If the Western Balkan states were admitted to the EU, it would be beneficial to both sides, says Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe, in an interview with DW.
The first EU Enlargement Commissioner, Günter Verheugen, was able to admit ten countries as new members of the EU in 2004. His two successors welcomed three more. But in his first interview, Johannes Hahn, the current EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, said that no new countries will be admitted in the next five years. Can you still speak of tangible prospects for the admission of Western Balkan countries?
A clear perspective, meaning our offer of EU membership, exists. But it is not only in the hands of the European Union. The main responsibility lies with political and economic leaders, as well as the citizens, of the candidate countries, as to whether they are willing and in a position to fulfil the relevant criteria for admission.
But if Brussels clearly says that no new members will be accepted in the next five years, the Balkan nations fear that they may become "permanent candidates". Can you understand these anxieties?
I want to encourage the Western Balkan states that want to belong to the European Union. There is no question: the road ahead is surely rocky, but it is worth it. We are not just an economic community, but also, above all, a union of values. In light of difficult accession negotiations in past decades, the EU approximation process also focuses on on the rule of law, democracy, judicial cooperation, independent media, as well as finding solutions in bilateral issues – and quite rightly so. That is how the most difficult issues are addressed right from the beginning. Occasionally, frustration can arise because, for many people, things do not move substantially and I can sympathise with that.
In past months, much has changed in Europe geopolitically. Many experts in the EU see the Western Balkans as part of a triangle between Brussels, Moscow and Ankara. Is this actually a new situation that could introduce new dynamism in the approximation process of these countries?
All the states in the Western Balkans have made a strategic choice for a future in the European Union. EU enlargement lies not only in the interest of the states in the Western Balkans, for it is also in our own best interests. Since our populations have become somewhat weary ofenlargement, we have an obligation to point out time and again our own interests in having the Western Balkans in the EU soon – if the right conditions are met. The geopolitical situation, meaning foreign policy and security, has become less safe. It is in our interests to have a stable, peaceful and democratic Europe. The accession prospects in the Western Balkans are linked to these expectations. If they belong to the EU, then we will benefit from this because they are safe, stable and democratic countries.
Recently, some German media outlets have published pieces about the Islamist threat in South-Eastern Europe. It is known that there are individuals from Balkan countries fighting for the IS. How do you evaluate this risk?
It is just as disturbing as the fact that there are said to be 3000 so-called "foreign fighters" from Germany carrying out nefarious deeds for this terrorist organisation. The Western Balkans is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multicultural region with a secularised form of European Islam and that is how it should remain. The states and their societies should continue working to ensure that different ethnicities and religions treat each other with respect and live together peacefully. Anyway, the matter of "foreign fighters" is a problem for the EU as a whole and it makes it clear once more that our security will improve if we can offer the Western Balkans a clear membership perspective.
The Serbian Government is not going along with the sanctions against Russia. Would a neutral and openly Russia-friendly Serbia be acceptable to Germany and the EU?
Whoever is in the EU is not neutral. We have a common approach and that means being willing to agree to a common stance towards Russia. That does not mean that particular historical, cultural, economic or political relations to another country, such as Russia, must be cut. Despite the sanctions, even we have not put our relations on the backburner. Quite the contrary, we want to communicate with Russia and its leaders. But no-one should ever believe that closeness to Russia can be played off against closeness to the EU.
Interview by Benjamin Pargan. Reproduced by kind permission of www.dw.de