European Western Balkans

[EWB Interview] Page: No question of UK withdrawing from the Western Balkans

Even though the Brexit saga seems to be a never-ending story, PM Theresa May has announced that the UK Government will try to accelerate the process in order to have it completed before the constitution of the new European Parliament in July. It remains to be seen whether PM May will succeed in passing her deal through the House of Commons or coming up with a realistic plan that ensures that Brexit will indeed happen. Although Brexit is among the most hotly debated topics, there has not been much coverage of the potential impact of Britain’s decision to leave the EU on the Western Balkans. European Western Balkans therefore talked with Andrew Page, Head of Western Balkans Department at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the head of the team that organised the 2018 London Western Balkans Summit under the Berlin Process. Among the questions we put to Andrew were: will post-Brexit Britain’s position vis-à-vis the Western Balkans change substantially, what might be the further implications for the region, and does the UK see the current Franco-German initiative as breathing new life into the Serbia-Kosovo Dialogue?

European Western Balkans: Brexit has been in the air for last three years, yet there has been very little analysis of how it will actually affect the UK’s position vis-à-vis the Western Balkans. What will be the practical implications of the UK’s leaving the European Union on the region?

Andrew Page: We were asked this question almost a year ago when we hosted the Western Balkans Summit in London under the Berlin Process. The message which came out of that Summit is still today’s message, which is that the UK’s commitment to the Western Balkans is enduring: it will continue after we leave the EU, and indeed it will be reinforced. As an earnest of this intent, the Prime Minister announced last year at the Summit that not only will we be continuing with our current presence, we will be doubling the number of people working in the region in British embassies on security related issues. These cover areas such as trafficking of drugs, fire-arms, people, immigration related crime and other joint security challenges that affect all our countries. We will also step up our work with governments and civil society to help reduce corruption in the region and raise standards on rule of law. The most significant announcement from our Summit, in terms of our future intent, is that we will be doubling the programme money we spend on the region.

In the current year we are spending around 40 million pounds on the UK’s technical assistance; by 2020-2021, we will have doubled this to 80 million a year. So, no question of our withdrawing in any way from the Western Balkans. On the contrary, we are redoubling our efforts, which we hope will leave our Western Balkans friends in no doubt that the UK’s commitment to European security is resolute and will endure well beyond our exit from the EU.

The UK will continue to be an important player in defence terms, as a NATO ally, including as a contributor to KFOR in Kosovo, and we would like to continue to contribute to EUFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

EWB: It may seem curious to people, though, to see a country that is about to leave the European Union still supporting the European integration of the Western Balkans. Isn’t that an ambiguous message?

AP: We will continue to support the Western Balkans countries if their people, their governments, their parliaments are very clear, as they are, that they want to join the European Union. The UK is consistent and we will continue, whether inside or outside the EU, to support their EU Accession aspirations.

People wonder, I know, whether Enlargement might be running out of steam, but it appears to me that the European institutions’ commitment to Enlargement is still there in a strong way. It was very clear from the Enlargement Package last year, but also if you speak to Commission and External Action Service officials, and indeed the Commissioners themselves, they are determined to sustain momentum.

Serbia and Montenegro are in the lead having started the Accession negotiations earliest. The UK have been active champions of Enlargement for a long time, actively supporting the process, not least in rule of law – chapters 23 and 24 – in our diplomacy as well as through our increasing programme funding.

We think that it is very important for North Macedonia and Albania that they get to the starting line and open EU Accession negotiations. We were in favour of that when it came up last year in June, but it was deferred for a year, partly because of the French approach to this.

We are still very active, talking to our EU partners and to the Western Balkan countries to encourage them. We have to acknowledge that after we leave the EU, whenever that may be, we will no longer have a seat at the European Council table, where decisions will be taken on the opening and closing of Chapters. So, while we can be supportive of these efforts, as are the Americans (who also do not have a seat at the table), ultimately these will be decisions for the EU27 and the Western Balkans countries to take. But we do not see an inconsistency in our continuing to support the Western Balkans countries along their chosen path, respecting their democratic choices, just as we will respect our own.

EWB: What about NATO accession?

AP: For those who wish to join NATO, we will continue to support them on that path as well, just as we always have done. On that score, the UK will continue to be a very important ally within the NATO alliance.

We are delighted that the Prespa Agreement has been reached, for lots of reasons – one important reason is that it opens the way for NATO Accession for North Macedonia. We are very much hoping that the ratification procedures might have been completed so that North Macedonia can join NATO by the time of the NATO Leaders Summit in London this December. We will do our part to make sure we ratify in time.

This will send a very important message to the whole region, about the benefits that can stem from acts of political courage, resolving long-standing, intractable disputes.

EWB: Do you think that the Europeanisation of the Western Balkans is still a sufficient ‘carrot’ for these countries to resolve bilateral issues and undertake serious structural reforms?

AP: I spent five years in Slovenia, from 2009 to 2013.  It was a fascinating time – but a difficult time, after the financial crisis. Slovenia’s economy was suffering, as were the economies of pretty well every EU Member State. At the same time, there were the Slovenia-Croatia disputes over the Piran Bay and Ljubljanska Banka. I am afraid that the Piran Bay dispute is still with us, but the important point is that Croatia joined the EU in 2013. I was often asked the question about Enlargement then. My answer then was that if you look what happened to the economies of the countries that joined the EU, especially the economies that joined in the wave of 2004, but also Romania and Bulgaria which joined later, you can see that there have been lots of benefits. Not just in terms of economic growth, but also in terms of the many disciplines that are part of compliance with the EU acquis. Those disciplines made a big difference to the transformation away from command economies, in some post-socialist states, towards market economies.

A number of countries that have joined the EU have come a really long way on that journey. Poland is a very good example of a country that has benefited from this transition. Poland is the only country whose economy kept on growing throughout the period 2009-13 when other European countries were in recession.

This year Poland is hosting the Berlin Process Summit, which we think is very welcome – they have a lot of valuable experience to share, including about the value of “Europeanisation”, as you put it. As hosts of the previous Summit, we have been working very closely with the Poles on their Summit, especially on what we can all do together to help the Western Balkans to tackle security-related challenges, not least corruption, where Poland has a record it is proud of.

EWB: Since you have mentioned the Berlin Process, I have to ask you about the consistency of the European Union’s policy towards the Western Balkans. There have been many debates about whether the Berlin Process is just a parallel track due to Enlargement fatigue, or something that has actually led to tangible results. How would you assess the results of the Berlin Process?

AP: The Berlin Process is not always very well understood, in my view, including in the Western Balkan countries themselves. Perhaps it is partly because people just see one big political meeting once a year, but do not see all the good work that goes on during the other 12 months between Summits, implementing commitments and preparing for subsequent summits.

I am a big believer in the Berlin Process. I think it is complementary, additive, and helps to entrench Enlargement as a policy. Important decisions on Accession negotiations, opening and closing of Chapters etc, are of course taken by all EU Member States together. It does not replicate those; nor does it substitute for Enlargement.

I think that Chancellor Merkel’s motivation for conceiving and introducing the Berlin Process in 2014, at least in part, was that it was shortly after Juncker had said that there would be no further enlargement of the EU for the next five years, just after Croatia had acceded in 2013. For the Western Balkan countries that aspire to join the EU, this came as a blow and opened up a vacuum. Chancellor Merkel wanted to help to fill that vacuum by building up the relationships between the Western Balkans Six themselves and improving connectivity and economic activity between them.

Speaking of tangible results, the Regional Economic Area, which was launched at the Trieste Summit in 2017 with a Multi-year Action Plan, effectively projects the WB6 to the outside world as one common investment destination with strong investment, trade and communications policies and recognition of academic qualifications across borders.

The Berlin Process has come up with a number of other complementary initiatives, such as the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO), to enhance youth exchanges and break down barriers between the countries, especially among the younger generation, including virtually, by digital means. What was distinctive about the London Summit was that we did not just build on all the infrastructure and connectivity work at the heart of the Berlin Process – although we did do so, at the Economy Ministers’ meeting, where an additional Euro 150 million Guarantee Fund was announced to support entrepreneurship.

We also introduced an additional element, focusing particularly on the security challenges. A growing share of our technical assistance is devoted to following this up, helping to tackle the shared challenges I mentioned earlier: rooting out corruption and putting a stop to the organised crime that affects not just the WB6 but many countries in the EU, including the UK.

EWB: Recently we saw another Summit, in Berlin, organised by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Do you believe that this new format for Serbia-Kosovo negotiations will replace the EU-facilitated Dialogue? Do you see potentially any UK involvement in the Serbia-Kosovo Dialogue in this new format?

AP: If a Serbia-Kosovo deal were to be reached, it would be transformative for the whole region, not just for Serbia and Kosovo. It would breathe new life into the region and build confidence between governments and peoples in a similar way to the Prespa Agreement between Greece and North Macedonia – but we shouldn’t be equating these two disputes, since they are very different. It would also greatly enhance the EU Accession prospects for both countries, potentially accelerating them.

A deal would provide greater stability for the entire region, which would be ultimately a good thing for the whole region and for all of us in Europe. It would also help to increase prosperity. It would be a contributing factor in reducing the drivers that cause so many young people to leave their countries, as it would give them more confidence that their countries can be well run and are making progress on their paths towards the EU.

Serbia is well along the track, with 2025 as a target date, but Kosovo still has a way to go before opening EU Accession negotiations. We were very glad that there was a Merkel-Macron meeting with the Western Balkans leaders. Wherever there can be greater political attention brought to Serbia-Kosovo normalisation, in order to make progress on the Dialogue, that is welcome.

The UK continues to be extremely active in what is called the Quint, five countries which strongly support the Dialogue: besides the UK, France, Germany, Italy and the USA. The Americans are important players, of course, and the Quint will remain a very significant grouping in the future, to provide political backing for what will continue to be an EU-facilitated process. It is important that the EU should continue to facilitate, because a lot of leverage comes from the incentives for Serbia and Kosovo to make progress on their paths towards EU Accession. We all have a vested interest in the Dialogue succeeding.

The UK will continue to be an important player, regardless of our relationship with the EU. It is possible that a deal reached between Serbia and Kosovo in the future might require security arrangements to underpin it; the UK could be a part of that.

Similarly, if a deal is reached, it might need to be enshrined in a new UN Security Council Resolution, to replace the UNSCR 1244. As a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, the UK would have an important part to play in discussions about this, too. So it is not as though the UK’s locus will disappear just because we are leaving the EU; far from it.

We might find ourselves doing our diplomacy a bit differently with our friends in the EU, but we will be every bit as active in our diplomacy in support of a Serbia-Kosovo deal. It is the biggest prize in the region that any of us diplomats might help to facilitate – and hugely motivating, because of the transformative difference it could make to so many people’s lives.

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Aleksandar Ivković