[EWB Interview] [VIDEO] Balfour: Stability in the Balkans entails democratic transformation

Live interview with Rosa Balfour, Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, done during the Belgrade Security Forum 2017, where Balfour was a speaker on the panel “A crisis of values or management: Migration in 2017”.

European Western Balkans: Let us begin with the topic that has attracted a lot of media attention recently: How do you see the recent announcement by Jean-Claude Juncker about the Western Balkans having an European future and also that there should be a strategy made by the Commission next year about the entry of Serbia and Montenegro in the EU by 2025? How do you see both the announcement and this particular date?

Rosa Balfour: I would not read too much into dates. I think that the first political message is that in 2014, Juncker was saying the EU was navel-gazing, “do not count on us to make commitments”, and now he is saying “count on us to make commitments, we need to move out of our navel-gazing and look beyond this”.

So this is how it really needs to be interpreted, as renewed commitments on the part of the European Union, and I would not limit it just to Serbia and Montenegro, I would think of this more broadly. No one, aside from Juncker, may be mentioning these two countries, no one is thinking of preferential attraction for certain countries as opposed to the other ones. The Balkans still are part of Europe, they need to join the European Union and the individual states will get there in their own time.

Of course with Serbia, there is the Kosovo issue, so making this sort of statement is not very prudent on the part of Juncker, because Serbia has to solve its relations with Kosovo before it can actually join the EU.

EWB: Many see this announcement as a sort of encouragement for Serbia and Montenegro, but what do you think it might be the message for other Western Balkan states, primarily for Albania and Macedonia, who are EU candidate states and are expecting to start negotiations soon?

RB: I think that the EU has proven, at least in its intention towards Macedonia, that it is committed more broadly to the region. It is not the question of just identifying two countries moving forward. I do not see that happening and I do not think we should read too much in Juncker’s statements, to be honest.

EWB: Do you think that the European Commission is going to be the one to decide?

RB: This is another important point. The European Commission plays a very important role in the accession process, but the member states are increasingly more in the driving seats. So, it is going to be very hard for the member states to negotiate accession for just two countries, leaving the others out and that is quite simply not going to happen.

And this is why I think we should not read too much into Juncker’s statement except understand that the EU is trying to make some gestures to tell the region that it has not forgotten it. I think recently, over the past couple of years, that impression has been very strong here in the Balkans. Therefore, the statement has really to be interpreted as a diplomatic interest in the region, a commitment towards the region, and not so much as trying to prop one country against the other.

EWB: There is another interesting thing that Juncker said. Basically, in his speech, he connected the issue of EU enlargement with the question of stability in the European neighborhood and, circumstantially, in the EU as well. Do you think that this particular link between the stability and enlargement could have an impact on how this enlargement is going to look like and what the priority of the EU is going to be when it comes to enlargement? In addition, what would be the consequence of this kind of approach?

RS: There has been a lot of criticism towards certain preferences of the European Union in past years, which have indicated a preference towards stability and that will be there, that will always be there since the EU got engaged in the Balkans to stabilize the Balkans. So, that will remain the overriding priority.

However, if the EU is to remain as it is, then stability entails the democratic transformation of the institutions, the society, etc. in the region. The two cannot be really separated. But the real risk is that if the EU starts to fragment and we start talking about second-tier membership than that would be really driven by stabilitocracy, rather than by the democratic change.

But, if the accession process is going to remain serious and credible and if the EU is going to remain as it is, than the accession process entails democratic transformation and it is actually in the interest of the EU to pursue this, because unstable and undemocratic members of the EU are problem countries and I am seeing this today with Hungary, with Poland, but also with other countries which have, for instance, big corruption problems. So, I think we really need to see things in slightly broader terms, that it is not just about stability, but stability will continue to be a key interest of the EU.

EWB: Now, let us have some wider outlook. There has been a lot of pessimism in Europe and, let us say, globally, after the Brexit vote, after the election of Donald Trump as the US president, etc. But this year we had some positive results when it comes, for instance, to the elections in Austria, in the Netherlands, later on in France, now in Germany, so it appears that there is somehow a newfound optimism in the European Union. So, how do you see these developments?

RS: Obviously, there was a big breath of relief after the elections’ results but let us not underestimate the fact that many citizens in Europe vote for parties that are anti-European, some of them anti-democratic, so there is a big problem there.

The problems remain there, however, the sense of being in a constant crisis does wither away, which allows Juncker to make a statement like, yes, join the European Union. Otherwise, he would not have made that statement if he did not feel the confidence.

But the underlying problems remain, the fact that people do not feel that they belong to the European projects, the fact that there is a great dissatisfaction with governmental elites, the traditional mainstream parties, impacts of globalization, there is a whole plethora of issues, all to be addressed. So, the hope is that at the first sign of optimism you do not stop thinking of the problems, the hope is that once one has the legitimacy to think of the problems, then one actually addresses them concretely.

EWB: Recently we had some initiatives primarily by President Juncker and President Macron about the future of the EU, how should the EU look like, how should the EU further integrate and deepen its cooperation and integration. So, what do you think will come out of this, what do you expect will happen?

RS: Macron has been putting some proposals on the table, Juncker as well. Juncker came out with sort of fairly federalist view, Macron was more focusing on the differentiated integration and moving forward of those who want to move forward and leaving the others behind. Then we have Brexit, of course, which will have a huge impact on the European Union. Then we have some news coming out from Berlin recently, and they do not seem to like Macron’s proposals and they do not seem to like Juncker’s proposals either.

So, what we are seeing actually is a bit of push and pull in different directions. It is hard to imagine where it is going to lead to, which is why I say that if the EU stays as it is, there is the place for Western Balkans, but if the EU changes, and moves, for instance, towards the differentiated integration, this would be problematic for the states in the Western Balkans.

Similarly, if the German recipe were to be followed, it would be very hard for the Western Balkan states to imagine becoming part of the Eurozone in ten, fifteen years, because they are pushing very strict the rules on economic governance and we have seen how this debate within Europe has played out over the Eurozone crisis. There is a lot of conflict around it.

So, it is quite hard to imagine how this is going to evolve. The likelihood is that we will see a lot of modeling through and not a big leap forward, at least in the short-term. I would say that the Polish elections next year will be crucial because Poland really needs to bring forward the European projects. At the moment we have Italy which will have the elections next year and we have no clue of the outcome of those, France and Germany have gone through this but they do not seem to be agreeing, Spain is caught up in its own massive crisis, and Polish government is at the moment not interested in working with Europe at all.

So, I think we will not be seeing much coming out in the next couple of years, and I am saying this with some disappointment because I was hoping that at least of the Eurozone reforms some agreements could come through.

EWB: So pessimism has not entirely left us.

RS: I am afraid not. There are other issues on which we could be more positive, the public opinion, for instance, the indicators show that although there is growing Euroscepticism, there is also a commitment to the European project.

We have also seen a lot of mobilizations of citizens on key values and issues, which had not been seen before, there was kind of silent majority who did not feel the need to show support for certain values. And this is a response to Trump, Brexit, the refugee influx, the things going on. These are parallel tracks.


Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States