Interview with Florent Marciacq, Deputy Secretary General and Research Fellow at the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe.

European Western Balkans: The 2018 has brought back the focus at the EU enlargement, creating a new political momentum and support for this goal. This troika presidencies have all had highly ranked the Western Balkans integration on its agenda. Where do you believe can the next troika (Romania, Finland, and Croatia) will put the Western Balkans on its agenda?

Florent Marciacq: There is indeed, at least in principle, a strategic window at the Council enabling the Western Balkans to remain at the agenda of the EU for the next two years. After Estonia, Bulgaria and Austria, the Presidency of the Council will be taken over by Romania, Finland, Croatia and Germany in 2020. Most of these countries have strong relations with the region and a vested interest in promoting the European integration of the Western Balkans.

But the Western Balkans will have to compete with many other issues identified by EU Presidencies as higher priorities (Brexit, migrations, MFF negotiations, international security, economy, populism, etc…). Romania, for instance, has identified the Western Balkans in the agenda of its Presidency, but only as a secondary priority, alongside the promotion of reforms in Moldova and Ukraine. Moreover, the experience (or the Sofia Summit for that matter) shows that we should be realist and not expect too much from Presidencies. No matter how supportive they seek to be, they will hardly change European public opinions. And these predominantly oppose further enlargement.

EWB: Nonetheless the political momentum, many WB countries are thoroughly concerned that the EU internal processes could hinder the accession perspective for the foreseeable period. The upcoming EP 2019 elections have raised the voice of far-right and populist movements throughout the Continent with a clear anti-immigration platform. How do you see this trend and outcome of the 2019 elections?

FM: Many factors will influence the results of the 2019 elections in the months to come and it is hard to say what the consequences for the Western Balkans will be. Macron’s attempt at dividing the EPP could make it more difficult for the Western Balkans to remain an EU priority. If his strategy is victorious, the impetus for deepening the EU could overshadow the widening dynamic of EU enlargement. In fact, the framing of European integration as an either/or (widening vs. deepening) calculation will benefit no one – neither the region, nor the EU.

Orban has understood it for several years now. Hungary is a keen supporter of enlargement as a way to weaken the political dimension of the union. The risk in this configuration is that the Western Balkans get trapped between Macron’s self-proclaimed “progressive” approach preferring the deepening of the EU to its widening and Orban’s “utilitarian” approach more interested in getting new friends in the EU in than in their economic and democratic transformation. But that is not the only risk.

Another trend is the further decline of the socialist parties in Europe and the fragmentation of the political spectrum, with more radical parties de facto setting the agenda. Keeping the Western Balkans on the radar of the European Parliament, in such a new configuration will be more complicated than it was before, when the main parties, agreeing on the importance of enlargement, had the upper hand in the institution.

EWB: You have emphasized that the constructive competition approach in EU integration process does not fit in the post-conflict context of the Western Balkans. Would that imply the switch from the merit-based, regatta system to the possible race-to-bottom approach in EU integration of the region?

FM: It is essential here to remember that the EU holds solidarity as fundamental value. Solidarity is what holds the EU together in times of crises and what drives European integration further. The Schuman Declaration underlined the centrality of solidarity almost 70 years ago and the European Treaties enshrine this EU’s commitment to solidarity in a number of provisions (e.g. arts. 2., 3 etc…).

But the political reality of the EU today seems very different. What we see today is a growing lack of solidarity among the Member States of the EU, and that cannot be beneficial for the Western Balkans. The countries of the region need to realise that this key ingredient of European integration is a shrinking commodity; that with declining solidarity, enlargement has become highly unpredictable (in addition of being a lengthy process).

This realisation is crucial and could have enabling consequences, if the countries of the region seize the opportunity of the crisis of solidarity in the EU to bring their own contribution to the European project in the form of a wake-up call to the EU. That starts with asking to get rid of the “regatta principle” applying to their accession process. In a post-conflict context, this principle has generated more zero-sum game calculations than constructive competition and has fallen short of fostering reconciliation and good neighbourly relations.

Then, the countries of the region need to walk the talk and form a united front of sovereign partners standing for one another, willingly binding their European perspectives together in a single community of destiny. They need to get in a same boat and show the EU that this gesture of solidarity is what it should stand for with respect to enlargement and internal politics.

Together, the Western Balkans would have fewer obstacles, since ethnopolitics or blocking one’s neighbours would not profitable anymore. They would also have more leverage to lobby for financial support. Together, they could request the application of more stringent post-accession conditionality mechanisms in exchange of swifter grouped accession. The “frontrunners” could thereby stand for their neigbhours while backing the “strict and fair” principle guiding conditionality. That would be an inspiring act of solidarity and the best response to the rising unpredictability in enlargement matters.

EWB: Serbian accession process continues at a slow pace. What do you see as the largest obstacle to Serbia’s EU accession in long term?

FM: Emigration is a major issue in the region, including in Serbia, because it limits the countries’ future capacity to cope with domestic challenges. You need people to advance reforms in the fields of democratic or economic governance for instance. And you need a youth to strive for change and keep the momentum of European integration. However, the case of Croatia shows that this challenge of emigration is not “solved” by EU accession, on the contrary. You have more Croats emigrating now than before 2013.

Another challenge that the countries of the region should not underestimate is the reluctance that prevails in many capitals of the EU to proceed with enlargement. In France, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, the two-thirds of the population expressly opposes enlargement. The problem is that mechanisms to steer and restrain the enlargement process at all stages have been introduced in several member states and the opportunities to block the process have multiplied accordingly. To get in the EU, it is not enough anymore to do your homework and tick all the boxes. Now, you also need to work on getting the political support of individual member states and engage with EU citizens directly. That is a new challenge that should be not underestimated.

EWB: The WB region suffers from the unresolved bilateral issues and the heavy burden of the recent war-past. As the good neighbourhood relations are the prerequisite for the EU countries, the WB countries have to meet these criteria with the particular emphasis on the reconciliation. What do you see as the main obstacle in the process of reconciliation?

FM: The Berlin Process was launched in 2014 with the intention to make “real additional progress”. There has been progress in infrastructure or human connectivity indeed, but at the political level, the main achievement of the Berlin Process has been its strong emphasis on regional cooperation. It has been its contribution to building regional trust, by bringing the countries of the region to meet and do things together as often as possible. Putting them in a same boat. The enlargement strategy issued in February 2018, while borrowing many elements from the Berlin Process (through its flagship initiatives) fails to retain the spirit of the Process. It replaces the countries of the region into different boats advancing at different speeds and has been a source of disappointment for that reason.

The enlargement strategy has nonetheless included reconciliation and good neighbourliness as pre-condition to accession. This addition of a not-so-new criterion does not make accession easier if we take the current parameters as granted: individual member states will have additional opportunities to block Western Balkan candidates on their way to the EU, based on their own assessment of reconciliation and good neighbourliness, or simply for domestic reasons. And Western Balkan leaders will have to showcase reconciliation while running (or competing) towards EU accession.

The problem is that you cannot order reconciliation, especially under conditions of competition. Croatia has benefited from the regatta principle, has it made progress in terms of reconciliation? Reconciliation is something which develops over time, based on trust and acts of solidarity. That is why we need to go back to what has been most successful in the Berlin Process, to emphasise further regional cooperation and make it more central in the EU’s approach.

It is not enough for the countries of the region to all look at the EU from their capital and share a common objective. Reconciliation needs to be built by developing a common vision of the future and a common understanding of the past. I believe that the best way to achieve that is to accept to share the destiny of your neighbour. That is why grouped accession is so important. It would transform zero-sum games into positive sum-games.

EWB: One of the main bilateral issues is certainly the process of normalization between Serbia and Kosovo. There has been a lot of media speculations last months about the possible land-swap or partition of Kosovo as a part of the final deal. What is your opinion of that kind of a solution? Could that have a destabilizing influence in the region?

FM: The idea has been floating in Serbia for decades but has never been considered acceptable by the EU for a very simple reason: it runs against the very ethics of European integration. The whole purpose of European integration, indeed, is to make borders and ethnic belonging less relevant in contemporary politics. It is an anti-essentialist project, aimed at countering ethno-nationalism.

What message would the EU send if it now accepted a change of border based on ethnic criteria as a solution to bilateral disputes? What message would it send to Kosovo and Serbia’s neighbours, who could be tempted to take dangerous shortcuts? What message would it send to Russia and other actors in the Eastern neighbourhood using borders and ethnicity as instruments for their geopolitical games? And above all, what purpose would European integration retain, should the EU give up on its vision of a social order that is not structured by border and ethnopolitics? There are many reasons to oppose this idea (legitimacy concerns, legal concerns, security concerns, etc…).

I think that the EU should be more pragmatic in many instances, but it would weaken with this proposal an essential part of what makes it different from traditional actors -its ethics.