The refusal to commence accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania as promised is a bitter setback for the integration of the Western Balkans in the EU – and for Germany, too, which campaigned intensively for the go-ahead to be given. Now you are travelling to Skopje to affirm Germany’s solidarity with the region. What specifically do you have to offer?
Germany firmly believes that the Western Balkan countries are an integral part of Europe. Their future should be in the European Union. An overwhelming majority of EU member states were in favour of commencing accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, because doing so is in our own strategic interest. However, the decision has to be unanimous. We are working on that. Germany is doing everything in its power to ensure that we in the EU agree on a common position, thus enabling accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia to begin in the near future. I will stress that again in Skopje.
Persuading France – President Macron – and the others opposed to enlargement to change their minds doesn’t seem to be on the cards at present. What is your strategy for the Western Balkans if the EU continues to block enlargement?
The strength of the European Union lies precisely in the fact that even when it comes to difficult topics, we manage to find a solution in the end. I'm confident that we’ll manage this time, too. President Macron has said that he considers a reform of the enlargement process to be necessary in addition to further reforms in Albania and North Macedonia. We will discuss this issue intensively in the EU in the coming weeks.
But it is also vital for Albania and North Macedonia to continue undeterred with their reforms and to make further progress. They have to convince the few remaining sceptics with their achievements. Germany will continue to play a very active role in supporting the countries of the Western Balkans as they move closer to the EU.
What do you expect of North Macedonia and Albania in this difficult situation? Given that ultimately it was also concerns about the reform process in the two countries that led France to withhold its consent.
I would like to encourage North Macedonia and Albania – as well as the other countries in the region – to adhere to their reforms because the reforms not only help to bring them closer to the EU, but are also important in their own right, because they are in the interest of the people. Strengthening the rule of law and taking resolute action against corruption and organised crime are crucial tasks for any government that holds the future of its country dear. The opposition also has a responsibility to bear. Political point-scoring and competing ideas may be necessary and normal in a democracy, but they must not cripple a country in its development.
The Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev had tied his political future to the start of accession negotiations. Now the country is facing early elections. The VMRO-DPMNE, the biggest opposition party, which openly rejects the Prespa agreement, isn’t doing badly in the polls. It is said that they would try to revoke the agreement if they won. What are you doing to prevent this?
The Prespa agreement is rightly described as historic. With it, North Macedonia and Greece settled a dispute that had endured for almost three decades. The agreement opened the door to Euro-Atlantic structures for North Macedonia. It made the two countries a role model for the region and beyond. They showed that with strong leadership, courage and far-sightedness, even apparently intractable conflicts could be solved and difficult compromises reached. We will soon welcome North Macedonia as the 30th member of NATO. And one obstacle on its path toward the EU has been removed. I can hardly imagine that anyone would want to undo all that. That would only put North Macedonia out on a limb in international terms.
Germany was clearly pleased with the reform process in Skopje, but it was much harder to reach consensus on the situation in Albania. For the past year, the country has been in profound domestic crisis, and there is no way out in sight. The opposition is boycotting parliament and calling for new elections. The reform of the electoral law is one of the demands Germany placed on Albania in connection with its EU accession perspective. But there is no movement on this issue. Are there not grounds to revise the decision to green-light Albania?
Our decision to advocate accession negotiations with Albania was right. The European Commission also recommended opening negotiations and clearly stated its expectations regarding the outstanding reforms.
Albania’s judicial reforms, which were exemplary for the region, are progressing well. The key thing here is for everyone to play their part so that the constitutional court can resume its work as soon as possible. Electoral law reform is also being discussed with all political forces and with civil society. We are confident that it will be possible to agree quickly on reforms that implement the OSCE/ODIHR recommendations. Parliament is the venue for political argument. Constructive proposals and real cooperation are what is needed now – for Albania and its people.
Would it be better to consider Albania and North Macedonia separately?
In the accession process itself, each country is judged on the basis of its own achievements. Back in 2018, the European Commission determined that both Albania and North Macedonia had fulfilled the conditions for accession negotiations thanks to their successful reforms. It therefore recommended that accession negotiations be commenced with both countries. The Commission reaffirmed its assessment and its recommendations in May 2019. The German Government shares the European Commission’s assessment and has lobbied within the European Council for the opening of accession negotiations with both countries. Our position is unchanged.
Since the last EU Summit, many people have said that the EU has not kept its promise and that nobody wants EU enlargement anyway. New ideas for the region have been mentioned, such as a mini Schengen area, or a Norwegian model. How do you view these alternatives to EU integration?
We do not consider there to be any alternative to the EU accession process if we want to preserve the incentives for serious and sustainable reforms, above all as regards the rule of law. Whether the existing process could be improved is in my opinion another question.
Improving regional cooperation supplements moves towards the EU. Strengthening good neighbourly relations and economic cooperation benefits all of the six Western Balkan countries. It increases the attractiveness of the Western Balkans as a whole. We have supported these efforts for years through the Berlin Process, and have already achieved a lot. This work has, for example, led to the foundation of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) and a reduction in roaming charges, something of real practical benefit!
While the EU is divided and paralysed on the issue of the Western Balkans, as a result losing much of its credibility and appeal, the US is moving up several gears. The idea of a land swap between Serbia and Kosovo is back on the table. How will you and how will Germany and Europe counter this – and what’s your view of Russia’s engagement in the region?
The European Union stands for the perspective of a life in freedom, security and relative prosperity. No-one else can offer this kind of model. Furthermore, the EU is and remains by far the most important donor in the region, with its billions of euros of aid and numerous advisory support instruments. Germany alone contributes hundreds of millions of euros bilaterally each year in addition to the EU funds.
As regards the idea of a land swap or border change between Kosovo and Serbia, we do not believe that this will contribute to stability in the region. What we are working towards is the relaunch, soon, of the EU-mediated dialogue with a view to concluding a comprehensive agreement that would enable both countries to move closer to the EU. We would like to work constructively with Russia, even if we do not always see eye to eye. We understand that it is important to maintain good relations and to foster the close cultural ties that have developed over the years. It is not a choice between that and membership of the EU.
Interview conducted by Adelheid Feilcke.