Leading up to the eleventh annual Belgrade Security Forum, which takes place this week, EWB interviewed Christiane Hullmann, Head of Division for the Western Balkans at the Federal Foreign Office of Germany. On Tuesday, Ms Hullmann spoke at a panel titled “Supporting Western Balkans – Overcoming Obstacles to European Integration”, which aimed at answering the questions of whether the EU’s integration of Western Balkans is in danger and which frameworks can sustain the process.
In addition to the EU integration, Ms Hullmann commented for EWB on the Berlin Process and the immediate steps that need to be taken to further the economic integration of the region, as well as the continuity of German policy towards the Western Balkans following the federal election.
“I’m convinced that the next German Government will regard the Western Balkans and their European perspective as a foreign policy priority”, Hullmann says.
European Western Balkans: At this year’s Belgrade Security Forum, you will be speaking on a panel focusing on overcoming obstacles to the European Integration of the Western Balkans. What are, in your view, the biggest obstacles to that process at the moment? How should they be tackled?
Christiane Hullmann: For us, the future of the Western Balkans is in the European Union and we actively support the European perspective of the six Western Balkans countries. On this European path, I currently see two to three main challenges that need to be tackled. First, in spite of some very commendable recent progress, the overall reform dynamic in the Western Balkan countries is still rather slow. This concerns especially the important area of rule of law and the fight against corruption and organized crime. The recent country reports by the European Commission clearly confirm this. I would like to encourage all governments in the region to keep up their commitment, using the country reports as guideline. Second, bilateral issues hamper the progress of the entire region, as they make regional cooperation more difficult. That is why progress in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia is of paramount importance. All relevant issues should be tackled within the normalization dialogue. Both sides need to engage constructively and in good faith. The European Special Representative Miroslav Lajčák has our full support. And third, the delay in opening the accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, due to the Bulgarian veto, is overshadowing the region’s aspiration of European integration. Here, the EU must deliver as quickly as possible.
EWB: The overall topic of the Belgrade Security Forum deals with the consequences of the COVID-19. How has the pandemic affected the relationship of the Western Balkans with Germany and the EU?
CH: The pandemic has made it very clear how vulnerable and interdependent we are facing a global health crisis. The EU has shown unmatched financial solidarity with the Western Balkan countries in order to fight the pandemic and overcome its socio-economic consequences. Just to mention the 3.3 billion euro aid package from April 2020 and the donations of millions of vaccines by the EU and its Member States, both bilaterally and through the COVAX initiative. Germany donated a considerable amount of medical equipment, hundreds of ventilators, millions of masks, almost half a million test kits and many other items. The German Robert-Koch-Institute has intensified its cooperation with the region and equipped laboratories in Kosovo and Montenegro. The meeting of Health Ministers of the Berlin Process on 17 June 2021 offered an important platform for exchange and coordination to further tackle the effects of the pandemic.
EWB: One of the most important German initiatives in the Western Balkans since 2014 has been the Berlin Process. What should be the next steps within this initiative the countries in the region should take in the near future?
CH: The Berlin Process is based on three pillars: inclusiveness of the six Western Balkan countries as peer members, regional ownership, and support to the EU integration process. At the Sofia Summit of the Berlin Process in November 2020, the Heads of Government of the Western Balkans committed to the creation of a Common Regional Market, a historic project aimed at the introduction of freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital. This must be the priority for all Western Balkan countries, as the Common Regional Market will not only bring economic growth, but also ensure that the 9 billion euro grants of the EU Economic and Investment Plan will have a maximum positive impact.
In the short-term, as Chancellor Merkel highlighted during her visit to the region in September, the six Western Balkan countries need to overcome political blockade and swiftly finalize four important agreements on regional mobility with the facilitation of the Regional Cooperation Council. These agreements will bring important benefits for the region, as they concern the free movement with ID cards, the free movement of third-country-citizens and the mutual recognition of academic and of professional qualifications.
EWB: Following the federal election in Germany, the public in the Western Balkans is wondering whether some aspects of the country’s policy towards the region might change. How much continuity, in your view, should be expected?
CH: The experience of the past has shown that the general foreign policy in Germany remains consistent after a change in Government. This is particularly true for its commitment to Europe and European integration. The situation in the Western Balkans has a direct impact on the EU and its Member States and is therefore of strategic importance. Germany has excellent relations with all six Western Balkan countries and is closely connected through investments, economic cooperation and people-people contacts. Therefore, I’m convinced that also the next German Government will regard the Western Balkans and their European perspective as a foreign policy priority.