Interview with Peter Grk, Secretary General of the Bled Strategic Forum and National Coordinator for the Western Balkans at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Slovenia. This year’s 13th Bled Strategic Forum, titled “Bridging the Divide”, will be held on 10-11 September in Bled, Slovenia.

European Western Balkans: This year marks the 13th time Bled Strategic Forum is taking place, and one of the topics will be Western Balkans’ path towards European Union. Is 2025, in your opinion, too optimistic date for a new round of enlargement to, for example, Montenegro and Serbia?

Peter Grk: I’m an optimist by nature and a vivid supporter of enlargement. I strongly believe that the sooner the countries of the Western Balkans join the EU the better. But it’s true that 2025 is just around the corner and a lot of things need to fall in place in order to welcome new members to the European family.

Plainly speaking and using sports terminology – the ball is in the hands of the region. There are circumstances, which are beyond the influence of the Western Balkans countries and I will speak about them later, but there are clear benchmarks, goals and criteria, which countries of the region need to fulfil in order to move forward towards the EU. And geopolitics doesn’t have anything to do with that.

Geopolitics, circumstances in Europe and elsewhere will play a role, nobody can deny that, but that will be managed much easier if the countries of the Western Balkans implement their share of work. And, what is equally important, their readiness (in terms of alignment to the standards, norms and legislation of the EU, especially in the context of rule of law and economic performance), will give another impetus to the supporters of enlargement like Slovenia to continue strongly advocating their EU membership.

I believe in 2025, but only belief without hard work, especially on the side of the Western Balkans, will not get us there. On the other hand also EU must improve its decision-making and stand ready to embrace new member states as soon as they fulfill the necessary criteria.

EWB: 2018 has seen renewed engagement of EU in the region. Do you believe 2019 European Parliament elections and its results could change this trend?

PG: The results of the European elections will no doubt have an influence on the eagerness of the EU regarding enlargement. No matter what the results are going to be, and of course we all hope that European parliament will remain a stronghold of EU integration and enlargement support, the EU cannot turn its back to the promises made in the past.

Enlargement policy is so strongly embedded in the core of the EU foundation, that elections to the EP shouldn’t change that. Enlargement is not an altruistic game, where EU is extending its hand to the region, because it’s a right thing to do, but because it’s in the vital, strategic, even geostrategic if you want, interest of the Union to bring countries of the WB closer and eventually in the EU.

This will not change, because you can’t change geography and you can’t change the fact, that in order to maintain peace, stability and prosperity on the European continent, EU needs to finish the consolidation of Europe. I’m certain that also the new EP will see the benefits of enlargement as stated above.

EWB: The most recent development in the region is the initiative of Presidents Vučić and Thaci for some sort of border correction between Serbia and Kosovo. Could this kind of solution have a destabilizing influence?

PG: Any solution in the Balkans can have a destabilizing influence, because the region is like a jigsaw, you move one piece and another can fall out of place. I think that we are witnessing one important thing – Presidents of Kosovo and Serbia are having a deep and constructive dialogue. This in itself is a step forward and we can agree that something like that was not possible a few years back. That’s a good thing and any kind of dialogue needs to be supported by the international community.

Now, regarding the possible solution to the normalization process, I would argue that any solution which will be put on the table has to be thoroughly considered, also with having in mind the larger regional implications. It needs to be crafted in a way to prevent domino or spillover effect to other countries. Correcting borders in the Western Balkans could be very dangerous, as we have already witnessed in the past.

EWB: Is there a chance, as BSF Concept Paper formulates, for the ruling elites of WB countries to do away with the system that hinders the reforms but provides them with political benefits? If not, is there an alternative for implementing much needed reforms?

PG: There is always an alternative. The gradual understanding of the political elites in the Western Balkans that progress towards the EU also means some tough decisions and sacrifices, often also personal ones, will come only when there is going to be enough pressure, not from outside, but within the countries of the region from their citizens and civil society.

Empowerment of civil society, of the young is in this context vital. And it needs to be based on a larger, more comprehensive approach of securing enough perspective for the young people of the region to stay and fight for their hope, for their future.

The smartest people are leaving Western Balkans and never coming back. This needs to be reversed and it can’t be done in one day. Some initiatives, also from the Slovenian side – Positive agenda for the youth of the WB – have been set in motion and now need to be implemented. When you will have a critical mass, which will demand that the reform processes need to be accelerated, then you will also see movement on the part of political elites.

BSF 2017; Photo: Bled Strategic Forum

EWB: Another topic that will be discussed in Bled is the future of EU. Is President Macron’s idea of EU in three “rings” likely to materialize? Where would Slovenia be positioned in that kind of arrangement and what is the potential place of Western Balkans?

PG: The debate regarding the future of Europe has been around for quite some time now. Currently there are a lot of proposals, views, suggestions, ideas on how to move forward and in this context President Macron is clearly taking the lead in trying to stir a real debate inside of the EU, which Slovenia strongly supports. We need an honest and straightforward debate about our common future.

There are different strong voices in Europe, also negative ones regarding the need for further integration and it will be very interesting to see if we can reach a compromise, which will make us more united, more democratic, more resilient and more transparent in going forward.

Slovenia has been always an advocate of a strong and integrated European Union, which values solidarity, human rights and the rule of law. We clearly see advantages of further integration and we would like to remain in the core of such Union. But let’s see how the debate is going to unfold.

EWB: During the recent Alpbach Forum, President of Slovenia Borut Pahor somewhat criticized the EU for its unwillingness to insist on the implementation of Slovenia-Croatia demarcation. Do you think that the EU should show higher level of commitment when it comes to solving bilateral issues in the Western Balkans?

PG: It should. And slowly this understanding is getting more and more support in the corridors of the EU and Member States. If you look at the conclusions of the last Berlin process Summit in London you can see that bilateral disputes have been firmly anchored in the text, special declaration was signed and this can also be viewed as a start of a process, where countries of the region will need to show positive track record in addressing outstanding issues.

While the responsibility still lays with the region, EU needs to step up its efforts in order to positively pressure the countries of the region to solve outstanding issues and in some cases it also needs to step inside of the ring and offer its good services to speed up the resolution of some of the tougher questions, as is the case with Belgrade – Kosovo dialogue.

With regard to the Final Award issued on 29 June 2017 by the Arbitral Tribunal, it determined the land and maritime boundary between Slovenia and Croatia. The award – judgement – is final and binding, and Croatia should implement it as such. Unfortunately, Croatia is unilaterally refusing to fulfill its obligations arising from the Final Award and we are still far from demarcation of the border.

Let me recall that the Arbitration Agreement was signed in 2009 between Slovenia and Croatia in order to resolve the border issue and was facilitated by the European Commission in order to move forward Croatia’s accession negotiations. In this respect we would expect the European Commission to consistently promote respect for the rule of law.

International relations have been built and stand on the respect of international law, EU was built on the respect of international law and if we let this to be eroded, misplaced or forgotten, than we are in real danger of losing one thing which guarantees stability, transparency and democracy in international relations.

EWB: An overarching theme of this year’s forum are technological advances. In your opinion, how far are the Western Balkans from the EU in this area?

PG: In the context of the Berlin Process we have been very open while talking about connectivity, especially in the field of infrastructure and energy. While this is important I would still argue that digital connectivity is equally or even more crucial in terms of creating a beneficial environment for economic prosperity. New Strategy of the European Commission has already placed a lot of importance to this issue, you have now regular Digital Summits in the region and big digital corporations are moving more strongly towards the WB.

There is one thing which makes Western Balkans such an interesting place to try to create a strong and viable digital hub – the know-how and education. But it needs to be nurtured and developed. We can already see that in some countries of the region the education system needs to be modernized and restructured, if not, the gap between the EU and the region will only get bigger not smaller.

And one more thing, which needs to happen, is setting up a context, an environment where young people won’t be hindered to start their own businesses or startups but will actually be supported and helped along the way.

EWB: Cyber-threats are surely one of the most dangerous aspects of technological developments. Where are those directed at EU and WB mostly coming from and what is the correct way to deal with them?

PG: Cyber security is actually a threat, which is not being entirely recognized, at least not in this part of the world, as potentially imminent and highly disruptive. This is why cyber security is featuring so prominently this year at the Bled Strategic Forum.

Because we would like to raise awareness about the fact that cyber warfare is already happening, although we don’t feel it yet and we need to put in place mechanisms and instruments, which will allow us to fight this threat as efficiently as possible. We are glad that upon the invitation of Slovenian director for cyber security, and with the support of the RCC, the Directors from the region are coming to Bled to discuss this pertinent issue.

Cyber threats are coming from various state and non-state actors, whoever has a direct geopolitical or economical interest can use cyber to disrupt and potentially destabilize.