At the Belgrade Security Forum 2019, we spoke with Ivan Vejvoda, Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and the former Senior Vice President at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. With Vejvoda, who served as a foreign policy advisor to late Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić and was the Executive Director at GMF’s Balkan Trust for Democracy, we discussed some of the most important topics in the Western Balkans today, from the French veto on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania to the future of the Serbia-Kosovo normalization process.

European Western Balkans: North Macedonia and Albania have not gotten green light to start negotiations. Are you surprised by this course of events, and do you think that the French position is justified?

Ivan Vejvoda: I think that this is one of the worst decisions that was made on the long path of EU enlargement to the Western Balkans. Up until now the promises of getting to the next step of enlargement have been predicated upon the fact that who does fulfil their obligations will move forward.

In fact, we have had two events that did not follow that pattern: one is Kosovo not getting a visa liberalization after solving the issue of border with Montenegro and now we have a second such moment in which North Macedonia more than deserves to move forward after a historic compromise with Greece. I think that EU has sent a wrong signal to the region about the credibility of the process, and for Europe itself the question of the credibility of the European project was brought into question by not showing in practice that the process is working.

Of course, the promise of enlargement, as all participants of the panel reiterated, will not be stopped, the promise from Thessaloniki of June 2003 still stands, but that, I would say, is a weak conciliation.

EWB: Do these two events damage the credibility of the EU in the Western Balkans, in the eyes of their governments? Primarily, do Belgrade and Pristina look at this as a sign that some major concessions that they are asked to make are not worth it, that the promise is not real?

IV: I am sure that many are looking at the situation exactly the way you describe it. From the very beginning of the enlargement process, after the fall of the Berlin Wall of which we are marking the 30th anniversary this year, EU has kept the train moving and has had successive Commissions and Presidents of the Commissions actively working on this process. So, the credibility of this process has been damaged in the eyes of the people of the Western Balkans, as well as their leaders who have to make these hard decisions.

EWB: The French position is that the whole enlargement process should be reformed. Do you see the way in which it can be reformed to appease the French side, or do you see it just as a justification not to make any unpopular steps, because we know that enlargement is quite unpopular in France?

IV: First of all, I think that in principle, one should separate the question that you are asking from the recognition that North Macedonia and Albania have done the hard work they were asked to do, that warrants the opening dates of negotiations.

I think that many have talked over the years about the need to make the negotiation process more stringent, more based on following the rules. Already when Croatia was acceding, the rules were tighter than for Bulgaria and Romania. The Berlin Process was also a form of strengthening the process, not replacing the enlargement, but giving it more substance on the edges.

I think that the French initiative is in the same spirit, that countries will be told more openly what the Reports of the European Commission have been saying in a more diplomatic way – the last Report of the EC was, of course, much more open and critical – and the leaderships and the governments of each country will be made to account for each chapter, and most of all for the Chapters 23 and Chapter 24, which are of course the most difficult, dealing with the issues of the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.

I think that this is a good thing. We, the citizens of the region, want democratic institutions that not only exist on paper but also have their own life, where citizens can see that their rights are protected. But I also say that this should not be coupled with a justifiable need to give the green light for North Macedonia and Albania.

EWB: Many EU members, including France, are concerned because of the influence of external actors in the Western Balkans, such as Russia and China. Do you think that these confusing signals coming from the EU might go against its interest in terms of sending a signal to other actors, who would use confusion of the EU to strengthen their own position?

IV: I believe that this is the case – I believe that the EU, by allowing this moment to pass and not give the next step to the countries that want to join, is leaving an open space and de facto showing a weakness of the European project.

I think that the countries like Russia want to show the weakness of Europe and that gives them space to be more active in these countries. Let me remind you that they were active in a negative way in Greece during the negotiations with then still Macedonia, and that Greece had to expel the Russian diplomats who were very subversively active in the north of the country, trying to buy out groups who would protest against the historic compromise.

We in the Western Balkans are by far not the only ones – there is much talk about Russian meddling in elections in other European countries. President Macron was very open to President Putin about that, when they first met in Versailles.

It is very paradoxical that Ursula von der Leyen has announced that the incoming Commission would be a “geopolitical Commission”. Of course, the Commission is not in office, but in a world in which words matter, when one announces such a thing, it means that one is aware of the challenges. Europe is more generally thinking about a role it should play in the world, with China asserting itself and with Trump-led United States that is dithering on its obligations to Europe and its security.

All European leaders have said in one way or another that the EU aspires to strategic autonomy, it aspires to prove that the shared sovereignty that makes every European country stronger demonstrates that Europe can play this role that corresponds to its economic weight. And thus on a “small” example of our region, EU has a low-hanging fruit. It is easier to prove Europe’s strategic importance by making further steps to enlargement than, for example, Europe having a role in solving the Syrian crisis.

EWB; Do you expect that the new Commission will be devoted to the Western Balkans?

IV: We have thus far heard very strong statements from Ursula von der Leyen, from Josep Borrell, and I believe that they will live up to those commitments. Of course, we all know that the member states in the end have the key voice. I think that it is important and relevant to repeat that it is a great and a vast majority of EU member states who support EU membership of the Western Balkans. All the countries in the south, or all neighbours, all Visegrad countries are supportive, Great Britain, still a member, is supportive, as well as Germany, a key player.

I would say that all countries are supportive, but that some are very cautious and are pulling the handbrake to the dynamic of the enlargement. France is now the key country that is trying to slow down the process and saying “Let us see how much these countries have actually done”. President Macron’s visit to Belgrade on 15 July this year sent a very passionate message about the need to integrate this part of Europe, and I think one should take him for his word. We know that all politics is domestic, so all of those who are against the enlargement are rightly or wrongly assessing the public opinion of their countries as opposed to enlargement.

But I think, as many have said, and I think we should repeat it, that we are very far from enlargement. The full membership is closest in 2025, but if you add the ratification process, we are looking at 6 to 10 years, if everything is done by the book to align the countries with the acquis. So, I must say that I find the French position baffling, because deepening is not contradictory to widening, which is still 6 to 10 years away.

EWB: What are your expectations for the continuation of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue now that the new Commission and Kosovo government are coming? Do you expect any advances in this area?

IV: Elections in Kosovo are over, we will have a new government, and that is a key moment in answering your question. I believe that this government realises that they will need to suspend 100% tariffs, that they will need to form a negotiating platform and that they need to engage the Serbian side with the help and mediation of the EU, which, by all accounts, is going to appoint its Special Envoy.

United States has two representatives, Matthew Palmer and Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell. We are not yet clear as to the US approach, there is a lot of „hear-say“ that Ambassador Grenell would like a speedy, efficient, „American“ type of the process, where maybe already by early spring, March, there would be some kind of negotiated agreement put before both sides and there would be some kind of ceremony. It is very hard to say how quickly this would go.

I think that at least in Belgrade there is a clear understanding that the status quo is not beneficial to anybody, not to the region and neither to the Europe. President Vučić has been open to variety of possibilities. The two sides need to reach an agreement, but it will be within the framework of oversight of the international community, and that means that it will be vetted by the United Nations Security Council, which means Russia as well.

We are at a very early stage of a renewed process, in fact it is not renewed, we are waiting still for Pristina to put forward its negotiating position, but I think that we should not squander this moment and the help EU and US are willing to give.

Frankly, it is in the interest of the citizens to put this very difficult issue behind them and in that regard I would like to highlight this agreement that the Prime Ministers of Albania and North Macedonia reached with the President of Serbia in Novi Sad to move forward with a robust common market and „mini-Schengen“. It is easier said than done, but it is a commitment and an understanding that, because the enlargement process is so prolonged, they need to show initiative from the bottom-up, which demonstrates the espousal of European values, that we can create a „mini Europe“ and it is very important that we come prepared when we arrive to the doorstep of the European Union and that President Vučić said that this initiative is open to other countries of the Western Balkan Six.

EWB: Coming back to the EU appointing a Special Representative, why do you think that the Union needs such a person in the Western Balkans, given the fact that the High Representative and Enlargement Commissioner are already engaged in the region? Does it mean that it is higher or lower on the list of priorities?

IV: I think that it remains high on the list of priorities, I think what the announcement of a Special Envoy says is that there needs to be greater efficiency and not only endless meetings where there are only small steps on the very important issues.

I think that there is a feeling that what happened during the previous Commission was beyond the political will, beyond the engagement of the High Representative, that somehow we did not achieve what we needed to.

So, there needs to be someone who, proverbially, wakes up every morning and thinks about this issue. Josep Borrell will have a whole plate of issues that he needs to think about, from China to Iran to the United States, and so I think that there has been a realisation that it is better to have an Envoy with whom he would work closely and thus maybe make the progress and the movement on finding a compromise more efficient.

EWB: Why do you think that the US wanted two representatives for the dialogue? Maybe knowing that there is a split between US and Germany on the form of the final deal, this means that Grenell’s job is to deal with Germany more than the Western Balkan countries?

IV: It is a very important question, very difficult to answer as well because we do not have many elements on which to base our answers. We were all surprised, but on the other hand we know that the White House has an important role in US administration, under President Trump even more so, but also that the State Department has traditionally been important – remember that Richard Holbrooke was a State Department official.

The appointment of Matthew Palmer was most welcome because of his knowledge of the region and then the surprise came with Ambassador Grenell. We can have a number of interpretations. Is it a good cop, bad cop division of labour? Maybe, and maybe not. Is it, as you say, someone who is Ambassador in Germany and thus will have a key part in US-EU cooperation in which the Germany is a key player? Of course, France, as we see, is crucial, Macron in Belgrade said that France wants to play a key role.

As with the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, we are at an early stage, the trip of Ambassador Grenell shows that United States does not want to lose time, but I think that the coming weeks and the incoming Commission, as well as the new EU Envoy will tell. I think that by December we will have a clearer picture of how this process and the EU-US cooperation will work.

EWB: Do you believe that Serbia-Kosovo border change is still on the table, or is it out of the discussion right now?

IV: Let me say something prior to answering that question – there have been people who have been tagged as supporting border change. There are people who think that this is the only solution that would work. I am not one of those people.

Ambassador Ischinger came out with a statement several weeks ago, in which he said that Helsinki accord clearly says that if two countries agree to something, that it is a legitimate way to change things. What people like myself are saying is that the status quo is intolerable. Yes, we will one day live in a region without borders, but for that to happen, there must be borders. Are those the borders of Kosovo as they are today, or something different, I do not know.

I think that in the world of realpolitics we need to be open to suggestions. I am not saying that there will be a border change, and hopefully there won’t be, hopefully it will be sufficient that Serbia will agree to an solution in which there is a robust autonomy for Serb minority, Association of Serbian Municipalities which has not been established according to April 2013 Brussels Agreement, in which the rights of Serbs in Kosovo are fully respected, in which the Serbian Orthodox Church gets special status, as jargon puts it, some sort of “Mount Athos” agreement where church retains its full “sovereignty” as a religious institution, in which the water issues, Gazivode lake, the electricity, the diplomas issues are resolved etc. It is a much bigger package that needs to be negotiated, of which a border issue, if it comes to that, will only be a part of.

In that regard, I think, and this is the answer to your question, that it is not off the table anywhere, no matter what the declarations say. All will depend on how the process continues. As I said, hopefully it does not come to border corrections, but if we are serious about these things, then we have to allow the parties to reach an agreement.

The Kosovo side and the probable new Prime Minister Albin Kurti have ruled out the border change, so that means that it probably will not be on the table and that some other solutions will have to be found, but time will tell how quickly or slowly this will go. Maybe it does not go anywhere, and then we are in for a stalemate, which is not good for anyone, or we see relatively rapid progress and the understanding that it is better to both Serbia and Kosovo to prove their commitment to European values and to solve hard issues the way Europe has done in its history, and, most recently, Greece and North Macedonia have done.