real and justified security reasons, which may make the candidate countries more important than they have ever been, and a number of member states do recognize it. For example, when you look at Austrian policy towards Macedonia or Serbia, it seems that it has become friendlier towards these countries and the existing structures of government in them because of the same element of security and stability.

Securitizing issues that are otherwise political and their misuse by the candidate countries themselves is another thing. I think that from this point of view there is certainly a number of leaders in the Western Balkan countries who would make the most of the security crisis in order to turn things that have been political into security issues and thus expose themselves as the only possible and relevant actors. What is concerning to me is one kind of securitization of the opposition, that is, the treatment of the opposition as a kind of a threat, and the securitization of ethnic minorities and the question of whether particular groups in those countries pose a potential security threat. This should be prevented because we already have enough negative experiences with that.

EWB: While EU membership still seems elusive, some countries are making much faster and bigger steps towards NATO membership – Montenegro has already become a member, Macedonia may become a member next year if the name issue is resolved. What kind of consequences do you expect and do you think it represents a significant change, given that parallel to the NATO integration process, adequate reforms have not yet been implemented and countries are still facing the same internal challenges?

DJ: NATO now looks like a more solid and firmer organization compared to the European Union, but at the same time it is an organization that is under greater American influence, that is, it appears as an instrument of the US presence in Europe in general. The central question is whether the EU will feel at some point the need to further emancipate itself from the United States, especially now when the President of the United States is Donald Trump, who expressed some considerable criticism of the European Union and the overall concept of the EU.

It seems to me that the question is whether the EU will want to form some of its security structures that would, if not independent, be special in relation to the NATO. In this regard, we have a specific new situation, the fact that the two largest European armies now, the British and the Turkish, come from non-EU countries, in the case of Turkey, or are leaving the EU in the case of the United Kingdom. This will raise the question of the relationship between NATO and the EU, especially given that the EU’s relations with Turkey are tense, and that Britain will want to play a more independent role in Europe.

This all opens up some new issues as well as a need for a stronger security policy, which would be one of the EU, and not so dependent on the United States, Britain, and Turkey, i.e. those NATO members that are very important for the security of Europe but are no longer, or have never been part of the European Union.

EWB: The Catalan issue is currently one of the burning questions in the European Union. Do you think that Catalonia’s success in winning independence and recognition of other EU member states could have a significant impact on the future of various countries that are, like Spain, multiethnic or multinational?

DJ: We are entering the domain of speculation because I think it is not realistic that any EU member state will recognize Catalonia as an independent country, even if it unilaterally declares independence. However, if it happened that any EU and/or NATO member state, as is the case with Spain, disintegrate or face the separation of a part of its territory against its will, I think it would have significant consequences for the countries of the Western Balkans, because it would show that entering the EU and NATO does not guarantee territorial integrity and that would be a new circumstance to face.

Even if Scotland separated, which would not do so without the consent of the United Kingdom, it would send a message that entering the European Union does not mean absolute stability and security for the countries that want to enter. This is particularly problematic in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which there are separatist tendencies in the leadership of Republika Srpska. The question is what kind of consequences these would have, but I suppose that the attractiveness of both the European Union and NATO for candidate countries would significantly decrease, as the countries mainly enter such organizations in order to achieve additional stability and guarantee their territorial integrity.

EWB: Many still say that had Yugoslavia long ago entered the EU, it would have still been complete.

DJ: Yes, this is quite possible.

EWB: Serbia continues to insist on drawing parallels between the cases of Kosovo and Catalonia and indicates that the European Union is unprincipled, because it opposes the independence of Catalonia, whereas most of the member states recognize the independence of Kosovo. What do you think Serbia wants to gain in that way and do you think it can strengthen its position in the eyes of some of the member states?

DJ: It is a rather slippery terrain for Serbia, insofar as Spain does not recognize the independence of Kosovo and, in that case, any support for or the use of the Catalan case in order to draw parallels with Kosovo is a rather risky strategy. At the same time, pointing that Catalonia has not been granted the consent to leave Spain, will not return Kosovo back to Serbia. It seems to me that in the political-pragmatic sense this is not the best strategy.

I would just point out that it is a little illusory and utopian to reduce the declaration of independence only to the elements of international law and to the so-called “right of self-determination”. It exists declaratively, but it is used by those able to do so. It seems to me that in international politics, especially when it comes to the survival of states, there is a rule “might is right”, i.e. the one who has the power, also has more rights. Whoever gets the chance to secede at some point, they indeed do it, but that does not have any universal validity. It is wrong, in my opinion, to base the entire discussion on secession on issues of legal interpretation.