Compared to current crisis caused by COVID-19 pandemic, all other issues concerning the Western Balkans and the EU seem less important. However, even though many of them are now in the background or even postponed, they will remain impactful, especially after the pandemic winds down. We talked about migrant crisis, (lack of) EU leadership in the region and geopolitics of the Western Balkans in our interview with Vessela Tcherneva, Director of European Council on Foreign Relations Sofia and Deputy Director of ECFR (pan-European think-tank). The interview was realised at the Western Balkans Think Tank Forum in Skopje, which took place from 8 to 10 March.

European Western Balkans: The most pressing issue right now, apart, of course, from the coronavirus, is the potentially new migration crisis. Do you think that the EU will be able to prevent another wave of migration from Turkey?

Vessela Tcherneva: I think the EU is much more prepared than it was in 2015, but I also think that the situation is not to be compared. First of all, because most of the migrants that we see along the Greek border have been sent there by the Turkish authorities, by buses. This is not the flow that we saw in 2015. It is clearly something Mr Erdogan is playing with mostly for domestic gains.

Greece is also not reacting the same way as it was in 2015, and by the way, I am sure that the Western Balkan countries are much more prepared what to expect and able to make their minds about what they want and do not want to do. I think that, currently, situation is being very much used for grandstanding by certain politicians, both in Turkey, here in the region and other European countries, rather than reminiscent to 2015.

EWB: So, ultimately, you do not believe that we should expect a significant increase of migrant numbers in the Balkans?

VT: Look, this may or may not happen. But this has been the case for the past few years anyway. The fact is that the border between Syria and Turkey is still sealed and unless Turkey decides to let more refugees from Syria come in, I do not anticipate big change from that direction. What we may see, however, is more activities around the Western Mediterranean route. With the warm weather, this is something that happens.

But, again, I think that the EU is much more aware and much more prepared. And here, I am not speaking only about Frontex and guarding borders, but also internally – how much the European countries can absorb from that refuge wave. There we would also soon see, I suppose, coalitions of willing and unwilling countries for taking in refugees. But clearly, there will be no pressure from Brussels on them to do that.

EWB: By the end of this month, European Council should revisit the decision on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Many observers believe that this time, there will be a positive decision. Do you agree with them?

VT: Yes.

EWB: Of course, it will by a highly symbolical move, but do you think that, with the newly proposed methodology, the EU accession will speed up on substance?

VT: I am slightly hesitant to speculate for two reasons. There is, of course, the danger that, with the involvement of Member States, we would see more blockages. More countries like France, like the Netherlands, or even the countries in the region who decide to put hindrances on the negotiations of the candidate countries.

On the other hand, however, this clustering (of negotiating chapters) is very good because it helps the countries advance in a certain area, and even if they have not opened a particular chapter, they can still negotiate around that area and have access to accession funds. This is hopefully going to speed up the process and encourage reform-minded forces in the Western Balkans.

Another positive thing, which, however, I am not sure whether it will put influence on the speed, is this reversibility clause – the fact that countries may have to go back on their integration path simply because they have had too much of what we think tankers call “stabilitocracy”.

EWB: Last year, European Council on Foreign Relations conducted a research on public support for accepting Western Balkan countries in the EU in various Member States. It was pretty low in France, Germany, the Netherlands and so on. How important is the public support in reaching these decisions?

VT: It is growingly important, simply because European politicians have too many grievances from the people to deal with. And so, it is not so much that the support for the Western Balkans has suddenly dropped. It has been very low lately, for the past ten years at least. Because of the previous wave of enlargement, because one could fear another Hungarian case in the EU, or the Bulgarian, Romanian case and so on.

But what is new is that the politics in general became much more volatile in the past two or three years, through social media, but also through events like the Brexit referendum, by having more and more populist parties in Europe, who tend not to lead, but to follow what is trending on Facebook right now.

EWB: Is it possible to reverse this public opinion?

VT: I think at some point, Europe is going to realise that it is going to need to have more leadership and less populism. Of course, this leadership is going to have to take into account people’s grievances and we see that Macron actually is probably trying to do something like that – he is trying to push big ideas for Europe, while sacrificing some of the things that he feels are less important from the French point of view. The enlargement being one of them.

But, we also have the problem with the German leadership and that in the final months of Mrs Merkel’s governing of Europe’s biggest economy, German voice is less and less to be heard on many issues. I do believe that the EU will have to find the way to the new leadership which would also bring bigger clarity to the Western Balkans.

EWB: Do you believe that it is possible that, at some point in the future, the geopolitical considerations will prevail over the internal reforms in the Western Balkans, so that some countries are accepted even if they are not fully reformed?

VT: No, I do not think geopolitics plays such a big role in the case of the Western Balkans. Look, Syria is just an hour away flight from here, two hours from Vienna, and yet the EU did not feel that it was a geopolitical issue to get engaged with. We can see the situation in Cyprus, we can see the situation in Libya, not to mention Ukraine, which is still in some sort of the frozen conflict.

The geopolitical argument is not central as long as the countries concerned do not make the efforts themselves. Nobody will be willing to put their hand in the fire for governments or countries or societies that do not want to do their bit.

EWB: We have seen in the past several months that the US has taking the leadership in the Belgrade-Pristina negotiation process. Most of the talks have taken place in Washington, it has taken three-four months for the EU to appoint its own Special Representative and so on. Do you think that this is a failure of the EU foreign policy in this regard?

VT: I do not think that much is happening really on the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations. I think that Mr Thaçi is having trips, but I am not sure how he would sell whatever ideas he would come up with to his parliament, and frankly, it is the government which should be deciding on the things like tariffs, practical agreements with neighbours and so on. We saw with the demarcation with Montenegro how hard it is to pass something supposedly not problematic through the Kosovo’s parliament. So, I do not think that it is serious thing to disregard Kosovo’s government and Kosovo’s political parties and not try to build some sort of a consensus but rather to pretend to negotiate with the President.

The EU should really restart the dialogue and this is something I hope will start happening in the coming months. There was a delay with the appointment of Commission to begin with, that with voting it in, the new High Representative wanted to make up his mind by traveling to the region before appointing his envoy and now it is the Council of Ministers that needs to approve this appointment. So, I expect it to happen within next weeks, rather than months.

EWB: Do you think this is the year for the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia?

VT: Only if the Kosovars and the Serbs want that.