Interview with Steven Blockmans, Head of EU Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and Professor of EU External Relations Law and Governance at the University of Amsterdam. The interview was done during the Belgrade Security Forum 2018, where Blockmans was one of the speakers.

European Western Balkans: In February this year the European Commissioned released the Western Balkans Strategy. How do you see its importance?

Steven Blockmans: I think it was important as a reminder to the EU and its own citizens, if not only to the countries in the region, that EU is serious about its enlargement policy and about integration of the Western Balkan countries in the EU. It was a good chance to remind everybody about the promise made at the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit and to try and come up with concrete ways and means for steering each of those countries as quickly and efficiently as possible towards the membership in the EU.

Of course, by putting down markers on the calendar, as Jean-Claude Juncker did in his State of the Union speech which was recycled in the Strategy you referred to, he gave a kind of half-hearted promise. He immediately disqualified himself when he said “2025 for the front-runners, if and when they are ready and if we are ready”. But, at the same time, the genie is out of the bottle – that year is circulating, the fact that we are talking about it suggests that expectations have been raised, certainly in the Western Balkans.

I do not think that it is realistic to expect that, on the side of EU, all stars will have aligned by 2025 in order to prepare their citizens for the next enlargement wave. Also, the countries that are currently front-runners will probably not be ready by 2025. So, it is hard to expect this will materialise from both angles. I would rather think about the second half of the next decade.

Some key issues, of course, have to be overcome. For Serbia, obviously, it is not only closing the socio-economic gap between itself and, say, an average member state. It also deals with major political issues and the clearest one is recognition of Kosovo, which is a key condition for membership. I think that current developments are pushing to the opposite direction from resolution of the conflict, even though suggestions have been made about border swaps in order to take a step forward in this respect.

On the side of the EU, that step is necessary in order to convince the remaining five non-recognising member states to lift their objections and to welcome Serbia and, indeed, Kosovo to the protocol in the future. So, that is the key which needs be found.

EWB: So, you are saying that 2025 is unrealistic for the candidate countries?

SB: Yes, I do, for the reasons mentioned above. Consider this – we are in the year 2018. It is seven years from now. In a political life, that passes extremely quickly.

With the rhetoric and policies that are currently being implemented by the Serbian government I do not see this moving fast enough in the direction that should be taken.

“Concerns at the EU level about the non-aligned push of the Serbian president”

There are too many concerns at the EU level about the sort of a non-aligned push of the President, who is inviting not only for the closer cooperation with Russia, but with China as well.

EWB: When it comes to some messages coming from the EU which are actually pointing in the same direction, we can mention here the “cold shower” by President Macron during the Sofia Summit in May, when he said there will be no enlargement before the internal EU reform. How do you see this statement? Can it endanger the enlargement perspective of the Western Balkans in the near future?

SB: Macron is stating the obvious from the French perspective. If we look at the statements of previous Presidents, this is no different, for example Sarkozy said the same thing. In that perspective, he is playing for the home crowds, while also sending a signal to the Western Balkan countries that they need to do more in order to convince France to vote in the Council for a membership perspective.

“Marcron was also sending a signal to the Western Balkan countries that they need to do more in order to convince France to vote in the Council for a membership perspective”

Then again, Mr. Macron does not hold all the cards in his hand. Of course, this goes together with other members that are much more vocal proponents of membership. I do not see it as an immediate blow to the accession perspective.

I would not want to make the connection to the question whether it would kill the enlargement dream within the next seven years, because in my answer to your first question I already talked about structural issues that would take longer to be resolved, but also need to be resolved.

EWB: Elections for the European Parliament take place next year. What do you think would be their consequences to the enlargement perspective, having in mind the potential strengthening of the far-right parties and loss of “euro-optimism”?

SB: European Parliamentary elections are, as you know, conducted on a national level. It is a two-step approach with no fully harmonized systems and procedures in all 27 member states. This is a bit of a disjointed elections where local and national issues will prevail over any major European or even international ones.

“The question of enlargement will not define pre-electoral debates of the candidates”

Maybe enlargement is an issue in the countries that are closer to the Western Balkans, but it will not define the pre-electoral debates of the candidates. They may mention it, but it will not be a defining issue.

Unless, of course, they are seen through the narrow prism of external border management and migration. But again, nobody will run in the elections on the ticket of enlarging the EU – this goes back to your previous question, where the EU stands itself and how it can overcome some divisions that have widened over the past years, not just because of the economic and financial crisis, but more because of the migration and the values crisis which, we see, is splitting EU in several ways.

What EU reform would have to do is to, in a way, follow what France and Germany have already agreed to at a summit in spring of this year, where qualified majority voting in the Council was proposed as a much more regular type of decision making in order to avoid the EU collectively being held back on certain issues. Foreign affairs is certainly one of them, but another important thing is cleaning up EU’s own image, which is not as shiny as it used to be.

We have seen the rule of law problem emerging not just in Poland and Hungary, but increasingly in founding member states too. Italy, I think, is a clear-cut case. Those will be the topics that will entertain those voters that do care to go out to vote in the European Parliamentary elections.

EWB: Going back to Commission’s Strategy from February, it mentions that Western Balkan countries have elements of state capture, which is quite a bold statement considering the fact that EU was frequently criticized for not paying enough attention to this issue before. Do you think EU is changing its position and has now learned its lesson from the examples such as Macedonia, or these changes are just cosmetic?

SB: I do not think they are cosmetic. You alluded to Macedonia, and in its case this term had already been used in previous reports. It is now uploaded in a more general way, which I think is a good thing because those solving slow-burning crises such as corruption, evasion of rule of law and state capture are fundamental for the preparation of candidate countries for membership.

And the EU is also grappling with these problems in countries such as Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria. It is a proliferating issue of concern to the EU not just in its external, but also internal context.

In my mind, reform of the EU and enlargement should go hand in hand as both sides prepare themselves to tackle the issues that have prevented them from better governance.

EWB: What do you see as the main problem facing the enlargement perspective of the Western Balkans? Is it, on the one hand, bilateral disputes, for example between Serbia and Kosovo or Macedonia and Greece, which has blocked the former for more than a decade? Or is more the rule of law, democracy and other internal issues? If you had to choose one of these factors for the main reason Balkans is stuck and lagging so much, what would it be?

SB: That’s the thing, it is not a binary choice. It is rather an “and-and” type of sequence of challenges countries need to overcome. And one has to add to that list the preparation of EU citizens for the prospect of an enlargement at the time when there is a perception that EU is either too heavy-handed, with its regulatory weight stifling economic growth – I do not believe it to be true, we can see that economic growth is back – or is not providing solutions to protect European citizens, look at migration and, to a lesser extent prevention of terrorism.

“EU’s own preparation one of the main problems facing Western Balkans’ enlargement perspective”

So, I would add to your list EU’s own preparation. And its level of priority really depends on political “mood music” as it develops from now until 2025 and beyond that. One day, one of these challenges will be perceived to be more important than the other. I think, at this particular time, that would be EU’s own well-being.

Whereas, of course, there is an eye to what is happening, or not happening, with name dispute, there is an eyebrow raised to the idea of border swaps. But I think at this moment the more fundamental issue is EU itself. That may change over time.

EWB: The EU has significantly changed its position when it comes to the issue of territorial changes. Whereas previously you could not hear any statements of the kind and all the focus was on the implementation of the achieved agreements, now you can hear it quite clearly that any kind of agreement reached by the two sides is acceptable to EU, which can be seen as a green light towards territorial changes. Why do you think this happened, because it seems so sudden?

SB: It is an easy way out of the conundrum that is otherwise really hard to resolve. If the hardest type of nationalist political leaders can not come to the agreement and are replaced in the end, their more moderate successors will be the object of fierce criticism from the extremes.

Also, there is a point that from the perspective of international relations and international law it is an attractive and even legal idea of two legitimate governments coming to an agreement as to how to resolve their border issues, recognition and sovereignty issues. So I see the power of attraction outsourcing this problem to toughest leaders, juxtaposed on the opposite sides has for the EU. It can act as Pontius Pilate – wash its hands and remain innocent.

“The EU can act as Pontius Pilate – wash its hands and remain innocent”

But, it is important what that kind of a deal the leaders struck. And we have not seen enough details to understand what type of deal that is.

My worries are related to the protection of the minorities within the districts that are being swapped. There will be people finding themselves on the wrong side of the border, with different religion and ethnicity.

So, the problem won’t go away and it will set a difficult precedent for resolving the issue of Bosnia and Herzegovina. If you there too wait for local strongmen to reach any kind of agreement, you will be waiting for Godot.