Interview with Kristof Bender, Deputy Chairman at the European Stability Initiative (ESI) and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna. The interview was done at the 10th Anniversary event of the European Fund for the Balkans, held in Belgrade on 16-17 April, where Bender was one of the speakers.

European Western Balkans: Do you think that the EU has shown a more serious commitment towards enlargement in the Western Balkans with the European Commission’s Western Balkans Strategy?

Kristof Bender: I think the strategy is a positive development and a step in the right direction. Putting the focus on the rule of law and economic development is good. There are a number of elements that could be very useful, for example the idea of having more in-depth assessment of institutions, in particular in the rule of law area, a special focus on public procurement and more attention to education.

But it is a strategy document, a piece of paper. What eventually will count is not the strategy, but what will be done with it.

EWB: Many believe that the Strategy encourages Serbia and Montenegro, while other countries are somehow left behind. Would you agree with this assessment?

KB: For everyone working on this issue it is clear that the year 2025 is an indication. There is absolutely no guarantee that these two countries will join. There is no automatism.

I personally think that it is very ambitious. No country should be either very encouraged or discouraged by this date for Montenegro and Serbia. Much more important will be how successfully the countries will work on reforms.

EWB: Why do you think the EU has rediscovered its desire towards enlargement? Do you think it’s the fear from Russia that’s driving this?

KB: Maybe it is more a realization in some key member states that the EU should not be complacent, a realisation that it is not enough to say that some day in the distant future the Balkan countries will join.

In the decade after the Balkan conflicts the EU managed to provide a vision for a better future in the Balkans, a future as more democratic and more prosperous countries inside the EU. This inspired real change. It also made it easier for political leaders to make difficult choices.

Take for example of Macedonian government after the conflict in 2001, in particular the ethnic Macedonian leaders. They made a lot of concessions to the Albanian minority, not only symbolically, but also regarding employment. This required leadership. What helped was a credible vision that things will get better and that Macedonia will move towards EU membership. When the EU perspective of Macedonia became blocked due to the name dispute with Greece, this vision fell apart. We all know the negative effects on the reform process, the political climate and democratic standards.

Today, unfortunately, the accession process of several Western Balkan countries is blocked by political factors which have nothing to do with membership criteria. This has weakened the European Union and the credibility of the accession process. It has also undermined the vision of a better future for the Western Balkans.

I think there is some realization of this dynamic in some of the key EU member states. But it is an uphill struggle. The situation is very different from the last enlargement round in 2004, where you had a number of big EU countries who were determined to make enlargement happen. Today, those who believe in the merits of the accession process, those inside and those still outside of the EU, will need to work very hard to make it happen.

EWB: Talking about these political obstacles, how do you see this “comprehensive normalization” relations between Serbia and Kosovo? There has been a mention of this date for finishing the normalization of relations process in the first draft of the Strategy, so there is some kind of momentum coming from the EU for resolving this as soon as possible. Why do you think this is the case?

KB: The Kosovo issue has been with us ever since the Yugoslav wars. For the European Union and for Kosovo it’s a huge problem. With 5 EU member states not recognizing Kosovo, Kosovo has no enlargement perspective. Spain has made this very clear now.

This is a huge problem for the accession process, which allegedly depends on merit. So of course the Commission has a strong interest – actually everyone who cares for the region should have a strong interest – that Kosovo becomes unblocked. The question is: Can this be achieved now in the current circumstances?

President Vučić seems to suggest that the solution lies in some sort of swap of territory. I am convinced this will not happen. Neither the Kosovar parliament will never accept this. Nor will Germany, France, the Netherlands or most other EU member states. Also practically I cannot see how this could happen. If defining a border line between Kosovo and Montenegro in uninhabited terrain was so difficult, how should inhabited territories to be swapped be determined?

EWB: Taking all into account, do you think that Kosovo has an EU future?

KB: In the current circumstances Kosovo has no membership perspective. This is not to say it will not get one someday, but currently it does not. For Kosovo the formal accession process has hit a wall. Formally there is no way to move forward for Kosovo now.

EWB: Which may explain why it’s urgent for some countries to finish the normalization process…

KB: Of course. It is a tragedy that Kosovo, the country which in many respects lags the furthest behind, is offered the least support to catch up with the rest, and experiences the biggest obstacles to move forward. It does not make sense.

EWB: Much has been said about the backslide of democracy and “stabilitocracy” in the Western Balkans, but there seem to be no major changes in EU approach. Do you think that there will be actions in this regard?

KB: Rule of law is a priority for the European Commission. One of the weaknesses of these efforts, however, is that there are very few concrete European rule of law standards. In other areas, from environment protection to consumer protection there are very detailed criteria and standards. For the rule of law we have some core values. But when we talk about how institutions should look like, there are no clear rules.

In the new Strategy there are a number of things which I think go in the right direction.

One is the idea of having more in-depth reports using clear and straightforward language in addressing weaknesses in institutions related to rule of law. This has been done very well in Macedonia by a team led by former EU official Reinhard Priebe, in particular related to civilian control of security services and the judiciary. To take this approach and apply it to all countries and to more areas would be very helpful.

Then there is a special focus on public procurement, which I think is good. Corruption can arrive in so many different forms, but putting the focus on public procurement, where the state spends its money, is a very good step.

It would be even better to define as clearly as possible which criteria countries aspiring to EU membership will have to meet. For public procurement, but also for other areas. The more the better. The Commission then should put more resources into assessing in-depth, by specialised teams, how the countries are doing related to these lists of criteria. It should do this for all West Balkan countries, including those who have not started negotiations yet. And then it should communicate the results in a clear, understandable and comparable form and language.

This would be a huge improvement over the current country reports. Now these are difficult to understand. They do not tell the reader where a country actually stands regarding reforms and how it compares to its neighbours.

Clearly communicated quality assessments following lists of clear criteria for all countries would allow journalists, politicians and interest groups to better understand the reform process in their countries and to pressure for change.

EWB: Let’s make a thought experiment. It’s now 2025 and Western Balkans states have adjusted their legislation with the acqui. Do you think that with these political elites in power – “Balkan strongmen” or semi-authoritarian leaders – these countries could actually join the EU? Is there a point where the member states will say “no, we do not want these people leading their countries into the EU”?

KB: I think that if respect for the rule of law and basic democratic values remains on the current level, no country of the Western Balkans will join the European Union.

In the end, all EU members have to agree for a new country to join. So every applicant country has to convince all EU members that it is good for the Union to accept this new member. Increasing concerns about the rule of law in Hungary and Poland mean that any future member will have to be very well prepared in this key area.