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[EWB Interview] Tcherneva: New momentum in enlargement a sign of EU’s geopolitical awareness

There is a new momentum for the enlargement policy of the European Union, but it is coming in a difficult geopolitical situation due to the war in Ukraine and its consequences. At the same time, the EU felt the need to reignite the hope for accession of the Western Balkans region and deliver on its promises, as we saw with the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. On the other hand, Serbia recorded backsliding for the first time in alignment with EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, which was caused by its special ties to Russia. 

About the European perspective of the Western Balkans in the current circumstances and the main challenges on their path towards the EU, we talked with Vessela Tcherneva, deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of ECFR’s Sofia office, during the Belgrade Security Conference (BSC).

European Western Balkans: The message we received from Brussels during the presentation of the new enlargement package for 2022 is that the war in Ukraine brought the enlargement policy back into the spotlight. What does this mean for the Western Balkans countries? Can they hope this new momentum in enlargement will accelerate their accession?

Vessela Tcherneva: It definitely means that there is more attention in the EU for the Western Balkans and that some processes that looked stuck in the past can go ahead much better now. It definitely means that even more skeptical countries have become advocates for the region. For instance, France: we remember a couple of years ago France was not very convinced that this was a good idea. Now France is one of the countries on the forefront.

Looking at the discussion on enlargement, I think it is much less about the acquis communautaire or about how the EU wants to see itself in five or ten years. It’s much more about its geopolitical awareness, meaning the EU understands that if it doesn’t partner actively with the countries in the Western Balkans, there is a vacuum which is filled immediately by third actors, clearly by Russia, but also by China and to an extent by Turkey. I think this is a big change, that enlargement today is considered much more of a geopolitical tool than before.

EWB: Something that Serbia and Bulgaria have in common is that Russia perceives them as their sphere of influence, and that influence manifests in different ways and to a different extent, most notably in energy dependency. Recent developments in Bulgaria have shown the will to break free of that influence and completely turn towards Europe, which your colleague from ECFR Maria Simeonova called “The European awakening of Bulgaria.” Do you think there is a chance for something similar to happen in Serbia and under what conditions?

VT: I should say that Bulgaria has been called an enemy by Russia. There is a list of Russia’s enemies, and all the EU member states are on that list, including Bulgaria. So, it’s not entirely the same situation like with Serbia, but it’s true that both countries have had very serious relationship with Gazprom. The change in that relationship for Bulgaria came about in April, when Gazprom stopped delivering gas to Bulgaria and to Poland, although they had functional contracts. And in any case, Bulgaria continued paying according to the previously existing contract.

Now Gazprom is gradually cutting deliveries to almost all of its European clients, including big clients like Germany. However it continues supplying Serbia and Hungary through a pipeline, which by the way, goes through Bulgaria, but does not have an exit to the Bulgarian gas transmission system. There is obviously a special treatment of Serbia and Hungary in that way.

But what I can say with quite high certainty is that the Gazprom contracts have been bringing a lot of suspicion for corrupt practices, for channelling Russian influence in Bulgarian politics, media, etc. In a way, I think this is a healing process that Bulgaria is now going through, understanding that there is life beyond Gazprom and without Gazprom, restoring our contract with Azerbaijan, turning more and more to LNG. It turns out that it’s actually not impossible to live without Gazprom.

Additionally, our businesses also starts to realise that turning to other energy sources can really speed up their modernisation, this has pushed them to make decisions that may have been long overdue. I would say that this emancipation from Russian energy dependence is a big step in the right direction for Bulgaria.

To answer your question whether this is possible for Serbia — I don’t see it happening right now, judging by the relationship your president is demonstrating to have with the Russian leadership. Obviously, being in that orbit is not a problem for him. But I can only say that long term dependencies, no matter who you depend on, but even more so if they’re dependencies on a war loving dictator like Mr. Putin, are not good for any country.

EWB: In the latest report, Serbia recorded backsliding in the Chapter 31 — Common Foreign and Security Policy, due to its nonalignment with sanctions against Russia. Do you expect the newly established European Political Community (EPC) to be a forum that will have a positive impact on Serbia’s alignment with the EU foreign policy? Could it be that push that Serbia might need to take a U-turn?

VT: I don’t think that EPC will be the format for that. To me the EPC is more of a forum where countries can discuss their security concerns, their infrastructure issues, etc. If there is a new migration wave, which I’m very much afraid may happen, then you need a forum where those conversations can take place. Sometimes it’s difficult to do this bilaterally. If two or three countries cannot really find a politically suitable format to talk with each other, they can use the EPC for those talks.

For instance, we saw Armenia—Azerbaijan talks, we saw the Greek side press Turkey on the margins of the EPC, but I think the EPC will be about our common European challenges. And obviously, the EU is going to be the stronger bloc within the EPC, but it will definitely not be an EU format. Serbia’s alignment vis-a-vis Common Foreign and Security Policy will be much more part of its agenda with Brussels.

EWB: Speaking of Serbia and Brussels, the EC stated that Serbia is ready to open Cluster 3, but we’ve also received clear messages that the Member States attribute high value to political criteria. Do you expect Serbia to open new Clusters or to go forward in the negotiations regardless of CFSP alignment?

VT: It is now a moment when Serbia will really have to take sides. I’m surprised how long it could actually sit on two chairs. I guess the EU was tolerating it because the situation was not grave enough. Now we can tell quite clearly that the war in Ukraine is also a war on Europe. Russia is leading the war on Europe. In the medium term it will be impossible to remain impartial or flirt with Putin and then claim that you have European aspirations. I think the time for that has passed.

EWB: North Macedonia recently started accession negotiations with the EU, after Bulgaria lifted its veto on the beginning of the process. However, during the recent debate in the European Parliament about the Western Balkans, we were able to hear some harsh rhetoric from certain Bulgarian MPs. Do you think this dispute will present an obstacle in North Macedonia’s accession negotiations? Which stance towards this issue would you expect the new government to take once its formed?

VT: The lifting of the veto was preceded by a very broad agreement in the Bulgarian Parliament. Even the political parties whose representatives in the European Parliament you’ve mentioned have also signed that declaration and agreed to lifting the veto. So I trust that everybody in Bulgaria, but also North Macedonia is taking this seriously.

The trouble is that there are forces who did not want to see this happen, and they will continue constructing provocations. It is really about the maturity of the politicians on both sides — and of media — to start working on the relationship and start looking for the positive perspective of this relationship, rather than digging ourselves back into that hole which we came out from with so many difficulties.

EWB: When it comes to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, which is another issue discussed during the Belgrade Security Conference. How would you assess the influence the war in Ukraine had or has on this process?

VT: It has become a bit more obvious that we cannot have some sort of frozen conflict so close to Europe for too long. It’s obviously an obstacle for the Kosovo society to develop, but it’s also an obstacle for the Serbian society. I was listening again to the press conference of the Serbian president. Spending so much time on the issue of Kosovo is just not healthy for society. There are other issues, the things that interest the young people, the pensioners, the active part of the society, the entrepreneurs, the teachers. All of these parts of society need attention and public debate. Taking the public attention away from those pertinent issues is a waste of political energy.

I think what the war did was to show that those 19th century lines of thought are not adequate for today, and maybe this is why we see also a new push for a diplomatic solution to this issue. There are new proposals, there is enhanced activity both from the EU and the US. I hope at the end of the day, there will be an agreement by both sides on how to go forward and I hope this agreement will come soon because having another generation waste time on this would be a pity.

EWB: And there is the issue of visa liberalization for Kosovo…

VT: Yes, but I think visa liberalization will probably be resolved very soon. I really hope that it’s a matter of weeks rather than years. Now the question is how much the political elites of both countries can keep sitting in their corners instead of just seizing the opportunity.

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