Joint interview with Margot Wallström and Timo Soini, Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Sweden and Finland. The interview was conducted in Belgrade, when both ministers visited Serbia on their Western Balkans tour.
European Western Balkans: How do you comment on the recent announcements by Jean Claude Juncker about Western Balkans having an EU perspective and that there should be a strategy next year drafted by the European Commission on the entry of Serbia and Montenegro to the EU by 2025? How do you see these statements and the European future of the Western Balkans and, especially, those two countries?
Margot Wallström: We are pleased with that, we think that this brought new dynamics into the discussion about the Western Balkans and the future of these countries in the EU accession process. I am not sure if the date is that important, it is more about placing this issue higher up on the EU agenda and that is something we support, and we belong to that group of member states that think it is a win-win situation. If the Western Balkan countries are prosperous, peaceful, secure and aimed at the future, this would be also beneficial for the rest of Europe. We have everything to gain from that if we all support this process.
Timo Soini: I also think it is very important to have a clear message of encouragement for keeping up the good work, fulfilling the criteria and going forward. I agree with Margot that the date itself is not decisive but it is good to give some kind of measurement so that people can understand that the date is not too distant.
MW: And I guess two of us are more favoring the “regatta” model, rather than having all of them joining at the same time, this has been our approach so far. But this is not the most important thing, it is more important to have the accession firmly on the agenda.
EWB: What is here the main challenge for all the Western Balkan states, Serbia in particular, for the EU accession process?
MW: To me, it means to have the perspective to the future. The history is very important, we always have to understand and we try to understand better the sentiments and how this has shaped the idea of what these countries are and what the future is and, unless you use it as a starting point and really look at the future, you get stuck, and this is also what discourages many young people unfortunately. It is a problem if so many people leave, because it also means that they do not have much hope for this part of Europe. Therefore, I think the challenge is to talk more about the future and find a path to engage young people and women in the process.
EWB: Regarding the EU accession process in particular, what are here the main problems, is it legislative reform issue, foreign policy alignment with the one of the EU, corruption, media freedom, etc.?
MW and TS: Fighting corruption, rule of law, media freedom – those are maybe three core issues.
TS: I would also say that the role of young people is very important. We cannot change the history, it cannot and should not be forgotten, but we can shape up our future. The young, educated people, thriving for a better future are in a decisive position.
MW: Throughout our discussion, we also connected it to the opportunity of attractive investments, because if companies cannot be sure that there is respect for the rule of law, if there are no just and fair legal procedures, if there is too much corruption, they will not come and invest for the long-term. Therefore, it also affects economic opportunities.
EWB: What are the answers of Serbian and Macedonian authorities when you tell them these things?
TS: They understand what we are saying and representing and I think we have been very warmly welcomed. They were very outspoken and honest to us as it helped to know that we have good intentions.
EWB: Sweden and Finland are among few countries that are in the EU but are not members of NATO. How do you, from that perspective, see Serbian declared military neutrality and a lack of desire to join NATO?
TS: I think it is completely up to you, as much as it has been up to us.
MW: Every free and independent country has to take a decision on what security arrangements it will make. We totally respect that and, as you know, we are engaged in cooperation in a number of areas and in many different countries. We have the closest cooperation between our two countries, but we are also cooperating closely with NATO, the US, the UK, etc. Therefore, we completely respect that this is a decision to be made by every country individually.
EWB: Serbian government pursues a sort of a “balancing” policy, with EU and NATO on one side and Russia on the other, with which Serbia has strong links, including military cooperation. In addition, it does not align with the EU foreign policy towards Russia. How do you see this from the perspective of your two countries that are not members of NATO, but are still part of the EU and, in this sense, align with the EU foreign policy on Russia?
MW: We hope that there will be sort of rapprochement, that the two sides will come close to that, as the decisions on sanctions are taken unanimously, so there is no way that a country can “sneak out”.
TS: Irrespective of that, we do not accept the illegal annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, we still talk to Russia, and I think that dialogue is important when needed.
EWB: Do you think it is an obstacle for Serbia’s EU accession process that it does not align with the EU’s foreign policy?
TS: I think in due course of time if you want to be a part of the EU, there will be unanimous policies being carried out in this sense. But once you are inside the Union, you have a say when it is being decided what policies will be carried out.
MW: But we have seats in the European Union and it is good that countries can choose their security and foreign policy line, but in the end, of course, it would be more difficult unless we speak with one voice as much as possible.
TS: This enhanced partnership and cooperation is a fact, but we believe that each country must have a right to choose, without any pressure, by their own free will, whatever organizations they want to belong and if so happens that they do not want to belong anymore, then withdraw.
EWB: As you have visited Macedonia, how do you see the recent developments in Macedonia and their interest in opening the negotiation process with the EU and the talks with Greece over the name issue?
TS: Sometimes when you come from the North, it takes a while to understand why it is so important, but we got used to it. This name issue is very delicate and is something which must be solved between Greece and Macedonia. It is also very delicate to use it for domestic political consumption and if you make any move towards the solution of the issue, you may be looked upon in your own country as someone who sells something for nothing.
Macedonia has a new government now and, as far as I understood, the elections were straight and honest and now they are about to have local elections. I do not want to interfere in the independent countries’ businesses, but there has been that wiretapping scandal for example and those issues have to be solved through the legal procedures, otherwise Macedonia will be held in the background forever.
MW: I felt that there was a completely new political dynamic in the government and they have a real opportunity to do most of the things differently from the previous regime. They have also reached out both to Bulgaria and Greece and that is always the first step, as you are demonstrating the political will to solve these problems. We both hope that this will lead to good results. Still, this has been standing in the way for the EU accession talks for so long now, so, let us hope that they will find some sort of arrangement and make the necessary reforms themselves.
EWB: How would you comment on these programs and initiatives, such as Berlin process and the announced “Berlin plus”, which are supposed to enhance the entrance of the Western Balkan states in the EU? How do you see these initiatives?
MW: This is a good thing. We need a constant engagement and commitment to it and we need some very concrete steps forward. If we can contribute to that, we will because we can afford it and we can also gain from it. It is in our own interest as well to engage with the Western Balkans. For example, the Swedish government is about to reinstate the bilateral development and cooperation agreement with Macedonia, and we already support and are a great donor to Serbia.
TS: I think also that Finland and Sweden do not have any kind of hidden agenda. We are small countries, like you, and we just want to encourage and help to get the conditions where you will have good access to healthcare, good access to education, you will live in a peaceful environment, because we are examples of that. We are not interested in what “big brothers” from whatever direction tell us to do, we know that our small countries must have right of their own to seek their own way of life and make independent choices without being pressured by anybody.
Authors: NT Štiplija and Nikola Burazer