Interview with Vesna Pusić, member of Croatian Parliament and former Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Republic of Croatia in the Government of Zoran Milanović, in office at the time of Croatia’s accession to the European Union. Pusić was a guest at the 10th Anniversary event of the European Fund for the Balkans, held on 16-17 April in Belgrade.

European Western Balkans: First let me ask you a general question. How do you see the European perspective of the Western Balkans?

Vesna Pusić: Today I think it is very clear that the countries of the Western Balkans will become members of the European Union. Whether all together in 2025 or will it go according to the model that states enter in the order in which they finish closing chapters and fulfilling all conditions, at this moment it is difficult to say. I think that there is a pretty good chance of group entry because of previous enlargement experiences. There was even talk about the possibility of joining with some kind of “trainee status” – that all countries would join, but would have different phases of “trainee status” in which they will still have to accomplish certain conditions.

However, I think that is less important. I have always considered that the accession of the Western Balkan countries or the former Yugoslavia plus Albania into the EU – now that they are de facto surrounded by EU countries – is more consolidation of European territory than enlargement. The question is – what to do with it? Europe was conceived as a set of values and everyone wanted to get closer to that set and identify with it. On the other hand, Europe saw enlargement as a reunification after the Cold War. New members saw this as one chance to speed up their own progress.

In the meantime, the situation has changed drastically. There is no longer any excitement for enlargement from the European side, and even in the new member states, there is a question in which amount do they see membership in the European Union as a solution to their problems and the answer to their questions. Since 2014, Russia has begun to lead one aggressive and certainly very visible policy, not only in non-member states, but also in the members themselves. This is an additional element. After the Ukrainian crisis, it seems to me that the Russian Federation began to look at the EU in the way it once looked at NATO.

The EU is our place – by “us” I think about all countries in Southeast Europe. The idea of joining is actually what we will create when the entire region joins. In the EU, no one waits to fix us – I can tell you from Croatian experience – there is only space within which you can repair yourself, seeking allies or partners, and that is why regional cooperation is more important than ever.

What is this Croatian interest? In my opinion, the interest of Croatia is, if it wants to seriously benefit from its own membership, to develop cooperation models between EU countries in Southeast Europe, that have specific interests and problems within Europe.

They also have problems with the sharp division of societies between revolutionary nationalists and civil-oriented reformers. This division remains even after you enter the Union. The struggle between these two concepts is, in my opinion, the main struggle we fight for our countries and for our own healthy future. As in Serbia, and in Croatia or Macedonia, wherever you turn around there is the same dilemma, the same two options.

We all see the European Union as a context that helps and goes in favour of civil-oriented reformers, but we will have to be able to use and to resist the revolutionary nationalists who have started to rise against this concept of the European Union because they think it is not their context – it really depends on our strength.

EWB: In your opinion, which are the biggest threats to the European perspective? Are they more some internal problems and reform challenges, or maybe we can talk about some external threats – such as Russia or perhaps the EU itself, which no longer has so much interest in enlargement?

VP: We can talk about both internal and external issues. From outside there is a signal that EU is not the only possible way to develop and that you can join another, a rather powerful entity that will not ask you to meet any criteria. It always finds its supporters inside the country.

There are certain people who really think like this and who look at it as a signal – why should we join something that imposes certain criteria to us and is suspicious of everything we feel as our identity, from patriarchy to nationalism and social conservatism. It absolutely finds its supporters.

In our societies one of the reasons why we want to enter the Union so much is not because it is so fantastic, but because we are partially defending ourselves from that social conservatism and backwardness. In addition, you have the signal that there is an alternative out there.

As the Union itself is concerned, it is also at a crossroad and we have to stop looking at it as “some people out there that may or may not give us something”. This Union has our ministers and our prime ministers in the highest decision-making bodies. They decide – they are not “them”, they are “us”. Now it’s just a matter of how capable, smart and well organized we are to influence the Union’s policies.

At this point, the truth is that the EU is somehow weak with leadership, although the appearance of Macron and the return of Merkel to the head of the German government have filled this empty space of leadership, and in a strange way, Brexit has de facto homogenized Europe, because everyone was so shocked by this fact, including the British themselves, and in the meantime this feeling of belonging to Europe has grown in the rest of Europe.

However, according to the well-known saying “no good deed goes unpunished”, a good idea will not pass without great, powerful and serious enemies. So this idea of cooperation at the European level also has a whole range of enemies, including in its own institutions, which may be less articulated against that idea, and more with some kind of bureaucratic inertia make the whole project less attractive.

But that does not say anything about this project. The project is the only good idea that they had here in the last hundred years. It is an idea for which it is worth fighting for and confronting ourselves with our own revolutionary “regressives” – I deliberately call them “regressives”, not conservatives – and external factors who see a chance at this moment of vacuum to get in quickly, and the forces within the Union itself, who, because of some kind of bureaucratic short-sightedness, do not articulate this project in the most attractive way they could.

EWB: Croatia is the last state that joined the EU. The negotiation process that it had has a lot of similarity with negotiation processes of Serbia and Montenegro, and with processes which other countries in the Western Balkans will have later. In your opinion, what is the lesson from Croatia’s experience? What is important to do during the negotiation process so that it could be conducted as quickly and successfully as possible?

VP: There is no need to skip anything and everything should be done step by step. But from our experience, where we didn’t do what we needed – and we weren’t aware of it – and that is to make changes so that it is almost impossible or very difficult to get them back – is the judiciary. That is the most difficult chapter.

We were struggling with it and many changes were made. However, what happened to us after joining is that it started to slide backwards. The judiciary is the beginning of any decent state – if a citizen can’t trust the judiciary, then the foundation is moved under your feet.

EWB: Regarding Croatia and its relations with neighbours who aspire towards EU membership, above all Serbia and BiH, do you think that Croatia supports the EU enlargement process enough or is it perhaps more interested in what it can gain through this process as a member state that has “veto” power?

VP: It changes with governments. The Croatian initiative has allowed BiH to submit a request for membership, because until then it was said that until the Sejdić-Finci verdict in BiH was executed, there won’t be further steps. Our initiative, which we conceived in the Croatian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then in the arrangement with the British and the Germans in some way changed the EU policy towards BiH and made it possible. When we change governments, we are changing politics. We are all relatively new states and this idea of continuity still does not exist because there is no that kind of consciousness.

Under these circumstances, it is perfectly clear that for Croatia’s stability, security and economy, the vital interest is removing borders and the possibility of trading without customs. Croatia can’t do too much about it, because there are criteria. What we can do is to convey our experiences from relatively recent negotiations and work primarily with the civil sector and state institutions, and secondly – to not interfere.

EWB: This is what I referred to, that as a country which has veto power, Croatia may negatively affect the enlargement process.

VP: Well yes, but as far as I can see, it has not happened yet. In my opinion, it would be necessary to cooperate closely to see what is Croatia planning at that moment – which of course is difficult, because no one knows who will be governing at that moment – whether the border will be resolved? This is now not required, because the EU institutions said they will not let anyone join if they don’t solve border’s problems, after the experience with Croatia and Slovenia.

I do not think our question is so complicated, while the question of the border between Croatia and BiH has already been agreed, signed by Izetbegović and Tuđman, but hasn’t been ratified yet. This should be ratified because we will never agree on that 1000km again if we don’t ratify it now. However, there are many other issues there too, so it is time to cooperate together parallel with the negotiations process.

EWB: Do you perhaps believe that the Croatian public, after the recent experiences with Slovenia, will be even less willing to accept concessions or giving up on claims Croatia has, above all when it comes to the border issue?

VP: I believe it is exactly the opposite. I think that the Croatian public is much more ready for these problems to be solved than certain political leaders who see their space for political action and support in that stance. We recently had voting in the parliament about one topic that was widely discussed in the last month, where in the end it was shown that around 25 per cent of members of the parliament voted against it, and 75 voted for.

I think that is an excellent demonstration of the condition of Croatian society. Around one fourth or one third are those that want patriarchy, preventing neighbours to join the EU, they want revolutionary nationalism. Around two thirds to three quarters are the other ones. However, the first ones are much louder, more aggressive, visible and organized.

EWB: In your opinion, is it a good or a bad thing for Croatia that it is no longer a part of European initiatives in the Western Balkans – such as the Regional Youth Cooperation Office? Can we really talk about the “region” without Croatia?

VP: I think that you can say whatever you want, but Croatia is a part of the region. It is also a member of the European Union. I think that Slovenia is part of the region also, but the region can exist without Slovenia, whereas without Croatia it does not. It is simply geographically, culturally and historically, and in every other way, an integral part of the region. That communication will always exist. Now we are more oriented on our own strengths because we will otherwise be messed up by ‘big’ ones, as they already have begun.

EWB: Do you think Croatia somehow avoids being classified among the region’s countries?

VP: It avoids, or actually one part of the public avoids being classified among the countries, although this belongs to that category that it would be good if people behaved in accordance with their interests, but for this they first should understand their interests. So is this case. So you can fight as much as you want, but the only place where Croatia has a factual and comparative advantage and some importance is precisely in this region. Well, we can’t influence Poland, it is a very small probability. But the Western Balkans, South East Europe, or whatever you want to call it, we will.