Fabio Massimo Castaldo during a plenary session in the European Parliament © martinbertrand.fr/Shutterstock

Fabio Massimo Castaldo during a plenary session in the European Parliament © martinbertrand.fr/Shutterstock

"The Western Balkans are not and must never be a defeated periphery of the West, but they are and must remain the beating heart of the present and future of the great European family". Interview with Fabio Massimo Castaldo, Vice President of the European Parliament

19/05/2021 -  Paolo Bergamaschi

The enlargement process seems to have come to a standstill: is it just a temporary situation or a definitive stop?

I would rule out a stop or even a temporary setting aside, but would rather talk of slowness and imperfections of a historic process that cannot but go on if the European ideal of the EU Founding Fathers is to be truly realised.

Of course, the process of enlargement of the European Union to the Western Balkans has suffered several setbacks in recent years, and even what seemed to be positive turning points have not been able to live up to the promises made and the ambitions expressed. I am thinking mainly of the European Council of October 2019, which raised so many expectations and then ended up in the unshakeable veto of France, Denmark, and the Netherlands on the opening of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. I believe that this was one of the moments in which the bank, that is the credibility of the European perspective for the Western Balkans, was closest to breaking. It took the diplomatic efforts of nine countries, with Italy in the front row thanks to the work of then Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, to find back unity of purpose among the EU member states and to reassure Tirana and Skopje on the fact that this impasse would not be insurmountable. Following mediations between the positions of the "intransigent" group and that of the "possibilists", a new methodology was developed that increases the credibility of the enlargement process, rationalising the negotiating chapters and enclosing them in clusters, as well as the predictability of both parties through a system that "rewards" the efforts made by individual countries, and a set of measures aimed at sanctioning situations of serious and persistent stagnation, or even retreat, with respect to the achievement of the objectives set, also through reduction of allocated funds.

I believe that this new methodology, which is applied by default to Albania and North Macedonia and, at their request, also to Montenegro and Serbia, can really speed up the accession process. It seems clear that, contrary to what the European Commission affirmed in 2018, 2025 no longer is a credible time horizon, but, at least from the side of the EU institutions, we may have taken the right path. What will be needed, however, is a serious and coherent political commitment on the part of EU member states, especially some who have sometimes appeared too inclined to indulge in mere tactical considerations of an internal electoral nature: the search for cheap consensus in the short term is often a harbinger of very serious damage that is very damaging in the medium and long term.

It is necessary to abandon the logic of interest linked merely to the economic dimension or to centuries-old disputes that do not find any effective confirmation in the contemporary world. Therefore, negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia need to be opened as soon as possible, and that progress should also be made with Belgrade and Podgorica. This does not erase the fact that on the side of the Balkan countries many other efforts will be needed on all aspects, from fundamental principles to the economy, from the adoption of a more sustainable production model to alignment with the Union's foreign policy. These efforts, however, must be made within the framework of a credible enlargement process that leads to tangible results, just as required by the new methodology. Only in this way will it be possible to implement what is hoped for by the Union institutions, the European Parliament in the lead, and by the many Member States that strongly and unambiguously support the access of the Western Balkan states to the Union.

Do you think there could be a plan B in Brussels that no longer provides for the full inclusion of the Western Balkans in the EU, contrary to what these countries were promised in 2003 at the Thessaloniki summit?

In my opinion, there cannot be and must not be any Plan B alternative to full membership of the Western Balkans within the European Union. As recalled by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in her Speech on the State of the Union in 2020, the EU and the Western Balkans not only share the same history, but also the same destiny. This destiny is based on pooling resources and values, and on making common decisions for the collective interest: the Western Balkans are not and should never be a defeated periphery of the West, but are and must remain the beating heart of the present and the future of the great European family.

For years the processes of tightening and enlargement of the EU have been cited and used in antithesis. Supporters of the former often oppose the latter. Do you think it is possible to both reform and enlarge the EU?

Greater integration between the 27 current Member States on various areas of competences and political issues or enlargement to candidate and potential candidate countries? This has often been presented as a dilemma without an apparent solution. In my opinion, the whole debate is based on an erroneous assumption, namely that enlargement can somehow prevent greater integration. The fallacy of this assumption is demonstrated by history itself. In fact, together with and following the various "waves" of enlargement – among which the most conspicuous remains that of 2004 with 10 new member countries, many of which belong to the ex-communist space and had emerged only a few years earlier from a state model based on authoritarian democracy and a strongly centralised economy – we have witnessed a progressive transfer of sovereignty from nation states to the supranational level represented by the EU. Think, for example, of what is regarded by many as the absolute prerogative of nation states, namely defense. To date we have the Common Security and Defense Policy, the CSDP, which is a fundamental pillar of the external action of the Union and, therefore, of its Member States, thus ensuring peace and stability in the European neighbourhood such as, for example, through the ALTHEA mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina which contributed to the strengthening of state institutions in an extremely volatile and complex context such as the one designed by the Dayton Accords. Of course, much remains to be done to achieve true European integration in this and other sectors, but it is clear that countless steps forward have been made since 2004, which make me more optimistic than pessimistic.

Furthermore, we must never forget that European integration is based on a project of continental peace, stability, and prosperity, and for these reasons the process cannot but involve as soon as possible the countries of the Western Balkans, as we share not only the geographical proximity, but also history, values, ​​and millenary traditions. Enlargement can undoubtedly increase the complexity of adopting a more supranational model, but at the same time it increases the diversity of the EU. Our motto is “united in diversity”: we cannot be afraid of fully implementing it. Indeed, the accession of new countries could provide the necessary momentum to open, during the Conference on the Future of Europe, that process of reforms of the functioning of the Union which is so much needed, also to meet the historical contingencies of contemporaneity, from the fight against the pandemic and other pressing threats such as climate change and environmental deterioration that require multilateral and global responses, to the increasingly open and all-out confrontation between democratic models and authoritarian paradigms that threatenly looms on the horizon.

It is a fact that European uncertainties in the Balkans have turned this region into an area of ​​geopolitical competition. Russia, China, and Turkey are filling the void left by Europe. Is it still possible to reverse the trend and if so what should the EU do?

In recent years, and also thanks to the partial European inaction on some aspects, other regional and international actors have placed the Western Balkans at the centre of their geopolitical agenda with the aim of increasing their influence in the region. Among these actors there are countries that have always had a high influence on regional dynamics due to historical, traditional, and religious ties, such as Russia – traditionally a champion of panslavism and orthodoxy – and Turkey, seduced by the recovery of its projection of the Ottoman era, or that have recently included it in their own spaces of geopolitical interest, such as the Persian Gulf States – mainly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – starting with support for the mujahideen in the wars of 90s, but, above all, China. Regardless of whether they can also count on "traditional" factors or not, all these actors are trying to increase their geopolitical status in the region through two methods that we could define as "proactive" and "destructive". The proactive method is based on substantial direct investments in multiple sectors, which always create economic dependencies, but only sometimes bring real benefits to local populations. The destructive approach, on the other hand, is based on the dissemination of false news and the setting up of real disinformation campaigns aimed at discrediting the West (understood as the EU and, in some cases, NATO and the United States) as a partner which is unreliable, morally decadent, disinterested, and unable to keep the commitments made, while glorifying the initiatives implemented by the "instigator" of the disinformation campaign itself.

Surely the distractions of the EU have culpably left them too much free rein. In the last 15 years, the financial resources and, above all, the political energy that the Union could have allocated to enlargement have been drained by four major crises: the economic and financial crisis of 2008-2009, the sovereign debt crisis of 2011, the migration risis of 2013-2015 and, finally, the pandemic that has afflicted the whole world and Europe since February 2020. In each of these crises, the perception of the Balkan countries was that of partial disinterest and abandonment by the EU, or they were even blamed for contributing to the problem, especially for the migration crisis. This situation has left very large room for maneuver to third parties wishing to increase their influence in the Western Balkans, that have pursued their geopolitical interests. For reasons of temporal proximity, it is sufficient to look at what has happened and is happening with the distribution of coronavirus vaccines. With the EU unable or, in any case, very late to provide sufficient doses, and as the Western Balkans were not considered in the negotiations carried out by the European Commission with individual pharmaceutical companies, the Balkan countries found themselves forced to rely on to the international Covax initiative, also very late, or to privately negotiate purchases, with all the difficulties involved. At this stage they have found powerful allies willing to support them, such as Russia and China (but not only, for example Turkey sent Chinese vaccines to Albania) that have sent hundreds of thousands of doses of the "national" vaccines, namely Sputnik V and Sinovac, catching the opportunity to remind the political authorities and local populations how timely and superior their support was, whereas the EU only vaccinated its own population, leaving the Balkan countries out despite promising to treat them as "privileged partners". Basically, public opinion had the feeling of being citizens not of a future EU member state, but rather of a third country... not to say "fourth".

However, reversing this trend is not only possible, but also necessary. On the practical side and in terms of the distribution of anti-coronavirus vaccines, to give a concrete example, the EU has recently allocated 70 million Euros to facilitate the "scale-up" in the vaccination campaigns of individual Balkan countries, and has made available 651,000 doses of the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine, about half of which has already been delivered. These numbers already exceed the supplies sent by other third parties, demonstrating once again that the EU is the first and most effective partner of the countries of the region. In addition to concrete initiatives, it will also be necessary to combat the spread of fake news and disinformation campaigns, and the EU has already developed a strategy on this point. The most important point, however, will be linked to the ability to give the Western Balkans a concrete European perspective, making full use of the potential offered by the new enlargement methodology. As mentioned above, greater political commitment will be required from EU member states, but I am convinced that as soon as this materialises we will be able to proceed with the negotiations for the access of individual countries in a much faster and more effective way compared to the past.

I would also like to add that the EU cannot and must not play the game with third parties in the region according to the rules they would like to impose, otherwise it will surely be defeated. The Union must continue to propose its own model, which is what distinguishes it from others, based on an offer that goes beyond the mere economic aspect, but presents a holistic set of tools that no other actor has. The entire European project is based on respect for human rights, the rule of law, good governance practices and, above all, on the promise to be part of something greater, of a political project unique in the world. The path towards the EU, unlike what can be said about the creation of interdependencies with Russia and China, is not a zero-sum game, but the construction of a community based on common values ​​and from which everyone will benefit.

What is your opinion on the ghost document by Slovenian Prime Minister Jansa which hypothesises to redraw the borders of the Balkan countries along ethno-national lines to resolve the pending disputes in the region? Don't you think that talking about Greater Serbia, Greater Albania, and Greater Croatia means turning back the clock of history and denying the values ​​on which the EU itself is founded?

To date, there are no official confirmations on the existence of this document. However, if the existence of this proposal were to be proven, we would be faced with a considerable alarm bell. Due to the situation in which Bosnia and Herzegovina finds itself, a fragmentation along ethnic lines, with borders difficult to identify given the complex mosaic of ethnicities, cultures, and religions that distinguishes the country, would expose us to the concrete risk of reopening old wounds that are not yet cured. It is certainly true that the provisions of the Dayton Accords may be partially obsolete today, just as the limits of the agreement itself have always been known, but one cannot think of cancelling it and plunging back into a pre-1995 situation. The Dayton Agreements, or the new treaties that will become necessary, must certainly be improved in order not to repeat the same mistakes of the past and not to reach the same impasse again, but this cannot be done through a new partition and division of territories in the name of ideologies that can revive old nationalisms.

That said, it is important to stress that the future of the Western Balkans cannot be decided at a table by anyone, but the peoples of the Balkan countries themselves must determine their own future. Surely the EU, the Member States, and their representatives must refrain from paternalistic attitudes and from believing that they have a ready and easy recipe in hand that they believe would bring improvements to the region. This is a mindset of the past, which has already done a lot of harm to the region, and which can no longer be accepted and revived for any reason.

For more than a year Miroslav Lajcak has been special envoy of High Representative Josep Borrell for the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. No substantial progress has been made to date. The dialogue, however, cannot go on indefinitely. Mutual recognition should be the ultimate goal, but European negotiators avoid the topic. Don't you think that the EU, in case of failure, will lose face?

Certainly the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina is a sine qua non for a stabilisation of the entire region that is sustainable and lasting and, therefore, also for the prospects of EU enlargement. It is therefore true that this is a point of primary importance and that a failure of the negotiations is not acceptable, but I believe that the Union has shown all its interest and proactive spirit in the recent past. Think of the Union's actions when Kosovo and Serbia were about to reach an agreement under the leadership of the United States and President Trump, who was certainly more interested in electoral returns than in the effective normalisation of relations as demonstrated by the contents of the draft of understanding. At that moment the Union made full use of all its soft-power to reaffirm its central role as a negotiator between the parties, making it clear that what matters is not the speed with which the agreement will be reached (although the slow negotiation is starting to become exhausting), but its contents. Therefore, I would not speak of an immobile EU on the subject.

What is apparent, however, is that it is not enough to supervise negotiations, we must also give them substance and here we should improve. The primary need to give legitimacy to the Union's role as broker of the agreement is the recognition of Kosovo's independence by the five EU Member States which, for one reason or another, have not yet done so, namely Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain. Kosovo wants to establish itself as a state, and it is shouting it to the world also through the transformation of the Kosovo Security Force from a civilian security force, as it should remain according to the 1999 agreements, into a real defense force with a military framework. We cannot continue to ignore this popular will, and we should do everything in our power to facilitate the recognition of Pristina as an independent state authority. This requires internal diplomatic action for the EU to convince the five member states mentioned above, and greater commitment to facilitate bilateral dialogue between the two countries, without however replacing them in any way.

The Conference on the Future of Europe opened on May 9. The European Parliament asked to identify the most appropriate instruments to include the six Western Balkan countries in the conference. Do you have any suggestions or proposals in this regard? Will the EP take any initiatives if the request is not accepted?

I was among the very first, and unfortunately among the few, to denounce this serious shortcoming and to ask loudly that the six countries of the Western Balkans be included in the process from the early stages of the conference, precisely because I entertain the firm conviction that they are neither simple neighbours or useful partners, but the future members of the EU and, therefore, it is only right to make them fully involved and protagonists of the discussions on the future of the large family they will join. Specifically, and in the face of the difficulties encountered in the inclusion of national authorities and political leaders, we pushed for the inclusion of representatives of civil society and, above all, of young people. This would also be a necessary step to give a voice to the thousands and thousands of young people who dream of a European future in each of the six Balkan countries. But that's not enough: their MPs should also be represented in the plenary of the Conference, at least as observers.

Yet, it is not yet clear if and to what extent these requests will be accepted: I will continue to try to raise awareness among colleagues to exert the greatest possible pressure on the Executive Board and especially on the Council, which confirms itself, once more, the organ of conservation and political myopia, in the face of a much more ambitious, sensitive, and courageous European Parliament. The moment of reflection connected to the Conference will last a year: we cannot and must not miss yet another opportunity to counter the dangerous narrative of disinterest, which could soon lead to a real "abandonment syndrome".

In the debate on relations for Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Serbia last March you were the only Italian MEP to speak. From Alexander Langer to Marco Pannella, there is a long Italian tradition of commitment to the Balkans in Europe. Was it just a coincidence or is there unfortunately a manifest lack of interest on the part of today's Italian MEPs in a region that Italian diplomacy has always looked upon with special attention?

There and then, during the debate, I did not even realise it. But when it was pointed out to me, I realised that unfortunately this is not a coincidence: it is symptomatic of an Italian political debate, translated to the Brussels latitudes, decidedly and unfortunately concentrated on its own national, not to say Roman navel, of a ruling class that, with laudable exceptions (such as the Interparliamentary Conference organised by President Fassino in the Chamber of Deputies on April 26 2021, in which I actively participated with great pleasure together with Minister Di Maio), has lost the compass of Italian strategic projection and the inherent potential in a more coherent and systemic action of parliamentary diplomacy, both in the European framework and at the bilateral level. We still have many arrows in our bow in the region, both political and economic, commercial and cultural, but perhaps not the political will to invest time and resources in learning how to nock them correctly.

Yet, at the government level, the attention paid has produced positive and concrete results, and it is safe to say that this has even intensified in recent years. As proof of this, it is enough to mention the great commitment that Italy has always shown within the various intergovernmental initiatives formed over the past two decades, namely the Central-European Initiative (InCE), the Adriatic-Ionian Initiative (IAI), and the so-called Berlin Process. All of these fora ensure concrete and continuous support for the reform processes of the Western Balkans, both through bilateral initiatives and with a regional dimension, and are a sort of intermediate step on the path towards EU membership of individual states. Too often we forget that the first two fora are based in Italy, respectively in Trieste and Ancona, two cities that perfectly embody the common spirit and traditions shared between continental, Mediterranean, and Balkan Europe that are joined in the common project of the European Union. And it was thanks to the efforts of Italy that North Macedonia's entry into the EUSAIR was achieved, which took place at the Catania Summit in May 2018 – a step capable of contributing to the relaxation of relations between Skopje and Athens and fostering the dynamic that led to the successful outcome of the Prespa Accords, overcoming the long-standing dispute over the name and allowing the country to join NATO.

Similarly, in the context of the Berlin Process, the results of the 2017 Trieste Summit allowed the creation of the South-Eastern European Transport Community, a fundamental step to ensure integration in the transport sector and prepare the inclusion of Western Balkans in the Trans-European Transport Network project. This proactive attitude is added to that already mentioned above regarding the previous government's commitment to overcoming the impasse created following the European Council in October 2019.

These are all important results, which should spur us to believe more in our potential and in our role, because the natural inclination, esteem, and sympathy that Italy enjoys, also thanks to the extraordinary work of our cooperation since the 1990s, is a necessary but not sufficient condition to become a point of reference on their journey towards integration, a strategic objective for both them and us. For my part, I will always promote a different parliamentary approach in this sense, with all those who want to collaborate in a serious and concrete way, and not propaganda and instrumental, regardless of political affiliation. Because a united, democratic, sovereign, and federal Europe will always be incomplete without our six siblings on the other side of the Adriatic.

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