By Genc Mlloja
Senior Diplomatic Editor
“The entire continent has surprisingly been unprepared for responding to the corona crisis,” has said the Executive Director of the European Fund for the Balkans (EFB), Aleksandra Tomanic in an exclusive interview with Albanian Daily News during which she explained that EFB is trying to keep up its work, although this is difficult at these times of the pandemic.
Many issues were touched upon during the talk most of which were related to the repercussions of the current global crisis and its impact on the WB, the perspective of region’s EU integration in light of the results of the Zagreb Summit which, as she said, did not mention “enlargement”, “accession” or “EU integration”.
Ms. Tomanic, who took officially the lead of EFB starting from May 6, 2019, considered visa liberalization as the most popular and visible achievement of WB’s citizens in the EU integration drive although it is not formal part of the accession process. “Today, however, there are still Kosovo citizens who have to queue in order to travel to the EU,” she noted.
Among the wide range of issues discussed Ms. Tomanic brought to the attention the upcoming debate on the “Future of Europe” saying that WB can help remember the importance of peace, migration as a very worrisome issue for the whole region etc. EFB Director was pleased to see the existence of regional solidarity and compassion in face of natural disasters like floods, earthquakes and now the coronavirus crisis. “Solidarity, support, help among neighbours! Sometimes it is nice to see that this is followed by state action, too. We have to find ways to finally manage to translate this expressed solidarity into normal, disaster-free times,” said EFB’s Executive Director Aleksandra Tomanic in the following interview:
Albanian Daily News: At the outset let me thank you Ms. Tomanic for this exclusive interview at this challenging and testing time of the fight against the global pandemic which is now on the forefront of everyone’s mind. In this frame it is the interest of ADN’s readers to learn on the European Fund for the Balkans’ way of response to the combat of WB countries against the deadly contagious disease.
EFB’s Director Aleksandra Tomanic: The entire continent has surprisingly been unprepared for responding to the corona crisis. At the forefront is an ad hoc reaction and the necessity to save as many lives as possible. The acute response is a typical state duty and function. Interestingly, we live at times in which all those advocating for small and weak states might lose their arguments. For the time being, all societal actors have to be responsible to people surrounding them, protecting them from ourselves, by using the well-known measures of physical distancing etc. By doing so, we might be able to return to some kind of normal daily routine.
We, the European Fund for the Balkans (EFB), try to keep up our work, although this is difficult, since big parts thereof imply bringing people physically together and travelling. We are continuing the cooperation with our partners in this changed context and preparing for the post-corona era. Just two months before the corona-related lockdowns, the EFB adopted its new strategy, which we have been operationalising over the past weeks. One of our new priority areas is democratisation and the current crisis has unfortunately proved us right, since a focus on democratisation processes seems to be gaining importance.
-The opening of the EU accession talks of Albania and North Macedonia with the Union has coincided with the outbreak of the pandemic. Do you think that the significance of such a decision has been overshadowed by the severity of the current crisis, and secondly is it a test that the EU enlargement process towards WB will continue despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?
-The EU enlargement was not high on the public agenda, in particular in the EU, even before the corona crisis. It is unfortunately also losing popularity throughout the WB. It takes far too long with rather limited concrete results. The most popular and visible one for our region’s citizens was the visa liberalisation, which took place years ago. Today, however, there are still Kosovo citizens who have to queue in order to travel to the EU. Although the Visa liberalisation process was not formal part of the accession process, it was helpful to generate enthusiasm for it. The lack of tangible results and progress led to disappointment and fatigue on all sides. The non-decision of last autumn led to a winter of big debates resulting in a new methodology by the European Commission, now even adopted by the Council. This adoption, as well as the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, was certainly a positive signal, one that could have been even interpreted as a sign that the enlargement policy crisis has been overcome.
But, unfortunately, the EU-WB summit in Zagreb did not deliver on this. There are no further concrete steps announced for the two countries, there is no plan for the next summit of this kind, although the new methodology envisages more political high-level meetings. There is no mention of “enlargement”, “accession” or “EU integration”, although optimists try to explain that the term “EU perspective” has the same gravitas. The solidarity in fighting the corona crisis, as well as the announcement of an economic and investment plan for the region this autumn are absolutely positive developments, but they are not directly linked to the accession process. I also don´t agree that the sole fact that the summit took place at all is a reason for satisfaction. We should not be this minimalistic. Of course, without the current crisis overshadowing everything globally, all of these issues would be subject to deeper discussion and greater public attention.
-Do you think, Ms. Director, that there will be different ‘speeds’ for the four WB aspirant countries in their path towards the Union?
-Having “different speeds” suggests that we have a speed to begin with. Although I completely agree that we need quality of the process and of the implemented reforms, I would still like to see mechanisms that keep the process alive and credible. Montenegro has been negotiating for 8 years and has only closed 3 chapters provisionally, with 32 open. Serbia’s negotiations have been ongoing since late 2015 and it has opened only 18 of 35 chapters. So, if we get back to having any speed at all, potentially different speeds will not be our biggest problem. It will be interesting to see whether we will face different methodologies, though. Montenegro and Serbia began their negotiations under a different framework in comparison to the one the new negotiating countries are facing, and will be free to decide if they want to join the new methodology.
It is interesting to look at the results side of the process. Both Montenegro and Serbia have dropped in international rankings concerning media freedom or state of democracy. What we see is a contrast between the reality on the ground and the level of the countries’ advancement, as many experts have been pointing out for a while now. The discussion about the new methodology should be used to find ways to render the process operational again, not only technically, but in terms of substance. We have a process that does not prevent state capture, political polarisation and illiberal tendencies, while it is still kept alive and moving, albeit very slowly. It is quite normal to see “fatigue” on both sides.
Therefore, I am convinced that a very clear wording and naming and if you will – honesty – would be very conducive to the whole process. At least the ruling decision- makers could not hide behind the EU accession process while, in fact, using it to consolidate their power, which is exactly what we have witnessed over the past. We will have elections in a number of countries in the coming months and the question is very simple – what happens if countries cannot guarantee free and fair elections, being not only the basis for a democracy, but also an important part of the Copenhagen political criteria.
-Let me turn, please, to the Berlin Process. How much has this Process delivered and to what extent has it met the expectations set out when it was launched in 2014?
-The EFB has been involved very actively since the beginning of the Berlin process – playing a crucial role in establishing the Civil Society Forum, before it became an integral part of the Process itself, or setting up and running the homepage with all relevant information about the Berlin Process. The Berlin Process was initiated in 2014 by German Chancellor Merkel after then President of the EC Juncker announced that there would be no enlargement under his mandate, and something had to be done in form of damage control. It was good to have a high-level initiative in that situation. Some great results have been achieved, such as the establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) or the Western Balkans Fund (WBF). Annual high-level meetings with accompanying civil society, youth, business and think tank fora have kept regional cooperation on the high-level political agenda. All regional processes and formats are complementary to the EU integration process, but if 2020 really brings the EU accession process back on track, we should direct all available resources into its quality for concrete and tangible results and substance. EU accession is a challenging and demanding process for a society in transformation.
At the same time, the Regional Cooperation Council could take over all substantial matters from the Berlin Process’ agenda. Maybe we’ll manage to achieve that all countries of the region are represented on an equal footing within the RCC, too.
-As head of the EFB for one year now which are some of the most problematic problems addressed by your institution in WB and which will be your commitments and new dimensions of its performance among which I want to highlight the issue of region’s Europeanisation which has been labelled in the past as the ‘powder keg’ of Europe?
-To be frank, I don´t like this black/white painting of our region as a “powder keg” that needs to be “Europeanised”. Neither war nor conflict have been invented here. Look throughout history at how many terrible wars were fought across our continent. Europe has been free of wars only since 1945. Unfortunately, in some post-Yugoslav states there lacked wisdom to stay part of that achievement. But because of that, today we have the experience and vivid memory of wars and its horrors that could help the EU remember the fact that the Union was initially a peace project. In the upcoming debate about the “Future of Europe”, our region can help remember the importance of peace.
The EU integration process used to be a strong transformation mechanism. Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore. Montenegro and Serbia are two of the negotiating countries that have ceased being democracies, according to the 2020 Freedom House Report. All countries in the region are now seen as “hybrid regimes”. We dropped in international rankings concerning media freedom, human rights, and corruption. The European Commission speaks of state capture in its documents. All this has led to the erosion of trust between citizens and their governments, and a deep division. We have to become actively involved in issues important for the society we live in, we have to change the division between us and the state. The state is our state. Furthermore, we need a different narrative. Politicians here mainly speak about people, and we are already happy when they happen to call us citizens. You can see that politicians in established and developed democracies speak with respect of voters, and to a lesser extent, but with even more respect, of taxpayers. Language is important, it shows where the power lies. And despite international reports, our constitutional orders in this region (still) represent democracies, so we are the voters, we are the sovereign. Our activities will try to support the very diverse set-up of listed challenges.
– Which is EFB’s contribution to promote regional cooperation spirit, especially among people and youth, to prevail over the conflicting atmosphere?
-The European Fund for the Balkans is a regional organisation. Regional cooperation in all its facets is at the core of all our activities. We have worked with students, civil servants, think tanks, civil society, academics. Some programmes have changed over time, others have been stopped for the time being. But our work with all of them continues in one way or another, as they all form parts of our precious EFB community.
Our outstanding experts gathered around the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) – which we have established jointly with the Center for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz – will continue contributing to better understanding through knowledge within and outside our region. The new paper dealing with the pandemic in the Western Balkans was published just recently. We are part of the Social dimension of enlargement Initiative, which focus will gain even more importance in future, I believe.
Finally, we are adding a new dimension to our work, focusing on bottom-up democratisation processes throughout the region. Within this area we want to help create joint knowledge and understanding about the future of the region, putting citizens’ needs and demands at the forefront. We believe that a common ground must be found among all societal actors – active citizens and civic initiatives, academia, civil society organizations – about the fact that the future of our region as a whole depends on genuine reforms of all societies.
-Which are besides the current health crisis some of the most worrisome concerns of the people of WB countries, especially of youth, making them leave their countries in search of new opportunities in Europe, US and Canada?
-Migration indeed was a very worrisome issue for the whole region. Dusan Reljic from the SWP calculated that in 2018 one person was leaving the Western Balkans region towards the EU every two minutes. Adding the US and Canada as further destinations as you implied, we would get to an even worse ratio. We will see whether the expected global economic crisis will reverse this trend in the near future, which, in turn, could increase poverty rates.
A number of polls in the past have shown that people were leaving the region because of a variety of reasons. However, economic reasons are certainly at the top of the list. Looking at high unemployment rates, with youth unemployment rates consistently higher than overall unemployment (according to Eurostat, hardly anywhere in the region below 30%), or poverty and at risk of poverty rates (according to Eurostat, AROPE was over 20% in all countries). Another reason, particularly for young people, has to do with realistic career perspectives based on their knowledge and skills, rather than their party membership. Additional reasons include lacking access to education, justice and – today more important than ever – health care. People are leaving because they long for a proper statewhich, unfortunately, they can hardly find at home. State capture is an agreed fact by now. Today, facing the pandemic, we see the consequences clearer than ever and live the danger of an absence of responsibility and of checks and balances. And if we get back to the abovementioned speed of the EU accession process – it is not so much about speed, as it is about hope. Without hope of change, people will leave.
-To conclude, Ms.Tomanic, do you see any signs of solidarity of the Western Balkan countries in response to the global pandemic, and concretely have the existing regional bodies and initiatives activated in this respect?
-We have witnessed the existence of regional solidarity and compassion. The floods of 2014 have shown this, later the reaction to the earthquake in Albania 2019, and also the reaction to the earthquake in Zagreb just a few weeks ago. Solidarity, support, help among neighbours. Sometimes it is nice to see that this is followed by state action, too. We have to find ways to finally manage to translate this expressed solidarity into normal, disaster-free times.
Solidarity is also visible among citizens who actively engage and organise themselves in their neighbourhoods, people coming together to fight for their rivers, their parks, their cities. Throughout the region, we see great examples of people completely overcoming ethnic narratives and divisions and recognising themselves as citizens, as constituents. In Tetovo (North Macedonia) Albanians and Macedonians fought and succeeded in their demands for clean air for their city. In Strpce (Kosovo), Serbs and Albanians jointly fight to preserve their rivers from destruction by small hydro plants, and similar examples can be found in Bosnia, too. There are great examples of citizens’ movements and initiatives in both Albania and Serbia. Last winter, there were citizens’ gatherings demanding better air quality in many cities across the region, on the same day. This is the solidarity we need – the realization that despite all narratives and borders, we share the same problems, and that perhaps we would solve them easier if we did it together.