Michael Martens: The Western Balkans European perspective has evaporated




German journalist Michael Martens is an important source of information about the Balkan countries. His sharp tone towards the EU inertia for admission of the countries from the Western Balkans is becoming a trending topic in the political circles that connect this "forgotten" part of Europe with the capital of the EU - Brussels. "What would happen if you included the Bulgarian minority in the Preamble?" Again - nothing. Sooner or later, a country will block your path to EU membership. Do not get me wrong: I do not see a problem in mentioning a small group of people who define themselves as Bulgarians in your Constitution, although it would be good if Sofia finally accepted that there is also a small group of people in Bulgaria who chose to define themselves as Macedonians," he says in the interview that he kindly agreed to do on the subject of Macedonia - region - EU. His status as Southeast Europe correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung made him one of the greatest experts on the "complicated relationship" between our region and the Union.

Mr. Martens, let us start with a general question, since you often write about the Balkans. What is happening in that region? How do you see the current situation?

-Let me answer a general question with a general answer: The current situation is shaped by the fact that what was called a "European perspective for the Western Balkans" has evaporated. Nobody knows that better than you, Macedonians. The fact that the prospect of full EU membership has disappeared has various negative effects for the region. Reformers are weakened, authoritarian structures are strengthened.

Is there a danger of a wider destabilization of the entire region, given the explosion of discontent in Serbia that spilled into the streets, the situation surrounding the election of a government in Bulgaria and the reawakening of the problems between Serbia and Kosovo, as well as the blocked European integration of North Macedonia?

-As for the discontent in Serbia, I'm not sure where that will lead. The numbers of people who took to the streets are impressive, but for now I cannot see how the demonstrations will turn into a political option that will be successful at the ballot box. Whether the coalition in Bulgaria will be successful and how long it will last remains to be seen, but I am cautiously optimistic that we may indeed see progress in this country, including with much-needed judicial reform. The conflict in the north of Kosovo is really serious. I hope that KFOR will act decisively, if necessary, a​gainst Serbia's attempts to turn the North even more into a gray zone beyond any rule of law, but also against any attempt by the Kurti government to establish control by force. I do not know if Kosovo will ever be able to officially absorb the North one hundred percent in its country. But I think I know how Kosovo can be one hundred percent sure to lose the North forever: by trying to establish control by violent means.

We all thought that the Serbian-Kosovo dispute was about to be resolved, but relations escalated again. The process between Belgrade and Pristina was led by the international community. Could there have been a mistake in the steps? What concessions do you think both sides should make?

-I would like to raise my opposition here. I did not think that the Serbia-Kosovo dispute would be resolved, and I know others who share my pessimism. As for the recent escalation, I share the American position: Kurti's decision to send special police in order to enforce access to municipal buildings for local mayors who had almost zero support from the population they were supposed to govern was wrong. It predictably created a conflict that could have been avoided. So it was a gift for Serbian President Vucic. I also do not understand why the Kosovo government does not agree to the establishment of a Community of Serb-majority municipalities with strict local powers. If this is done correctly, there is no way to fear that such an association could become a second Republika Srpska. But after speaking with some Kosovo sources recently, I think I better understand Pristina's hesitancy. Because Prishtina is afraid that it will give a lot and end up with nothing. There is not even clear support for Kosovo's attempt to join the Council of Europe, although Kosovo meets the conditions to be a member.

Is there a danger for Macedonia from the new unrest in Kosovo? In Macedonia, we believe that with the entry in NATO, all security risks for North Macedonia have been eliminated. Are we naive?

- The risks never end, even if you are a member of NATO. Belonging to the Alliance makes the country safer, but the risks are never eliminated. The only time you are completely safe is when you are dead. I am not sure about the consequences of a possible violent conflict in Kosovo for Macedonia. But of course, when a country goes off the rails, it is never good for its neighbors. Look at Moldova or Poland right now.

Source: www.kas.de

In North Macedonia, there is great disappointment with the slowness of the process of integrating of the country into the EU. Is that disappointment justified? Sofia imposed a list of conditions on Skopje to continue the European integration process, some of which are hard to swallow. One of those conditions is for North Macedonia to include the Bulgarians in the Constitution. But the forecasts are that the Parliament will reject that decision. In that case, the negotiations between North Macedonia and the EU for membership cease. Do you think that is fair?

- Of course the disappointment is justified! As we have discussed before: What has been done to your country is really declaring bankruptcy for EU enlargement policy. I must admit that I did not expect this. I still believe that the name change was the right thing to do, because it removed the old conflict with Greece and brought the country into NATO. But besides: the road to EU membership is blocked, and everyone knows it. What would happen if you included the Bulgarian minority in the Preamble? Again, nothing. Sooner or later, a country will block your path to EU membership. Do not get me wrong: I see no problem in mentioning a small group of people who define themselves as Bulgarians in your Constitution, although it would be good if Sofia finally accepted that there is also a small group of people in Bulgaria who chose to define themselves as Macedonians. But what is more important: all this is not the point. The point is that there is no appetite in the EU for accepting new members, even if you include ten more ethnicites in the Preamble and rename your country Western Bulgaria. So we have to find a different approach.

And to follow up again, the disappointment and Euroscepticism in North Macedonia increased even more after the international community did not keep its word that the name change (the Prespa Agreement) is the last step the country should take in order to fully enter the international arena as a member of NATO and the EU. But shortly after the Prespa Agreement, a new veto from Bulgaria arrived on the way to the Union. What is your view on all that?

- I already said it before. but let me add that Bulgarian politics is incredibly short-sighted. Macedonians could become Bulgaria’s closest allies in the EU. Instead, Bulgaria alienated Macedonians even more than Greece did in the inglorious days of the name dispute. Rumen Radev may know how to fly a MiG-29, but his understanding of history and ethnic self-identification seems more akin to the time of the Wright brothers (the Wright brothers are American pioneers in aviation who built the first airplane in 1903 AD – our remark).

What, then, could be the alternatives in enlargement policy?

-A different approach was proposed not long ago by the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag. It was rejected, as the CDU/CSU is currently in opposition, but that may change after the next election. What the CDU/CSU is proposing is the inclusion of an intermediate objective in the negotiation process: Full political membership should remain the ultimate goal for all Western Balkan countries (both Ukraine and Moldova). But until this is achieved, membership of the European single market should be offered - not in the distant future, but within seven or eight years, so that two successive governments can, if they really want to, reach that goal. This would mean that the countries will be full members of the economic area of the EU, without being politically members of the EU. This is what Norway decided on. They wanted to become a member of the single market, but not of the EU. Is what is good for Norway bad for North Macedonia? I don't think so. Instead of you coming to the EU, the EU would come to you, at least economically. To begin with, it is likely to increase the number of young Macedonians leaving the country, as they will have the right to live and work anywhere in the EU. However, in the longer term, it is expected to slow or even stop emigration. If life is good in your country, why move to another place? If you talk to economists and entrepreneurs, they are very much in favor of the idea because it would improve their business.

Source: www.dnevnik.ba

Do you consider realistic the expectations that the war in Ukraine will speed up the admission of the countries of the Western Balkans to the EU?

- Not really, unfortunately. Everyone says that the Russian attack on Ukraine in February 2022 changed the world. And indeed it did in many respects. But does that also apply to the expansion? More than a year and a half has passed since then - but has anything substantial happened in the expansion? Has a country closed more chapters, maybe even received an accession date? Far from it. Only the waiting room became fuller, with Ukraine and Moldova joining. But it is a waiting room for Godot.

Another potential conflict is simmering in the region - Republika Srpska whose leadership threatens to undermine the international community's efforts to stabilize BiH. Are there any mechanisms (tools) left for the EU and the US to restrain Dodik?

- In his latest decision based on the "Bonn powers", High Representative Schmidt passed a law according to which any government official who disobeys his decisions will be punished with imprisonment from six months to five years. On the one hand, it is absurd that an unelected foreign official can pass a law threatening to imprison people who do not follow his orders or wishes. On the other hand, one can ask a simple question: Is Schmidt's latest decree a sign of strength - or just a harbinger of weakness that we could all soon witness? Will prosecutors, judges and police in Bosnia now go after anyone who does not comply with Schmidt? And if they do not, what will Schmidt do? Will they all been arrested? Who will arrest them? We may soon see that those seemingly huge "Bonn powers" are actually just a piece of paper. A bluff that only works until the audience sees that there is nothing behind it. Unless Schmidt gets massive international support to sanction, dismiss and arrest Dodik, I do not see the Bonn powers changing anything. They are just a lullaby for the people of Bosnia and giving a false sense of security. As if the High Representative could do anything in case of conflict. But he cannot.

The Balkan region still remains one of the most corrupt regions. What is the reason for that - the bad judgment of citizens when voting in elections, weak institutions or the slow implementation of European standards?

- Corruption is where the system allows it to be. The stronger the institutions of a country, the less corruption. When I talk about institutions, I mean not only government institutions, but also good journalists who are not afraid to do their job and have support to do their job. Bodo Hombach, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's chief of staff, once told me that in Germany, the fear of the media uncovering a corruption scheme is probably a more powerful tool for curbing corruption than the government institutions tasked with combating it. That is probably not true of his former boss who had trouble selling himself in Russia, but that's another story. It is important that corruption is not only detected, but that society also ensures that there are consequences. The fight against corruption never ends. It is a perpetual obligation in every democracy, same as like voting or paying taxes.

Journalist: Соња Крамарска

Cover photo - source: www.mvinfo.hr\