At the time of this interview, there are many unknowns about the immediate future of the EU – how will Brexit unfold, when will the new Commission be ready to begin its mandate in full capacity and, most importantly, what the decision on North Macedonia and Albania will be. As much as these issues are important, the wider trends and more permanent developments in the Union, including its long-term position on enlargement, should not be overlooked. This is why we tried to combine both sets of topics in our discussion with one of the most relevant interlocutors on the future of EU – President Emeritus of the European Council, former Prime Minister of Belgium and current Chairman of the Board of the College of Europe in Bruges Herman Van Rompuy.

During his visit to Belgrade this week, Mr Van Rompuy participated in the discussion on the common destiny of EU and Serbia with President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić yesterday, and is addressing the students of the Faculty of Political Science today.

European Western Balkans: There is a narrative in some parts of the Western Balkans that the European Union is disintegrating, which has become more prominent since the UK Brexit referendum and the rise of right-wing parties. How would you assess the integration tendencies in the EU over the past three or four years?

Herman Van Rompuy: The European Union is not disintegrating, quite on the contrary, the Member States are cooperating on more fields than ever before in the history of the EU. The Brexit is a regretful tragedy, but one country’s decision to leave the EU does not mean the Union is disintegrating, quite on the contrary: faced with Brexit the other member states have shown more resilience and unity than was expected in some circles. A snowball exit effect in other member states has not materialised, and one can rightly claim that once again this crisis offers opportunities to strengthen our Union.

It is true, like in every family, the Member States sometimes have their disagreements, but in the end – and as Former President of the European Council I have often witnessed this – we usually find workable compromises. Also today the European integration is still deepening. In my experience, every European crisis has not led to calls for less Europe, but has made it evident that only more European cooperation and more integration can bring sustainable solutions. The financial crisis led to the banking union, the refugee crisis contributed to a better protection of EU external borders, and I expect the same type of resolve after Brexit.

EWB: According to the way the President-elect of the European Commission distributed the portfolios, climate change, digitalisation and defence of democracy are the priorities for the next five years of the EU. Do you believe that these issues are indeed the top priority for “ordinary” citizens, especially in recent member states?

HVR: I do. Defence of democracy and our fundamental values are horizontal issues that make up the core of our European DNA. Without strong democratic institutions, the rule of law and an independently functioning judiciary in place guaranteeing the protection of our fundamental rights, there can be no sound food safety policy, no healthy investment climate nor a fair society for all Europeans. The values and core principles that we share constitute the building blocks of our Union.

Considering that climate change is the biggest challenge of our generation, it is only normal that this also is a priority of the European Union, including in its newest member states: the impact in terms of loss in agricultural yields, and phenomena such as  floodings hit the poorest more than others, and require European and worldwide attention.

The Commission’s focus on digitalisation, research and development and technological progress should ensure that the EU remains one of the most innovative and prosperous continents in the world. Here again the new member states will benefit, especially if they manage to mobilize their young human resources in sectors that will help to transform the economic and industrial landscape in their home countries. Migration remains, of course, a major political theme for the coming decades.

EWB: EU officials keep claiming that enlargement in the Western Balkans is important for the Union, but we can also hear very negative messages coming from some of the key member states. Do you believe there will be a consensus in the EU in favour of enlargement?

HVR: The EU has confirmed time and time again that the Western Balkans belong in the EU and has adopted the 2018 Western Balkan strategy precisely to underline this message. By the way, the EU-enlargement policy goes beyond words and is also translated in hundreds of millions euro per year of financial and material support in a broad range of  areas, in order to help bringing the Western Balkans (and Serbia and Montenegro as candidate countries in particular) closer to the EU family, and boost the country’s development potential. As the accession process is fully merit-based, the speed of the process is in the hands of the acceding country. Therefore I think it is better to double down on the reforms that still need to be accomplished than on speculation about the positions of Member States.  Indeed, at the end of the day, no EU member state will block the entry of a candidate country that has proven to be a perfect fit to the EU family.

EWB: It is still unclear who will be in charge of Enlargement in the European Commission. Do you think that the decision to give this portfolio to Hungary is a good idea, given the country’s struggle with the respect of the rule of law in recent years?

HVR: One can never foretell how someone will operate in any professional position, and that is also the case for an EU Commissioner, whatever his or her nationality or portfolio may be. Once you become a part of the EU Commission, it is understood that you shake off your national identity, and work for the common interest of every European citizen. So we will have to give the benefit of the doubt to every Commissioner, and judge him of her on the basis of actions they undertake in their  new, European capacity, not on deeds and performances in the past. In any case, decisions are taken by the Commission as a whole.

EWB: European Council, which you presided over between 2009 and 2014, is about to make the final decision on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Do you believe that apparent reservations some countries have towards taking these countries to the next stage of the accession process is justified?

HVR: It is difficult to respond directly to your question as I cannot speak for other Member States, but personally I am very much in favour of opening negotiations with both countries. Perhaps I can give your readers some insight in and understanding of the origin of some of these reservations by underlining how important the EU is to Belgium. For Belgium, and I believe many EU Member States share this view, the integrity of the EU and its continued success is the most important foreign policy priority there is. This means that principles such as the rule of law, strong, democratic institutions and fundamental values such as the freedom of expression are to remain in the centre of what the EU is about. Indeed, the EU is in our view the most successful political project ever created in Europe. It has brought peace and enormous prosperity to our continent. Against this background it is normal that we are protective of the achievements made and are strict (but fair) with regard to EU accession countries. That being said, I remain an optimist and believe the Western Balkan countries can muster the political will to adopt our Acquis Communautaire in its entirety and will join the European Union.

EWB: If North Macedonia does not get the green light for opening accession negotiations despite all progress made in bilateral disputes with its neighbours – most importantly changing its name in order to solve the dispute with Greece – what message could it send to other Western Balkan governments?

HVR: The Western Balkan countries should focus on their own path and their own progress as a society. It has been rightly repeated by many leaders that the reforms undertaken should  not just be rolled out to facilitate the path towards EU-accession, but also for their own merits. The reforms demanded by the EU should be implemented first and foremost for the sake of you, the citizens of the Western Balkans, who will benefit from better governance, and the correct implementation of democratic rules and regulations. The EU integration process is not just a matter of superficially ticking boxes, it is an all-encompassing transformation of society that will in essence benefit yourself. When this process has been implemented and completed with full conviction, I assure you, you will be accepted into the EU family with open arms.

EWB: Is it possible for the EU to survive as a functioning community without a strict adherence of its members (and future members) to the democratic values? What do you think about the proposal of Finnish presidency that EU budget resources should be tied with the respect for the rule of law? Should something similar be proposed when it comes to pre-accession assistance?

HVR: In its core, the EU  is a community of democratic countries sharing fundamental values and principles on how to best govern a country. This makes up the DNA of our countries and the EU and it is indeed unthinkable that we should not adhere to these values. As to the concrete proposals that you mention, I believe that they are also a reflection of the sense of frustration, in many EU countries and  the European Commission, who believe their (financial) solidarity with the poorer countries in the Union is not sufficiently matched with a solid adherence to democratic values, to the rules of the game agreed upon on the moment of accession. This is difficult to explain to their public opinion. Solidarity and responsibility should always go hand in hand, to maintain the bonds that keep the Union together.

In this respect making progress in and adherence to the principles outlined in Chapters 23 and 24 are indeed crucial for the candidate countries, as  a signal that they are serious and responsible actors committed to the  rules applicable in the EU. The reasons for this are manifold. One is because the rule of law is the basis for progress in all other chapters as well. Since the EU accession process consists of transposing the existing EU acquis, its directives and regulations into national law, we must be able to trust that these laws are implemented and impartially enforced. If they are not enforced by the Government, we must be able to rely on an independent and strong judiciary branch and a legal system that works.

It all boils down to one simple prerequisite: trust. Serbian and EU citizens must be able to trust the Government institutions, the parliament, the judiciary and those Government institutions must be held accountable. If the Western Balkan countries become a member of the EU, your politicians and Parliamentarians will shape EU policy just as much as Belgian politicians do. This is a big responsibility and therefore we must be certain that the your Governments apply and believe in same principles and values as we are.