From BSF day one: 2025 was never serious, Unrealistic EU accession date for Western Balkans

Belgrade Security Forum, Octobre 17, 2018: Vladimir Medjak, Robert Cooper, Naim Rashiti, Hedvig Morvai and Zoran Nechev, FOTO: KoSSev

The Belgrade Security Forum, an annual event discussing foreign affairs and security policy in the Balkans and Europe began yesterday. The first panel outside of the academic events was titled “Balkans 2025” and it was hosted by Hedvig Morvai, the Executive Director of the European Fund for the Balkans, Vladimir Medjak, Vice President of the European Movement in Serbia, Naim Rashiti, the Executive Director of the Balkans Policy Research Group and Robert Cooper, Council Member of the European Council for Foreign Relations. The speakers discussed the futility of the EU approach to the region and ineffectiveness of the reform process, but some also recognised a historic moment in Belgrade – Pristina relations stating that it is the time to make a “courageous decisions”.

The EU is working with the corrupt elites that do not even read the EU progress reports

The aim of the panel as presented by the moderator was to assess the position of the Western Balkan region, today, 15 years after Thessaloniki which set a path for a clear EU perspective for the region. While the Thessaloniki agenda was a positive push for the countries of the region, the reforms seem to have failed and as the result, the September 2017 EU communication on credible enlargement was less positive.

The speakers largely agreed that 2025, as defined by the EU communication on enlargement, was an unrealistic EU accession date for the region where, in the words of Hedvig Morvai “the technical processes are not delivering reforms”.

“The date 2025 was never serious, let’s forget it. The region is not delivering reforms and the EU is not ready to change the approach to the region” the Executive Director of the European Fund for the Balkans, Hedvig Morvai explained the cause of the stagnation in the Western Balkans – EU relations and argued that the state of the media and CSOs are the democratic indicators that point to this stagnation.

Other speakers agreed, even calling out the EU for their dishonest interest in the region and siding with the political elites that do not deliver proper reforms. The leaders neither prioritize the EU accession, nor does the EU honestly care that the reforms are brought to a stalemate, thus postponing the enlargement indefinitely. The speakers corroborate this by citing numerous reports on the poor state of the reform and institutional freedom processes that does not, however, correspond to the formal conducts of the EU officials towards the leaders responsible for this situation.

“The EU is working with the corrupt elites that do not even read the EU progress reports. The elites have become immune to the EU reports,” explained Naim Rashiti.

“Neither is Serbia is pushing hard enough nor is the EU pulling hard enough. The current methodology of running an accession process will not lead us to enlargement. The process is not running its course it reached a permanent phase. The EU should demonstrate that it is not happy with the pace of the reforms, how long did it take them to admit problems in Macedonia,” asked Vladimir Medjak.

Given the topic of the panel was Balkans in 2025, the Belgrade – Pristina relations, as the single most burning issue in the region, was also put in the spotlight, especially in terms of Serbia’s accession, the negotiation of Chapter 35 and the so-called binding agreement with Kosovo the chapter obliges Serbia to sign before accession to the EU.

Kosovo solution might as far as the EU accession date for Serbia

Asked about whether the knot is tightening around Serbia to deal with the issue of Kosovo, Vladimir Medjak, former adviser in the Office for EU Integration of Serbia and the current Vice President of the European Movement in Serbia, said that the Kosovo solution can be as far as the EU accession date for Serbia.

“In our negotiation framework, it is stated that by the end of the accession negotiations, Serbia should sign the binding agreement. As our accession negotiation is not even close to finishing, pushing the deal to happen before could be beneficial if the deal is good, so it’s better to do it before, rather than later, but artificial timeframes can have a negative effect,” said Medjak.

Medjak further underlined one of the major deficiencies of the Brussels process:

“I support the dialogue, but before, in order to build trust, you have to pay up what you have signed. The implementation of things already signed should be the first step in building trust for the next phase. The EU should also support implementing what has already been signed in order for both sides to see that the agreement actually is a bilateral agreement.”

Naim Rashiti, the Executive Director of the Balkans Policy Research Group, also argued that the past seven years of negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia have only decreased the level of mistrust between the leaders and the communities.

„I was irritated with the vast number of commentators who immediately condemned the idea of the exchange of territories”

Former facilitator of the Belgrade – Prishtina negotiations, Robert Cooper, a former counselor at the European External Action Service(EEAS) who led this process between March 2011 until February 2012 expressed high hopes for, what is now labelled as the final stage of the agreement.

“The trouble with the future is that we do not know what happens, but the advantage of the future is – what we do, makes it. The political leaders make it happen and all of those who support and encourage them and push them. It seems to me that if one has the courage to embark on a political career, then they also have the courage to do difficult things and nothing is easy,” said Cooper.

He further expressed to be in awe of the Balkan leaders who, he thinks, might be ready to make “courageous decisions”. He sees an opportunity for “courageous decisions” in both Serbia and Macedonia:

“And certainly, the EU accession isn’t easy but whoever does it, whoever makes the courageous decisions in all kinds of areas, which most often refers to probable internal reforms, but it can certainly relate to the question of Kosovo… I think the leader who makes those courageous decisions and makes a decisive step forward will be a person who will go down in the history books. What’s the point of risking your life, in a way, by going into politics unless you can do something vital, something big. I think there is an opportunity now in Serbia, and another opportunity in Macedonia as well – I won’t say the future is ripe, but there is an opportunity for both to be taken now. Make the future now.”

Cooper, who is currently a Council Member of the European Council for Foreign Relations, is critical of many voices raised against the idea of a land swap as a model for the final solution between Kosovo and Serbia.

“I was irritated with the vast number of commentators who immediately condemned the idea of exchange of territories. Exchange of territories is quite a far-reaching idea, it needs to be thought through very closely, very carefully and in detail. Maybe it’s a good idea…“ – stated Robert Cooper.

„It’s really difficult to do these things if you are a political leader negotiating. And you need to give it some time rather than tell them: no, that’s unacceptable before they begun. I think it is really encouraging to find leaders of the countries in conflict talking to each other seriously. If it produces real results and serious results, that’s been thought through and can be sold domestically, it’s even more positive. So, I think it was premature for people to condemn the idea,” stated Robert Cooper.

Cooper is sceptical of the scenario in which even with Serbia’s recognition, one or more of the current five non-recognizers within the EU continue to hold their position on Kosovo’s independence.

“If Serbia – Kosovo relations come together, if they can find useful ways of collaborating … the more they to that, the sillier the non-recognizers would look. I do not think that the non-recognizers would cause some trouble… The more Serbia – Kosovo function together, the more non-recognizers will forget they do not recognize Kosovo… I think that if Serbia- Kosovo relations go right, if Serbia accepts Kosovo, non-recognition will just become irrelevant,” said Cooper answering the question from the audience.

Long lasting conflict of major political figures in Kosovo is personal in nature not connected to Kosovo-Serbia dialogue

Naim Rashiti, Executive Director of Pristina-based think tank Balkan Policy Research Group, answering the question about the conflicts among Kosovo political elites in relation to the dialogue with Serbia, explained that the dialogue is only a representation of what is essentially a personal, long-lasting conflict of major political figures in Kosovo. He expects that the Kosovo political parties will reach a consensus on the position towards the deal with Serbia.

“The political conflicts in Kosovo stem from other reasons, not the dialogue with Serbia. There is no winner or loser in relation to the dialogue with Serbia. Nobody of them lost or won from the topic of the dialogue with Serbia. The political disputes are from 2010 when we had difficult elections. Kosovo is slightly different, there is a process of state building with much more openness and lots of room for fighting. But this fighting is not related to the process of dialogue with Serbia, it’s personal, political…it’s the way the system operates. And they have shown a few times in the past that they come together when it comes to the dialogue with Serbia and I think they will do it again at some point.”

Rashiti argues that, for Kosovo elites, the conclusion of the negotiations with Serbia is more important than the “formulation” of the final agreement.

“They agree and disagree on potential outcomes, but it largely comes out of the fear that an undefined process can erase what they have achieved. They have to come together to work on the process that will actually conclude. The process of the dialogue, the desire to conclude is more important than whatever the formulation that will eventually be agreed by both sides. Kosovars have to be prepared for the process.”

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his Austrian counterpart Alexander Van der Bellen addressed the morning session of the Day two. The report will follow soon.

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