IBNA/Interview with Tobias Flessenkemper – Board Member of the German South East Europe association

Berlin sends the right signal for Western Balkans

By Milos Mitrovic – Belgrade

“The events in Ukraine have shown that Russia is ready to destabilize its neighborhood and Europe. It seems that the various crises in the EU neighborhood have focused minds in Brussels and EU capitals and in the Western Balkans that the completion of the EU is necessary and important to ensure freedom and peace for the peoples of the region, particularly in the former Yugoslavia”, Tobias Flessenkemper, Board Member of the German South East Europe association and a Senior Associate Researcher at the Centre International de Formation Européenne (CIFE) in Nice, France, said in the interview for IBNA commenting on the Western Balkans conference held on Thursday in Berlin.

It seems that the conference in Berlin has sent the strongest pro-European message to the region ever since the EU-Western Balkans summit in Thessaloniki in 2003. Chancellor Merkel underlined that the conference was organized taking into account the anniversaries of World War One outbreak, the beginning of Second World War and the end of the Cold War. Do you think this gathering reveals the concern of EU, including Germany, of persisting negative scenarios in the Western Balkans, especially in the context of Ukraine crisis and Russian impact in the region?

The meeting in Berlin was a timely confirmation for the countries of the region that EU membership is a real perspective and that the EU and Germany are committed to assisting reform efforts. The meeting was also an important signal to the German general public. Ms Merkel publicly linked herself to the future progress of the EU enlargement strategy in the Western Balkans. Against the background of widespread skepticism in Germany, it is not without risk for her to advocate for Balkans. The best way conference participants could show their appreciation is to honor their commitments to reform also in their Parliaments and governments. It is never too late to improve the social, economic and political situation in their countries.

The events in Ukraine have shown that Russia is ready to destabilize its neighborhood and Europe. It seems that the various crises in the EU neighborhood have focused minds in Brussels and EU capitals and in the Western Balkans that the completion of the EU is necessary and important to ensure freedom and peace for the peoples of the region, particularly in the former Yugoslavia. The series of meetings, Berlin was just the first one, indicates this sense of urgency that the enlargement process has to be brought to conclusion. The only anchor of stability for the countries of the Western Balkans and for securing peace for the coming generations is the European Union. A twentieth anniversary of the Thessaloniki summit in 2023 with most of the countries still outside the EU, cannot be an option.

“It is touching to see that all are around the table and that they are not quarreling”, Ms Merkel was quoted as saying, referring to participants of the conference from Western Balkans. One might have an impression that German chancellor considers the region and its people as highly problematic and that the absence of wars or conflicts is an extraordinary achievement. What is your comment?

The absence of war and conflict is always an achievement. It is considered a prime achievement of the EU to have rendered war between member states virtually impossible. Furthermore, ever since Ms Merkel entered politics in 1990, she witnessed almost constantly first wars and then protracted crises in the region. When she came to office as Chancellor in 2005, the EU had to deal with the problems of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, Kosovo’s independence, the Macedonian name issue – to name just a few of the problems in the region. This means that during her political career, maybe for the first time today, she finds a continuous and stable positive momentum in the region. The normalization between Serbia and Kosovo seems to hold, also blockages in Albania were moved aside. Of course, there are still many tasks ahead, which Merkel, Barroso, Füle and others pointed out to their colleagues.

Both Merkel and European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso have praised Serbia and Kosovo for the results they had achieved in normalizing their relations. However, this progress has been made under the pressure of EU and Washington; at the same time there is still very high level of distrust between Serbs and Albanians, especially among common people. Do you think that the EU has the capacity to change this?

To turn distrust into trust is an exercise that people in the region, Serbs and Albanians and others have to undertake. The EU can share experiences and assist in this process. Prime Minister Edi Rama made a good proposal to establish a Balkan Youth Exchange program. Young people in the region usually visit countries outside the region and rarely travel to neighboring countries. Trust is built by directly engaging with one another. This can be facilitated by programs and travel schemes etc. These initiatives, however, need to be fully supported by the political leaders in the region. An experience from EU integration is that without taking the political responsibility for a clear top-down message one cannot move. Vucic and Thaci, for instance, need to say that they wish that Serbs and Albanians meet each other and build something together. This means the wish to get to know neighbors to exchange, to trade and to develop the region together needs to be sparked and supported. In this respect, infrastructure projects are crucial. The rail and highway network needs development. It is simply too time-consuming and expensive to travel inside the region. No wonder, that people rather take a low cost flight to Italy, Germany or Hungary. The lack of investment in infrastructure over the last decade is an indication of the previous lack of political will to invest in common development.

The expectations of the Western Balkans countries that Berlin conference would signal the significant increase of investing and EU funding in the region are very high. Is this realistic?

We have to distinguish EU pre-accession assistance through IPA and EU project funding from private foreign direct investment in the region. IPA is not only supply, but also demand-driven. Beneficiary countries have to be willing and able to absorb the assistance. They have to create an atmosphere and conditions for EU assistance. In the past, countries had problems to develop and implement projects under IPA. If there is demand for assistance from the EU it is not unrealistic to have high expectations.

Foreign direct investment may not be so much forthcoming as long as the situation for private investment remains difficult. This points back to the questions of good governance, the rule of law and transparency. Investors have many options globally. The markets of the Western Balkans are too small to deal with too many complications such as slow, cumbersome and at times corrupt administrations. Once again, we are back to reforms to make it more interesting and rewarding to invest and engage. The problem of the investment climate becomes obvious once you consider how few money is invested by the many diaspora communities in their home countries, there are too few business set-up “back home”, although the very same people are highly entrepreneurial elsewhere.

The conference has reaffirmed the interest of Germany for the stability in the region. In your opinion, was this conference more German or European?

The conference was an initiative, which Germany took as part of the common European commitment to the Western Balkans. Over the last couple of years many commentators invited Germany to take a more active role. In my view the German government is sending the right signal at the start of the new European cycle: the European integration of the region enjoys the full support also of Germany. It is important for the incoming President of the Commission and the Commissioners, the Council President and the High Representative to know that EU enlargement remains a priority. The next conferences will take place in Vienna and Paris. The European dimension and perspective is part and parcel of this initiative and process.

Source: Independent Balkan News Agency (Montenegro)