European Western Balkans

[EWB Interview] Geoană: The future of the Western Balkans lies with the Euro-Atlantic community

Mircea Geoană; Photo: NATO

We interviewed Mircea Geoană, NATO Deputy Secretary General, about NATO’s role in the future, the implications of the Biden’s presidential term on the relations between NATO and United States, NATO’s role in the Western Balkans, cooperation between Serbia and NATO, as well as KFOR mission in Kosovo and the transformation of Kosovo Security Forces into Kosovo Armed Forces. Geoană became NATO Deputy Secretary General in October 2019, after a distinguished domestic and international career. He is the first NATO Deputy Secretary General from Romania and the first from any of the countries that joined the Alliance after the end of the Cold War.

European Western Balkans: In one interview you said that the world is changing from “both geopolitical and geoeconomic points of view.” Do you believe that the EU establishing “strategic autonomy” and its own defense structures might change the role of NATO in the future?

Mircea Geoană: First of all, the cooperation developed between the EU and NATO is stronger than ever. We work together on maritime security, military mobility, countering hybrid threats, and responding to challenges posed by migration. Across Europe, we are working to improve military mobility, to ensure that our forces can cross borders faster and more easily, when needed. We also exchange real-time warnings on cyber-attacks, and have stepped up cooperation on exercises. Last year, for instance, EU staff participated in NATO’s flagship crisis management exercise. Furthermore, we work together to support partners to the east and the south, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova and Tunisia; and we are sharing more information in the fight against terrorism. In Afghanistan and Iraq, NATO and the EU coordinate their efforts to strengthen the capabilities of national security forces and to boost economic development.

Secondly, it is key that NATO and the EU complement each other. Nations should not have two sets of capability requirements. Forces and capabilities developed under PESCO, the EU’s mechanism to increase military cooperation among Member States, must also be available for NATO.

Thirdly, we need the fullest possible involvement of non-EU NATO Allies in EU defence initiatives. This is even more important after Brexit.

A stronger European defence will benefit NATO. At the same time, the EU cannot defend Europe alone and European unity cannot replace transatlantic unity. We have to face the figures: Today, only 20% of NATO defence spending comes from EU Allies while EU Allies account for around 50 % of the population and GDP in NATO; and NATO has to protect 100% of our population.

Europe and North America cannot be separated; that would weaken the transatlantic alliance and divide Europe. We face many global challenges: Russia’s aggressive actions, international terrorism, cyber threats, but also the rise of China, and climate change. The best way to keep our societies secure and our people safe is for Europe and North America to continue to stand together.

EWB: Many analysts believe that the Donald Trump administration has damaged transatlantic relations. Now we have a new administration under President Joe Biden. What do you expect from the new US administration when it comes to the US relation to NATO?

MG: NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg spoke with President Biden last month. He was among the first world leaders to be called by the new US President. This shows clearly President Biden’s commitment to NATO. In their conversation, the Secretary General congratulated the President on his inauguration and welcomed the start of a new chapter for our transatlantic Alliance.

NATO is good for North America and good for Europe and working together, there is a lot we can and must do in the months and years ahead. Secretary General Stoltenberg has launched an initiative called NATO 2030 to make the Alliance fit for the future. It is looking at ways to keep NATO strong militarily, make us stronger politically, and take a more global approach. We look forward to discussing these issues with NATO leaders at our summit this year.

We must continue to work together in responding to the rise of China, both the opportunities and challenges and in protecting our critical infrastructure and standing up for the international rules-based order. We will take decisions on our future presence in Afghanistan, coordinating closely, while ensuring the country can never again become a safe haven for international terrorism. We must also continue to focus on making arms control fit for purpose, with meaningful participation by Russia and China.

We also welcome President Biden’s plan to convene a meeting of the world’s leading democracies this year. None of our countries, not even the biggest, can deal with today’s global challenges alone. We need to work together to find common solutions. NATO already brings 30 Allies together. It is the only forum where Europe and North America meet every day to discuss, decide and act together on issues that concern our shared security; and by working with more than 40 partner countries around the world, we are all stronger and safer. Together, we are better able to stand up for the international rules-based order.

EWB: What strategic challenges does NATO face in the Western Balkans? Do you believe that the recent accession of Montenegro and North Macedonia contributed to the security of the region?

MG: As a Romanian, I strongly believe that the future of the Western Balkans lies with the Euro-Atlantic community of advanced and prosperous democracies. Being anchored with the West is the best insurance against the repetition of centuries of conflict stemming from Great Power Competition.

Security and stability in the Western Balkans are important for NATO; and they are key to peace and stability in Europe. Democracy, rule of law, domestic reforms, and good neighbourly relations are vital for the progress of all in the region.

Since the end of the nineties, our forces have helped to keep peace and stability in the Western Balkans. Our KFOR mission in Kosovo continues to provide a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities in Kosovo, under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 of 1999; and our offices in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Skopje promote political dialogue and carry out practical cooperation.

Our policies in the region – including our Open Door policy – strengthen stability and build greater cooperation. We are determined to continue to help the countries of the region to implement reforms. This will benefit their citizens and the entire Euro-Atlantic family.

Our newest members, Montenegro and North Macedonia, continue to play an important role for the consolidation of stability in the region; and they contribute to our Euro-Atlantic security in different ways, including through their participations in our Resolute Support and KFOR missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo, respectively.

NATO, individual Allies and partners have provided critical medical assistance to countries in the Western Balkans to help curb the spread of the Coronavirus. Much of the support came through NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre, which operates on a 24/7 basis, coordinating requests from NATO Allies and partners, as well as assistance to cope with major crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are a few examples: Turkey has provided masks, overalls and test kits to Serbia and other countries in the region. The Czech Republic has worked closely with Serbia in the development of filters for masks. This was done under a NATO framework of cooperation amongst defence education institutions. The Netherlands helped with transporting protective equipment and medical supplies from China to Montenegro. Austria has offered to provide assistance to Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Albania, including tents, gloves and disinfectants. In Kosovo, our KFOR mission has been providing assistance against the Coronavirus to dozen of municipalities, for the benefit of all communities, including with donations of food and clothes, together with charities and the Red Cross; and in Bosnia Herzegovina, the US and our NATO Headquarters in Sarajevo have provided medical supplies and disinfectants to the national health authorities.

This past Autumn, NATO developed a new operations plan to ensure we remain ready to help both Allies and partners. The Alliance also established a Pandemic Response Trust Fund  for the purchase of urgently needed items and a stockpile of medical supplies. 18 Allies have made financial and in-kind donations of medical equipment and supplies to the trust fund. To date Allies have approved ten assistance packages for four Allies: Albania, Czech Republic, Montenegro and North Macedonia, as well as for five partners including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq, Moldova, Tunisia and Ukraine. Additional assistance has been delivered to North Macedonia and is expected to be delivered in due course to Ukraine.

Albania, Czech Republic, Montenegro and North Macedonia have received dozens of ventilators and a total of around 1.5 million Euros in medical supplies from the stockpile. On 1 February, Montenegro received 20 sets of ventilator equipment from the stockpile. The donation was coordinated by NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre and made possible with financial contributions by the Czech Republic, Lithuania, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, the United Kingdom as well as the United States. The sets will soon be distributed to local hospitals. Additional medical equipment is expected to be delivered to Montenegro in the coming weeks, under NATO’s Pandemic Response Trust Fund.

EWB: How do you see the cooperation between Serbia and NATO? The decision of the Serbian government to postpone all international military exercises was seen as controversial, did it affect Serbia-NATO partnership?

MG: NATO and Serbia are close partners. Our partnership is on solid grounds; and we fully respect Serbia’s stated policy of military neutrality. The NATO Secretary General is in regular contact with President Vučić and other leaders; Admiral Burke, Commander of our Joint Force Command in Naples, and Major General Federici, our KFOR Commander recently visited Serbia and held high-level meetings.

We also have a wide range of areas of practical cooperation. NATO and Serbia, for instance, work together to be better prepared for civil emergences such as floods and forest fires. We are helping Serbia reform its security forces and institutions. NATO trains Serbian soldiers for international peace-keeping missions; and over 20 years we have invested millions of Euros to help Serbia to destroy over 230 tons of obsolete ammunition. Serbia and NATO have also worked together to train Iraqi military medics, helping to support the Iraqi armed forces. Furthermore, we have a long-standing cooperation with Serbia in the scientific domain, through the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme. Since 2006, Serbia has contributed to more than 30 activities under this Programme. These have included energy and environmental security, defence against chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear agents, counter-terrorism, cyber-defence, and human security.

We have no specific events planned with Serbia for the coming months, but we remain committed to our partnership in the interest of stability and security in the region. We welcome this partnership with Serbia.  We can have strong relations with partners – like Austria or Finland – without them being members. We fully respect their decision not to join NATO, just as we respect the decision of others to join.

EWB: Public opinion polls show that the support of Serbian citizens for membership in NATO is at a historically low level and NATO officials frequently single out public diplomacy as one of the greatest problems in Serbia-NATO relations. How do you view this negative perception at the time of increasing cooperation?

MG: We are well aware that NATO remains controversial in Serbia. The memories of the air campaign in 1999 are still painful for many, especially for those who lost their loved ones. Secretary General Stoltenberg has offered his condolences to the families and to all those who were bereaved on both sides of the conflict. He has made clear that each innocent life lost was a tragedy, which he deeply regrets; and he has said that the campaign was never against the Serbian people; it was to protect civilians in the wider region and to halt the humanitarian catastrophe that was unfolding in Kosovo, after many failed international diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict.

We must never forget the past, but we can move beyond it and that is what NATO and Serbia are doing with our partnership. Looking towards a better future.

EWB: How do you see the future role of KFOR for maintaining peace and security in Kosovo? Will there be any changes in KFOR’s mandate if there is no progress in normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo?

MG: Since 1999, our KFOR mission has been instrumental to consolidate security in Kosovo and promote stability in the region. This is still valid today, as our troops continue to carry out their UN-driven mandate to provide a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all communities in Kosovo. KFOR is conditions-based. There is no end-date to our mission. Any decision on the further trajectory of KFOR will be based on conditions and will remain the exclusive prerogative of the North Atlantic Council’s, NATO’s consensus-based decision-making body.

EWB: In the interview for our portal, your colleague Ambassador Baiba Braže, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy, said that the North Atlantic Council is re-examining the level of NATO’s engagement with the Kosovo Security Force (KSF) in light of the Kosovo Assembly’s decision to transform the KSF into Kosovo Armed Forces. Can you tell us more about the discussion and when can we expect some concrete conclusions?

MG: The NATO Secretary General has made clear since December 2018 that this move was ill-timed and the decision was made against his advice. NATO continues to support the development of the Kosovo Security Force under its current mandate. With the change of mandate, the North Atlantic Council is re-examining the level of NATO’s engagement with the Kosovo Security Force. Discussions amongst Allies to this effect are ongoing.

We remain fully committed to security in Kosovo and to regional stability, through our KFOR mission and through our support to the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina as the only solution to the current issue. Both Belgrade and Pristina should ensure that no tensions arise in the region, that they should refrain from statements or actions, which may lead to escalation, and that they should remain focused on progress with reforms and on dialogue.

EWB: Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) adopted the Reform Programme more than a year ago, which should establish BiH’s path to NATO. In which direction NATO-BiH relations are moving and can we expect BiH to become a member at some point?

MG: We look forward to working with Bosnia and Herzegovina on the basis of a reform programme agreed by the government. We have not yet received this programme, so we cannot go into details. In general terms, this programme can help Bosnia and Herzegovina strengthen its cooperation with NATO.

Cooperation with NATO does not prejudge any potential future NATO membership for Bosnia and Herzegovina. We fully respect the country’s sovereignty and independence and we welcome Bosnia and Herzegovina’s contributions to our Euro-Atlantic security, including through our Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan and the Afghan National Army Trust Fund.

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