Recent months have seen the enlargement seriously returning to the focus of the European Union for the first time in many years. Discussions of the necessary reforms, forms the enlargement and target years have gained momentum following the candidacies of Ukraine and Moldova, themselves the result of the Russian invasion.
Nevertheless, doubts about the achievability of the latest enlargement push, based on years of lack of progress, continue to permeate the Western Balkans. In addition, the recent attack in Banjska in the north of Kosovo has increased insecurity about the stability of the region, and decisive responses have still not been offered.
We discussed these topics with Hannes Swoboda, a former Member of the European Parliament and current President of the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, as well as the International Institute for Peace. Mr Swoboda has extensive experience in EU enlargement for years, which included a mandate as the EP Rapporteur for Croatia during the country’s accession process. We interviewed Mr Swoboda during last week’s Belgrade Security Conference.
European Western Balkans: Has the war in Ukraine definitely revived EU enlargement? Not all people are convinced that it has. Many people are speaking about it, but is that true in your estimation?
Hannes Swoboda: It is definitely revived, which does not mean that things will go really quickly. But I think there is a common sense in the Commission, in the European Parliament, and I think also in at least in the majority of the Member States, that you cannot proceed with the accession process with Ukraine and Moldova, without giving more push and power to the enlargement of the Western Balkan countries.
EWB: There was an article in the Financial Times last month that the Western Balkans are now frustrated because Ukraine is moving so fast. But do you think that that is a realistic story – that Ukraine will move so fast that it will leapfrog the Western Balkan countries on their way to the EU?
HS: I think all these promises given to Ukraine are a bit fake and hollow and create a lot of expectations on the one hand, and a lot of disappointment in other countries on the other hand. Of course, some Balkan political leaders are not very keen on doing the necessary reforms and they promised less than Ukrainians promise (in terms of reforms). But also with Ukraine, we need to see the implementation, and the situation during the war is very difficult. And in some ways, the situation after the war ends will be very difficult because it’s a country that is destroyed. It’s a country where many people are traumatized and one should not overestimate, even if the war ends soon, what that can mean for the accession to the European Union.
EWB: You mentioned yesterday during the panel that the EU should be careful with the promises. So what about the target 2030, which was launched in August by Charles Michel, and afterward it was mentioned by the French-German report, as the year by which the EU and the candidate countries should be ready for the enlargement? Do you think that this is a risky promise? Do you think that this date is achievable?
HS: I think it’s achievable if by 2030 we also include 2031, and 2032. So, I think yes, it is a reasonable target. It’s a possible target for the Western Balkans, even for the other countries. If we manage to transform the European Union, strengthen its capacity, and to have a clear vision of how this bigger European Union can function. So yes, I think that was a very good step forward.
EWB: Right after Michel’s speech, there was also an interview in Politico with Austrian Foreign Minister Schallenberg, who was very supportive of the enlargement. Would you say that Austria generally is supportive of the enlargement to the Western Balkans and what are the reasons behind it?
HS: I think Austria is very much supportive, irrespective of the political orientation of the ruling parties. The reason, of course, is twofold. On the one hand, I think it is some sort of sympathy, and many people from the Western Balkan countries are working in Austria. On the other hand, it is, of course, economic interest. I think, overall, we see in many respects the people from Western Balkan as relatives, irrespective of their country of origin. So, there is a deeper emotional connection to the region.
EWB: You mentioned that if the EU wants to enlarge by 2030, it needs to reform internally, it needs to change the decision-making rules. Are these rules currently the main obstacle, because of which some countries are skeptical towards enlargement? Is it about money, maybe? Is it about the rule of law? Is there one single issue that you would name as the main reason for the enlargement skeptics that still exist in the EU?
HS: Well, I wouldn’t say there is one reason. Decision-making rule is one element and of course, the weights, the power of the different votes – especially in the Council, those at the Parliament would be shifting, not so much with the Western Balkans, but more with Ukraine. Money is the second one, but this does not affect the Balkan so much as Ukraine. And agriculture is the third one, which is very much affecting Ukraine. So, I think, the reasons are not as strong for the Western Balkans.
One element, of course, is the democratic development, the question of state capture, and what kind of democratic conception the country has. We have already countries like Poland, especially Hungary, who have a different perception of democratic values, and who are ready to accept some form of state capture. And if that would be strengthened by the countries coming from the Balkans, this would be a specific reason which we don’t see perhaps with other countries. It’s why some of us look critically to the issue of enlargement because we don’t want another ally of Mr Orban and others.
EWB: In your article, which you wrote earlier this year on the occasion of 20 years after the Thessaloniki promise and 10 years after the Croatian accession to the EU, you said that some form of staged accession is the solution to the enlargement. Do you still hold that view, and what form would a staged accession take in your opinion?
HS: I think we need a step-by-step process, not full integration at once, as elaborated by two institutes from Belgrade and Brussels (CEP and CEPS). This would include some exceptions, for example on the voting rights and the veto, so that some of the countries are not allowed to veto further enlargement in the coming years. And even when you think about Ukraine, there should be some differentiated integration for some time – no immediate integration in the agricultural policy or normal cohesion funds.
So, I think it will be a very differently shaped and step-by-step integration, which also gives the possibility for the countries and for the European Union to say: “Let’s have a stop now because some reforms are still necessary, and you have to do that before the next stage is reached”. The details have to be discussed. But I think the basic idea is to promote enlargement without taking some of the fears from other countries that negative elements will be introduced into the European Union.
Of course, some of the countries can say that’s unfair, the other kind of enlargement has been done for current Members. I was a Rapporteur for Croatia and you can see that the process of integration negotiation has been longer from case to case. It was longer for Croatia than it was for Bulgaria and Romania. It’s not to say that we should lengthen and prolong accession talks. It’s better to have some results very soon at least, and then go step by step to full integration.
EWB: In light of the events in Kosovo in Banjska, how do you assess the current security situation in the Balkans and the ability of the EU and NATO to ensure that no further deterioration of security happens?
HS: Well, maybe some days ago I wouldn’t have seen the situation so critical, but of course, with new events, for example in Israel and Palestine, I would say the situation is very critical. I think we need some sort of a Big Bang now; I would say a package that goes more than the past packages. I think all the countries of the European Union should recognize Kosovo’s independence, under the condition that Mr. Kurti implements what has been agreed upon, especially on the question of the association of Serb municipalities. I think both sides have to be forced more or less to come to a compromise, sign the compromise, sign also a timetable when things will be fulfilled, and then part of this timetable must be the recognition of Kosovo by all member countries.
Mr Kurti, or whoever is the Prime Minister, must try to build a common state, you must invite Serb representatives and include them more than just formally in the country. I think that’s very important. It’s not for Mr Kurti to say “every citizen here is equal”, it is not enough. The history and the situation of the Serb minority and this part of it was part of Serbia and Yugoslavia, faces a different historical background. It has to be recognized that both sides must do more. But also, the EU must do more, there must be a really strong package and a strong timetable until all these things are fulfilled.
EWB: But even after the events in Banjska, there is not much new political pressure from the EU on Serbia and Kosovo. Why do you think that’s the case? Why do you think the EU is so slow to react?
HS: Because they are still in this nitty gritty. For example, there’s only one thing how to get to look into the event. You can have somebody from Kosovo, somebody from Serbia, from the prosecutors to nominate a person, and then you have to have an independent person chairing this group of three who is really going into what happened. Because you will have two narratives Kosovo one and the Serb one, and what then? So, I think new creativity is needed.
I’m sorry to say this, and I have known Mr Lajcak and Mr Borrell for a long time, but there is not enough willingness and creativity to make it very clear how things should be developed. If you have this very contest, you have to bring all sides’ together, take an independent judge or prosecutor from some other country, wherever over the world, who is known how to look into terrorist activities and then have a report. This is the only way, because otherwise you have always continued these parallel narratives between Albanians and Serbs. You will never come to an end.
EWB: At the end, I also wanted to ask you about the situation in Ukraine, which you also mentioned yesterday during the panel. You said some of the EU member states are maybe having second thoughts about supporting Ukraine and maybe are not that enthusiastic about it anymore. How do you see the current situation in Ukraine and the support of the West to Ukraine? Will it be sustained in the long run? Where is the situation going, in your view?
HS: Very much depends, of course, on the US and the development of the US at the presidential election and elections to the House, to the Senate. And second thing is that we have Europe to convince our citizens more how important it is for us to support Ukraine. It is good to show solidarity, but solidarity for many people who are poor themselves or have problems in living standards because of inflation and so on, you have to convince them why you are spending money on helping another country, and this is totally enough for politicians anyway. The right-wing populists say the contrary. So, I think the responsibility is from for the politicians in the West, especially in Europe now, to support Ukraine because otherwise, it will be a disaster not only for Ukraine but also for our citizens. But that has to be proven and argued with our citizens much better than has been done before.