In an exclusive interview with DW, the president of Germany, Frank Walter Steinmeier, talks about the progress of Albania and North Macedonia towards the EU and casts doubt on the seriousness of Serbia’s journey
Deutsche Welle: MrMr. President, you are traveling to North Macedonia and Albania. The war in Ukraine has created a new dynamic in the Western Balkans and in Europe. Will this war accelerate the process of integration of the Western Balkans into the EU?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: I don’t know if it will speed it up, but my trip aims precisely to signal that the Western Balkans are by no means forgotten. Of course, we have also had debates with colleagues from the Western Balkans, who have expressed their concern that Ukraine’s desire for membership in the European Union will probably be dealt with sooner than all the other candidacies made by the Balkan countries. Western. I understand the impatience, but like many others, I will assure you that the Western Balkans is by no means forgotten. And the trip to North Macedonia and Albania also serves to send a message to the entire region: If they make relevant progress in their countries, then the path to membership in the European Union will become more manageable.
However, the EU does not have a timetable for the Western Balkans. So some countries have set their own dates for when they aim for membership, such as 2030. Will you tell the MPs that this date is realistic when you speak in the parliaments of these countries?
I am President, not a prophet! Therefore, as I said, it depends on the internal will to reform and on the readiness to actually implement the reforms. But today we can argue differently against the countries of the Western Balkans. Because, for example, North Macedonia and Albania have taken decisive steps forward. This strengthens self-confidence in these countries and also makes it clear to others in the Western Balkans region that this step is worthwhile. And let’s not forget that, beyond the issue of membership in the strict sense of the word, progress is also being made during this journey. The Western Balkans Process began many years ago in Berlin. As I remember, it was very difficult at first. But, considering the last summit, then I think that travel with identity cards, mutual recognition of school and university degrees, the willingness of Europeans to help increase the price of energy, are significant advances. So I understand the impatience, no question. But we are not even at the stage where we should talk about discouragement. Not only because of Ukraine, because we are all keeping an eye on the Western Balkans, but also regarding North Macedonia and Albania, where there are steps forward.
The EU expects rapid reforms from the Western Balkans, but also says we must reform ourselves first, before we are ready to accept new members. And how long do you think this might last?
It should be done as soon as possible. But I have to admit that I see no sign at the moment that the European institutions will be reformed anytime soon. Since I have known the European institutions for many years and from the inside, I know that we are in a series of multiple crises, I remember the euro crisis, we remember the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016. As the EU, we had a big challenge with fighting the pandemic. Of course, these were all crises that followed one another rapidly, and as we see now, the pandemic crisis is not over yet, and the war of Russian aggression against Ukraine is a burden on all of us. Such things absorb energy and leave no room in people’s heads for internal reforms, although I agree that they are urgent.
In the Ukraine war, most of the countries of the Western Balkans are showing great solidarity. They are enforcing sanctions against Russia, despite grave concerns about the consequences. The only exception is Serbia, which constantly shows its closeness to Moscow. Does the EU sufficiently reward these stances of solidarity of the countries of the Western Balkans? And how should it behave with Serbia?
To answer the first part of the question, this is one of the reasons why I am in the region now. Because I want to create an impression of the atmosphere there. And I think we’ll probably get a general picture of the atmosphere. That North Macedonia and Albania not only demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine, not only demonstrate a common position, for example, in increasing economic pressure on Russia, but also fulfill their obligations within NATO, in addition, Albania is also represented outside NATO -s, in the UN Security Council, I think he deserves recognition and respect. But this is something that should boost confidence in these countries. If so, I will certainly see this during my journey. And regarding Serbia, so your second question, we are trying to convince Serbia that the path that Serbia is taking now, raises questions about the seriousness with which it is making its journey towards the EU. I have been following the Western Balkans path towards the European Union for almost 20 years and I have often been to Serbia. I am sure that people in Serbia do not want to stay behind the desire, which also comes from other Western Balkan states, to get closer to the European Union and become its members. In this respect, I can hope and will continue to try to convince the political leadership in Serbia to follow this path without hesitation.
Finally, two more words about the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo that was resolved at the last minute. What can Germany and Europe do to really curb this security risk in the region in the long term?
Regarding the conflict, I think this goes with the last question, because the resolution of the conflict has probably shown once again how important Europe is, how important the European Union is in the region. If it were not for this desire towards Europe, then basically Europe would not have negotiating power in such conflicts between Serbia and Kosovo. But since the desire to come to Europe, to once become members of the European Union, is still pronounced in all the countries of the Western Balkans, Europe has this negotiating power, this negotiating opportunity and managed to avoid this conflict , at first glance small, then even the biggest conflicts in the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo must be addressed, and in this sense, resolved peacefully. /DW