The EU needs to move “as soon as possible” from a wait-and-see approach to a problem-solving strategy in dealing with enlargement and the Western Balkans, Slovenian Foreign Minister Anže Logar told EURACTIV in an interview about the priorities for his country’s upcoming EU Council presidency.
“In recent years, the strategy of the EU towards the Western Balkan was a wait-and-see-approach, with the bloc not being too active in the region vis a vis reform stalemate,” Logar said, acknowledging that in the past decade, enlargement “has fallen off the EU’s agenda”.
“We know that what happened is that third parties entered the region, some started to perform their strategic interests and this shows the vulnerability of the region for the EU, it is strategically dangerous,” Logar said.
His comments could be seen as an indirect reference to China and Russia’s vaccine and mask diplomacy in the height of the pandemic, which has raised eyebrows in Europe over their intentions in the region.
“If we [the EU] don’t fill the vacuum in the Western Balkans, our immediate neighbourhood, someone else will. […] In that sense, it is in our best strategic interest to act as soon as possible and to integrate these countries into the EU,” he added.
“What we want to change is to go from the EU’s problem-oriented strategy towards a problem-solving strategy,” Logar said, explaining that this would involve thinking about how to encourage and force governments to speed up reforms.
He stressed that the enlargement process “has to be viable, and those countries should be sure that if they fulfil certain goals, the next step, enlargement, will come for them”, adding that this would especially refer to candidate countries Albania and North Macedonia.
Both countries’ accession hopes hit a brick wall in 2019 after France and the Netherlands vetoed the start of membership talks over their lack of reform progress on improving democracy and fighting corruption.
The start of Skopje’s’s accession talks was then blocked by EU member Bulgaria in 2020 due to disputes over common history, national identity, and language.
Bulgaria’s decision was backed by all political parties in the country, and the current caretaker government has so far not changed that position. A new parliament after early elections due in July, could change the stakes.
In May, the EU Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi had proposed to decouple both and only move forward with Albania, but Logar said Slovenia was “firmly against decoupling”.
“Both countries fulfil the criteria that were posed to them by the EU and as the bloc is based on the rule of law and the same measure for all, both should proceed to the next stage.”
“We still hope that the agreement will be possible during this week under the Portuguese presidency,” Logar added. Portugal’s six-month stint ends on 30 June.
Slovenia is set to organise an informal Western Balkans summit with EU and regional leaders in October.
“We also want to include the voice of fellow citizens from countries of the Western Balkans into the future of Europe debate”, Logar said.
Earlier this year, a series of unofficial diplomatic notes suggested border changes in the Balkans, which rocked the region and raised fears of renewed ethnic tensions in the south-eastern corner of Europe.
Asked about the so-called non-papers, Logar reiterated that Slovenia firmly supports the territorial integrity of the Western Balkans, something he said he had addressed with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s foreign minister during a recent encounter.
Logar said the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina would present the most challenging issue in the region and he would put “great hope” into the work of the new EU High Representative, Christian Schmidt, who recently succeeded Valentin Inzko in the role.
Logar explained that before tackling Bosnia, “we should solve some other of the regional issue in order to prove that we can achieve results”.
“If we start with North Macedonia and Albania, and if there is advancement in the Belgrade-Pristina process, this will definitely send a very positive message to the region and with this, we might in the end approach more effectively Bosnia,” he added.
Asked about what prospects he sees for Serbia-Kosovo relations, Logar said “it’s difficult to say where the path in negotiations will go”, but the nomination of EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajčak has shown that the EU has not put the matter on the backburner.
Last week, the EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell unveiled a 14-page-proposal for a new strategy on EU-Russia relations, detailing how to “push back, constrain and engage” with Moscow, though diplomats say it could be difficult to agree on a joint position between the EU27 any time soon.
Asked how he sees EU-Russia relations developing during his country’s presidency, Logar acknowledged that “relations are indeed not very good”.
“The EU should speak vocally with a single voice and prior to the next steps, we should have a thorough discussion on where we stand,” he said.
“During my visit to Moscow, I expressed my expectation that especially the fourth and the fifth principle – cooperation on the fields with a common interest like climate change and people-to-people relations – should be used in great scale,” he added.
Asked whether he would be satisfied with the EU’s current sanctions policy, Logar said “one cannot be satisfied with the result”, which is why EU leaders should revisit and discuss the matter more closely.
“If you ask me whether we punch above or below our weight, the answer is that our common intention – of Mr Borrell, our leaders and ministers – is that we punch above our weight, but we still have to arrive there,” he said.
On China, Logar said the pandemic “has shown and proved that we’ve become too dependent on Beijing”.
“There is an imbalance between EU member states in regard to their foreign trade with China and there are different views on the importance of relations, which within the EU should be put on an equal footing,” he added.