European Western Balkans

[EWB Interview] Weber: Berlin and Paris will agree on Skopje and Tirana this time

Bodo Weber: Photo: RFE/RL (Midhat Poturovic)

At the time when the European institutions are going through the transition, the issues concerning Western Balkans have seemingly been set aside. However, at least two of them will very soon once again be in focus of the member states and the new European Commission – decision on the opening of the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania and the renewal of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.

We talked about the current situation in the region, especially in the context of the new set of nominations for the European Commission, with Bodo Weber, Senior Associate at the Democratization Policy Council in Berlin. The interview was taken during the last week’s conference Move. Link. Engage. organized by Belgrade Open School, at which Mr Weber was one of the speakers.

European Western Balkans: The big news this week was the nomination of the new European Commission and Hungarian nominee for Enlargement Commissioner László Trócsányi. Do you think that the Enlargement Policy of the new Commission will differ from Juncker’s Commission in any way?

Bodo Weber: Let’s to try to judge against the rumours that were circulating over the last six months. Enlargement is still there to stay. We had some rumours over the last six months that there would not even be an Enlargement Commissioner anymore. So, this is positive. We also heard various names rumoured, and the one most often mentioned in the last few days before publishing the portfolios was the name of the Croatian candidate, which would have been a real threat for the enlargement when it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina. So, that, again, is good news.

What counts, of course, is that we have ended up with Mr Orban’s candidate and not just any candidate, but the former Justice Minister who was in charge of these anti-European laws that were at the core of the clash with Commission and the rests of the EU and Hungary over the last four years.

Taking into account that, since 2010, Hungarian government has mostly dismantled all the rule of law and judiciary reforms it had conducted within its own EU integration process, this is a highly problematic nomination. For that reason, I am confident that the European Parliament will not confirm Mr Orban’s candidate.

The speculation is what is behind this nomination and, to me, it looks like a move for domestic audience. I can hardly imagine that Mr Orban really expects that his candidate will pass. In that sense, if we see that scenario coming true, it would then serve to show to the domestic audience how much the EU is against Hungary.

EWB: So, you think that it more unlikely than likely that he will be confirmed in the European Parliament?

BW: I would be surprised if he was confirmed. Now, the question is if the intervention and the assistance of the European Parliament can lead to Mr Orban just nominating a new candidate for the Enlargement Commission which wouldn’t solve our problem. Having Orban-government nominated Enlargement Commission is a problem per se. Maybe the European Parliament can push for a reshuffle of the portfolios.

There is another point here – when Croatia, unfortunately for us who have been advocating for Croatian EU membership and continuation of enlargement, entered the EU, it became a kind of a Trojan horse of enlargement, especially when it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina. If we approach it from that point, I think that the Hungarian Enlargement Commissioner would also be a kind of a Trojan horse, with the aim getting new member states into the European Union and enlarging the camp of illiberal member states. Even though it may seem unrealistic due to the high skepticism for enlargement over the past ten years, the motivation of Hungary to support for the enlargement process is cleat. They want to lower the constitutionality and accepting the countries into the EU even if they have not gone through democratic and other reforms.

EWB: All eyes will be on North Macedonia and Albania during the next few weeks. Your organization was the first one to signal that the German parliament was not ready to give green light to these countries in June. Do you have any information on what the situation is like this time? Will Germany support the opening of negotiations?

BW: Yes, we had a very unfortunate development with Macedonia twice – it became a collateral damage of the decision on Albania. In June last year it was basically a clash between Berlin and Paris, with Paris blocking the process as Berlin government insisted on giving green light to both countries at the same time and all of this political polarization in Albania lead to Macedonia being the victim of these circumstances. Maybe Paris would have been ready to give green light to North Macedonia had it not been for Germany’s insistence that there should not be decoupling with Albania.

In June this year, we were the first to publish the information that the collateral damage was going to happen within the ruling coalition, with the Social-democratic side insisting on both countries getting an unconditional green light and parts of the CDU/CSU caucus being very negative on Albania.

EWB: So, what will happen now?

BW: This time it looks like, and this is pretty brand-new “intelligence”, that we will have both countries passing. It looks like we are moving towards an agreement within the ruling coalition. The one point that I am not that familiar with is whether there has already been an agreement because there have been talks between Paris and Berlin. The solution looks like that there is going to be a partial decoupling if I may use that term, in which North Macedonia will get an unconditional green light and Albania a conditional green light.

EWB: What does conditional green light imply?

BW: A set on conditions before opening of accession negotiations with Albania – it looks like that this is the middle-road solution where both ruling parties and Berlin can find compromise. And I assume that also Berlin and Paris this time will be able to agree. Because, let’s be really clear – with the situation in North Macedonia being all but stable, with big courage taken by the leaders of the country, with the Prespa Agreement and this difficult referendum and post-referendum period – if there is no green light this time, it will be the undermining of regional cooperation and EU enlargement.

EWB: It is almost a year since the election in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the government is still not formed, the reforms are not being implemented. Do you think that the EU should have done more to create incentives for the leaders to form a government? Should it do more now or maybe when the new Commission is formed?

BW: In Bosnia we always have the question of dealing with the short-term crises, which are prominent. When it comes to the current short-term crisis, it needs to be stressed that a lot of times over the past ten years we had a coalition formation crisis, in 2010 and 2014. Unfortunately, it didn’t make much difference whether we had a government or not when it comes to structural reforms. So, looking at a long-term perspective, I am not that nervous.

The EU and the US seem to be a little bit more aggravated this time by the fact that, in a very amateurish and not very though-through way the US added the issue NATO AP (Annual National Programme within the Membership Action Plan) to the coalition formation, from what I’ve heard, hoping that the precious composition of the Council of Ministers, including the Serb party, would push it through under the radar after election in October 2018. If this is what they had in mind, I fear it shows a bit of naivete from the US side. Of course this did not happen, and the issue became a perfect tool for raising tensions. In that sense, it is pretty unpredictable whether this will remain a stumbling block and lead to a lasting crisis.

On the other hand, we see a totally unprincipled policy of the EU. When we look at spring this year, the European Commission insisted that the condition for publishing an EC Opinion would be government formation, then you had Commissioner Hahn who out of the blue added even the formation of coalition on the federation level, only to six weeks later drop all of these conditions and publish the opinion anyway.

And then we’ve seen at the beginning of August the outgoing Special Representative Mr Wigemark even engaging in mediation on the coalition formation, which is against the declared principle of local ownership, that has existed since 2005. This really tells us that all the EU has done over the last 15 years in Bosnia and shows that behind this fake ownership dogma we are lacking a real policy strategy.

EWB: What do you think about the proposal of your colleagues at the panel discussion about the appointment of an EU Special Representative for the Western Balkans? Do you think that that would be a good idea?

BW: I have a slightly different position, I think we would need a Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Negotiations.  I hope that Mr Borrell will understand, if he is taking his job as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy seriously, that he will neither have the capacities nor will he be in position, since he is coming from a non-recognizer EU member, to lead these negotiations in a way that is necessary. So, I am not saying that we need a new Paddy Ashdown, but some sort of a special envoy working under the umbrella of Me Borrell.

We had a situation in which the High Representative and the team of four officials were hijacking the negotiations from anti-EU agenda. This was a unique episode in the short history of the EU Foreign and Security Policy and something that, now that she’s gone, really needs to bring some serious debate about this scandalous episode. On the more practical issue, the way to go is to get an agreement within among the member states to go for the Special Representative.

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