Interview with Tobias Flessenkemper, Senior Fellow and Balkans project Director at the Centre International de Formation Européenne (CIFE) in Nice, Adjunct Professor at the University of Cologne and member of Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG). The interview was conducted on the sidelines of the conference “EU Strategy for Successful Accession of Western Balkans and EU Neighbours – Case of Romania”, which was organised by the Center for Foreign Policy and Hanns Seidel Foundation, and took place in Belgrade on 7 February.

European Western Balkans: Do you think that German policy towards Serbia and other Western Balkan states will remain the same even if the ’grand coalition’ is renewed?

Tobias Flessenkemper: The direction of travel for the Western Balkans will remain the same: which means the EU membership perspective is there, but the coalition agreement also says: thoroughness is more important than speed. Also the ability and readiness of Germany to steer the process in the next few months will be different than in the past years. Almost five months months passed since the elections on 24 September 2017 and it is still not clear when a new government will be in place. In the next months several developments will be taking place, such as the presentation of country report for each Western Balkan country and preparations for Sofia summit.

The point for the Western Balkans is that Germany might play less of a role than it used to play during the earlier phase of Berlin process between 2014 and 2017. Secondly, the priority of a new German government will be a consolidation of the European Union internally. Thirdly, Germany will have to formulate an answer to the proposal for the future of the EU which were made by French President Emmanuel Macron.

The agenda for the Western Balkans from a German government perspective, however, is clear the countries need to continue their democratic, administrative and economic reforms. The willingness to engage in the Western Balkans will definitely be higher if the countries in the region solve their bi-lateral issues and disputes.

EWB: Since the murder of Kosovo Serb leader Oliver Ivanović, dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is on hold. How do you see the future of the dialogue?

TF: When a crime occured that involves two jurisdictions, in this case Serbia and Kosovo, police and prosecutors need to cooperate. This kind of cooperation is a key objective of the dialogue. But, reactions were rather political including by Serbian government representatives. The least helpful for investigation and solving the crime is to politicize it. Linking this murder to the dialogue does not seem very helpful, because the dialogue has its own agenda. With the new enlargement strategy of February there really exists an opportunity for Serbia and Kosovo together with the EU to use next year to press ahead with the dialogue.

EWB: Is there a place for the US or Russia to take part in this dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo?

TF: It is up to the parties to decide if it is helpful to have other mediators. We have to understand that the dialogue is there because the EU said that both Serbia and Kosovo could have a better future with and in the EU. The European Union has an interest to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo. On the other hand, powers represented in the UN Security Council as permanent members have a broader task. Their responsibility is to oversee the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1244 and to develop a sustainable international solution in the long run. It would not seem helpful to mix these processes at this juncture.

EWB: Recently, Bulgaria started its presidency of the Council of the EU and expressed its ambition to push the enlargement forward. How do you see that optimism that is coming from Bulgaria when we talk about the accession process of the Western Balkan states?

TF: It is good that Bulgaria towards the end of this institutional cycle started its presidency, especially being interested in this region. Bulgaria is a smaller European state, but it showed to have a good diplomatic service which managed already putting the Balkans summit in May on the agenda. The Sofia summit has the potential to be a milestone for the EU-Western Balkans relations. Significantly, Bulgaria has diplomatic relations with all Western Balkan countries, including Kosovo, so the next months should be used as a window of opportunity for the region. What is interesting to observe is that Western Balkans countries have not invested much in their relationship with Bulgaria.

EWB: The upcoming Western Balkan Summit of the Berlin process, which will be held in London, is perceived by the UK’s officials as an expression of a will of the UK to maintain its commitment to the Western Balkans even after Brexit. How do you see that and do you think that the forthcoming Summit will introduce any changes in the Berlin process?

TF: The Berlin process is obviously coming to the end of its first cycle. The summit in London on 10 July will probably have a special impact for the future of the process, if the Sofia EU-Western Balkans summit on 17 May manages to set out clear orientations for enlargement. It is hard to predict what will be the situation of the British government in July, but what we know is that there will be a review of what has been achieved and certainly some indications will be given about how the Berlin process will continue. We also see that the British government will focus on security issues but also there is a new emphasis on reconciliation in the region. In this respect convening a meeting one day before the Srebrenica memorial day on 11 July could have a symbolic value. Certainly, the character of the Berlin process will be different after London, because the enlargement strategy started to integrate many important elements that were promoted by the Berlin process over the last four years. This is a positive development.

EWB: German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, announced a “Berlin plus” agenda on 31 May 2017, which has been seen by many as a compensation for the region’s long wait to join the EU. How do you comment on a sudden silence and lack of information regarding the plan and what is, in your opinion, the future of the announced programme?

TF: Berlin plus is basically a part of what is now enlargement strategy. Berlin plus was an important impulse at a time when the enlargement discussion in the EU was at a low point.  Gabriel made a proposal to all partners: saying ‘let’s do more’. The German government has lived up to its responsibility to provide a push, so it will be interesting to see who else will assume responsibility for doing more including among the Western Balkans states.

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