Interview/IBNA-Ditmir Bushati: EU leaders seem to have forgotten their decision at 2003 summit in Thessaloniki

Interview/IBNA-Ditmir Bushati: EU leaders seem to have forgotten their decision at 2003 summit in Thessaloniki

Former Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati, in an exclusive interview with IBNA, talks about the Greek-Albanian relations, the accession negotiations and EU enlargement, changing of the borders, the presence of external actors in the Balkans, the use of history in foreign policy but also his political future.

Mr. Minister you are one of the few who knows so well and in-depth Albania’s accession to the EU. What factors contributed to the delay in the start of accession negotiations.

Nowadays it is difficult to say whether the fact that I know this process in-depth is an advantage or not, due to the pace of the EU accession process in our region. EU accession process of the Western Balkan countries is characterized by ambiguity and halfway commitments. This has been clearly demonstrated especially after the financial crisis of 2008. Since then, EU Western Balkans relations have rarely been on a path of economic convergency and fast Europeanisation. These two components are clearly interlinked. They are indispensable for the real transformation of Western Balkans towards the EU membership.

Your question reminds me the recommendations of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato in 2006. The question at the time was no longer “What should be done with the Balkans?”, but rather “Which were the right policy tools for the Balkans to catch up with the rest of Europe and to be brought into the EU”. It is precisely this element that is lacking if one analyzes the way how EU is dealing with the Western Balkans. Instead of speaking about the “European perspective”, it is time to work about the “EU membership”, avoiding the plain language for ordinary citizens. Let’s not forget that the EU strategic interest overlap in a way or another also with those of the Western Balkans.

In conclusion if I have to make a wish list for 2021, I would like to see the start of the EU accession journey for Albania and North Macedonia, which is long overdue; visa free regime for Kosovo; new rhythm and quality in the EU accession process of Montenegro and Serbia; the Economic Investment Plan that has been adopted by EU should be made contingent upon respect for democracy, rule of law, as well as benchmarks in priority areas. The above-mentioned steps would create new dynamics in the relations between EU end Western Balkans.

Bulgaria’s opposition to the start of negotiations for North Macedonia, for historical differences also affects the European perspective of Albania. Do you believe it is possible to separate the accession process of the two countries? How can this decision affect the EU’s further enlargement policy in the Western Balkans?

Although theoretically speaking enlargement process is based on the so-called “regatta principle”, this debate was quite present two years ago, where there have been voices supporting a faster EU accession process of North Macedonia. Nowadays we have a potential opposite scenario, separating Albania from North Macedonia.  We expect to see our neighbors that are part of EU to be actively in favor and to show political wisdom in this process.  Bringing bilateral issues in the EU accession process seriously puts into question mark the credibility of the enlargement process for the entire region. The revision of the enlargement methodology should be accompanied with a more cohesive approach and more coherent actions from the EU institutions and EU member states. Integrating the Western Balkan countries into the EU would be a step towards achieving the EU’s finalité. Ultimately, it would imply that the project of European integration has consolidated into a concrete political space with a precise boundary on a continental scale.

The historical differences between the Balkan countries have largely determined both the policy of the states and their bilateral relations. Is it normal in the 21st century for history to determine politics? How do you think we can avoid tensions and shape a common and peaceful future in the Balkans?

Your question reminds me a wise man who happened to be also a colleague for many years, Nikos Kotzias. He was often reminding us, foreign ministers, at different fora’s that “we should not be prisoners of history”. It is true that history and geography are key elements in shaping the foreign policy. However, for foreign policy practitioners, it is not sufficient to pose the national positions based on historical exigencies. We cannot rewrite the history, but we can create a conducive environment in order to overcome the bilateral disputes. For instance, in the case of “Prespa Agreement”, both countries Greece and North Macedonia decided to overcome the bilateral dispute which cleared the path for the NATO membership of North Macedonia and hopefully also for the EU accession process.

The Balkans is a region where powerful powers are competing to develop their influence. US, Russia, China, EU have turned their attention to the region. Does this interest ultimately help the area?

The Southeast Europe has always been a chess board of geopolitical competition. However, we should not make the mistake of putting all powerful actors into the same basket. The influence of non-Western political actors in the region has come to be among the most frequently invoked arguments and, as it seems, one of the main drivers for the EU engagement with the region.

The US has been working hand in hand with the EU when it comes to the democratization and transformation agenda of our region. The US role has been particularly instrumental for the NATO membership of some of the Western Balkan countries. Security wise, US role in the region remains indispensable.

On the other hand, the non-Western powerful actors are quite present recently through “vaccine diplomacy” and “debt diplomacy”. They have their influence in the region too. Their political and economic weight can’t match with that of the EU. However, the EU should clearly identify the activities of external actors, in their conduct with the Western Balkan countries, that contradict EU values and standards, name these effects and hold governments accountable for violating their commitments to EU rules. At the same time, the EU should include Western Balkan countries in its strategies towards China and Russia and in the EU’s approach to the Near East, the Gulf region and other areas of ongoing conflicts.

Does the change of borders that has come to the fore recently through a “non-paper” frighten you or is it considered a development that could, under certain circumstances, release the lurking tension?

At a 2003 summit in Thessaloniki, EU leaders took the far-sighted strategic decision to offer membership of the Union to the entire region. Unfortunately, EU leaders seem to have forgotten it. The flow of non-papers with non-authors on redrawing the current borders is a direct consequence of the fact that the enlargement process has stalled; the integration framework for the region has weakened. The socio-economic entropy, the demographic threat and the democratic backsliding in the Western Balkans cannot be addressed by embracing 19th century ideas in the context of 21st century.

Let us focus a little on the idea of the unification of Albania and Kosovo. Why should such an idea be implemented, as at first glance there is the impression that it will cause a domino of uncontrollable situations and perhaps a new explosion of nationalism?

I really don’t know why this is coming up again as a question. Albania is a NATO member and should continue to consolidate its democratic and economic system in order to be part of the EU family. As our well-known writer Ismail Kadare has put it: “Europe is Albania’s natural state. The only one”. At the same time, Kosovo has to complete and consolidate its statehood project. In this way, the role of Albanians for the democratic stability and integration of the Western Balkan countries into the EU will continue to be instrumental.

One of the thorns of Albania’s foreign policy is its relations with Greece. You worked hard with the former Minister of Greece Nikos Kotzias to reach an agreement on several open issues. Why did you not succeed? Are the differences so big after all?

It would not be fair to say or to define the whole process that we have conducted together with Nikos Kotzias, under the supervision of Prime Ministers of Albania and Greece, as a process that did not produce results. We worked a lot in restoring trust between the respective teams and the countries. Trust is an important element in international relations, like in daily life when you are engaging with someone or in a project. In this ambit, we managed to successfully address some issues which do have a practical effect for citizens. Certainly, there are still pending issues that need to be addressed. Time is ripe to move with courage and determination. A forward-looking vision is needed in order to unleash the potential energy of Albanian-Greek relations.

I would like to ask you something about your future your political future. Mr Minister you were not a candidate in the last elections in Albania but you are still an active politician can you share with us your thoughts about your political future.

Well, it’s true that I’m not going to be part of the next parliament and you know that the parliament is the most important place where politics is being played. Nevertheless, I intend to continue with my political and civic engagement in the public life hoping my contribution is worth./ibna