Leading MEP: Bilateral issues ‘an obstacle’ to enlargement

Eduard Kukan.JPG

Bilateral issues are creating tension ahead of a crucial meeting today (7 December) of EU foreign affairs ministers, MEP Eduard Kukan, who was Slovakia's foreign minister for over eight years, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Slovak former Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan has also been UN special envoy to the Balkans (1991-2001). 

He was speaking to Georgi Gotev.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.  

EU foreign affairs ministers are meeting today in Brussels. Among other things, they need to decide what to do with the accession process for Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey. You are Slovakia's long-serving former foreign minister and are now an MEP, chairing the delegation for relations with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. What are your expectations of this important meeting?

After the last progress reports [published by the European Commission in October; see EURACTIV 15/10/09], the mood and atmosphere concerning future enlargement is quite positive. Overall, the conclusions from the reports were optimistic. Furthermore, the project of visa-free travel [of which Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia will benefit from 19 December] was a bold initiative toward the countries of the region, which they greatly appreciate. In the European Parliament, we also called for the other countries [Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo] to be included, as soon as they fulfill the criteria. 

For me it was very interesting to see how grateful the countries are for the removal of the visa barrier. I visited Montenegro, I also met Serbian President [Boris] Tadi? in Belgade las summer. At that time, they did not believe that this was going to happen, they were very sceptical, they feared that at the last moment a 'bomb' would explode, preventing the visa-free programme from coming into life. And they were very grateful. Macedonia by the way is the only country which fully fulfills the criteria for visa-free travel. 

But coming back to your question, this good, positive atmosphere is somehow fading away. It was expected that Macedonia would be given a date for beginning its accession negotiations. But things are not developing well, the meeting between [Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola] Gruevski and [Greek Prime Minister George] Papandreou didn't work (see EURACTIV 25/11/09), and also the meeting of Gruevski with [European Commission President José Manuel] Barroso a few days later was not fruitful. 

I personally am sceptical about the possibility that the ministers would set a concrete date for the Macedonia negotiations, which is a pity. I regret it very much and I am seriously concerned that it could backfire badly on the internal political situation in Macedonia. After their experience from the NATO Bucharest summit (see EURACTIV 04/04/08), where Greece vetoed Macedonia's NATO accession, now this could be repeated regarding EU accession. 

I look at the issue quite sceptically, because of the unsolved 'name issue'. We always say that there should be compromise. But I didn't see one millimetre of Greek compromise, they are rejecting every proposal by [UN mediator Matthew] Nimetz, or by Macedonia. 

So you put the blame on Greece?

Well, as a diplomat, I would never say that. But now I'm a member of parliament and I can speak more freely. Yes, I think the Greeks did not contribute their part to the solution. Because we had a very favourable situation for achieving a solution. After the last Greek elections (see EURACTIV 05/10/09), George Papandreou came in charge, and he is the most reasonable Greek politician.

Despite the fact that he is not from your political group… 

Never mind! He was my partner, I know him. When he was minister of foreign affairs, he cooperated very well with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gül, who is now president. So if there is no progress under Papandreou, I really don't know how we can resolve it. Of course we don't know if the Greeks are going to use their veto or not, but as I know them, I think they can easily do it again, and this would spoil the situation in Macedonia. 

I had a discussion with political analysts who told me that the Gruevski government has very strong popular support. This could be used in two directions: either to approve the brave, courageous political decisions on the 'name' issues, or exacerbate nationalism. 

We have seen this already. But we also remember acts by Skopje that antagonised Athens: naming the national airport Alexander the Macedonian, naming European corridor 10 by the same name – this was provocative, don't you think? 

I understand Greeks, they have very deep interest and they can explain it in a very sophisticated way… 

And there is a broad support in Greece for not making compromises over the country's history. Greeks would approve Papandreou if he were to use the veto. 

Of course. Absolutely. But this would destroy a chance which Macedonia has been waiting for five years. 

Are there any external factors that are inducing these countries into this conflict? 

Frankly, I don't think so. I think it's a purely bilateral issue. If I can make a suggestion – as a member of parliament I can speak freely – we need a very high personality, a heavyweight, who would grab by two hands Greeks and Macedonians, and quietly help them reach agreement. 

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tried to do something of the kind (see  EURACTIV 27/11/09 )… 

Yes, he did. But now this is a golden, a unique opportunity for the High Representative, Baroness [Catherine] Ashton, to start her activities. 

But there is a significant chance that she would fail.

It would very risky for her, but otherwise developments will go in the wrong direction. The stakes are high. Any success of any country is a success and encouragement for all countries in the region, but the opposite is also true. 

How about Serbia?

Tadi? was here [in Brussels] this week, I even thought that he was bringing the membership application, but he didn't. Belgrade is still considering when to present the application; therefore he simply came to thank the European institutions for the visa-free travel. He was in parliament and as I understand, the Serbs expect the [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) Chief Prosecutor Serge] Brammertz report to have such wording that would allow the Netherlands to unblock the entry into force of Stabilisation and Association Agreement. 

The report is expected to be more positive than ever, but again, the words 'full cooperation' will be missing. So it would be very much up to the Dutch government to decide. 

It was also interesting to hear Tadi? on Kosovo. He said again that Serbia is not going to recognise Kosovo, but added that his country will not make the situation more dramatic, that they are going to use only diplomatic, political measures. 

Your country Slovakia does not recognise Kosovo either. You are from the opposition, but does the position on Kosovo cross party lines? 

Yes. When the resolution was adopted in the Slovak parliament, five out of six political parties voted 'yes' [against the recognition of Kosovo]. Only the Hungarians abstained. 

How about Turkey? Diplomats said the conclusions of the foreign ministers' meeting will say that there has been progress in some areas, and no progress in others, such as the Ankara Protocol – the fact that Turkey does not allow vessels from Cyprus into its ports and airports. 

I think that the future negotiations will be very difficult and very complicated. We had Turkey's chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bagi?, in parliament, and it was a very lively exchange, with shouting from MEPs, and he proved able to defend his country's positions quite well. But my impression is that the accession negotiations will go very very slowly, in a very complicated way, and the time needed to complete them will be too long. So far only one chapter [out of 35] has been closed, and the negotiations are ongoing for a fourth year… 

Where is Cyprus in the picture?

I was hopeful when the new president [Demetris] Christofias was elected, I know him personally, he is very sincere and wants to push things forward. But gradually he is realising there are some limits which are very difficult to overcome. 

There were more than one hundred amendments to the latest European Parliament resolution on enlargement (see EURACTIV 26/11/09), more than one hundred pages of amendments for a five-page resolution. Why? 

To be precise, there were 194. You know, when I have visitors to the European Parliament and they ask me how the parliament works, I show them these books of amendments. There have been even attempts to introduce amendments during the final debate in plenary. Many of those amendments concerned Macedonia. I don't know what will happen when we will have to discuss a resolution for Macedonia. But this reflects the complicated situation in the Balkans. 

Having said this, I would like to stress that the situation now is better than before. I remember the Thessaloniki EU summit [June 2003, at which the Western Balkans were given assurances for EU accession], the beautiful summer night, everybody came, everybody was welcome. But after, some of our colleagues pretended that nothing had happened in Thessaloniki. And we reminded them that we should be responsible, that we made promises for future European perspective. I'm glad that now everybody says that the Thessaloniki process must go on. This is why I say that the situation now is better than before. 

You remember the Thessaloniki Council, but certainly also Tito's Yugoslavia, before the wars. If this country, rather successful at that time, had applied for EU accession, how long would it have to wait? 

Well, that's a hypothetical question, but I will answer it: maybe just a little bit longer than Iceland. 

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