The European Parliament appointed him the rapporteur for the new European Union enlargement strategy, which means that Picula will have to formulate a proposal for an enlargement strategy, once one of the most successful European policies, which has been at a standstill for years, ie since Croatia's entry into the EU in 2013. This is also the longest period without enlargement of the Union since its foundation. The last EU summit gave hope for continued enlargement by granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, while the Western Balkans were on hold. And yet, Picula does not think that the Union is tired of the Western Balkans, considering that the Union is primarily tired of the enormous external and internal crises it has faced in the last decade and a half, each of which, from the financial crisis, Brexit, the refugee crisis to the pandemic, negatively affected the expansion.
In an interview with Večernji list, which we convey in its entirety, Tonino Picula explains what he plans to write in the new enlargement strategy starting from the thesis that the EU must remain an open project, considering that this is the only way the Union can exercise its influence on the global scene. He also believes that a prerequisite for this is the internal reform of the Union, which must take place in parallel with enlargement. Enlargement policy, he says, should once again become part of the mainstream, and not be some fringe policy of the EU. He especially emphasizes the importance of an active strategy for the countries of the Western Balkans.
How do you interpret the recent conclusions of the European Council on enlargement? As success or as cynicism and rudeness on the part of European leaders towards BiH and Croatia?
I would call impudence and cynicism the unrealistic expectations of a large part of politicians in BiH, who see certain positive changes towards the enlargement policy after the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a God-given opportunity to ignore their contribution to the long-term blockade of institutions in BiH. And when it comes to Croatia, its reach at the European Council itself remained limited due to the internal political conflict between the Government and the President of the State on the subject of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It seems as if BiH was used in this case as another reason for internal reckoning. And that, of course, weakens Croatia's positions and limits the state from realizing some of its vital national interests in the field of foreign policy.
So you also think that the conflict between President Milanović and Prime Minister Plenković directly harmed the interests of Croatia?
That's right. Everyone has the right to their own articulation of foreign policy topics and dilemmas, but when this is done in such a way that actually limits the possibility of your views becoming acceptable to others, in that case, you remain cocooned in your own positions without the possibility of your views being accepted by other actors. Do not forget that there is a foreign diplomatic corps and foreign journalists in Croatia, who report on this conflict, and the disunity of those who, according to the Constitution, should be coherent in their foreign policy.
Immediately after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it seemed that the new situation would accelerate the integration of the Western Balkan countries into the EU. This seemed logical, given that otherwise that space would be left to other actors. However, a few months later it seems that the Union still does not have a real plan for this area. What do you think?
The latest decisions of the European Council regarding Ukraine and Moldova are welcome and should be applauded. The omission of Georgia from that package proves that European leaders nevertheless tried to follow certain criteria regarding the level of immediate danger when it comes to these three Eastern European countries. Let's not forget that these countries are part of the Eastern Partnership and they have certain contractual relations with Brussels, but unlike the countries of the Western Balkans and their agreements on cooperation and association, these agreements did not provide for the completion of the process with full membership in the Union. However, this is an ad hoc reaction intended to send a strong message, not only to those countries but also to Putin himself, who is becoming the most dangerous rival of the European Union and is currently waging a real war against everything the Union stands for. However, that decision also gave a certain momentum to the enlargement policy, considering that in the context of enlargement at the moment it is impossible to talk only about these two countries, and not about the countries that have been for years, and some of them for almost 18 years, in the pre-accession process.
Does this also apply to Bosnia and Herzegovina?
Even Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is a country that is difficult to function in many elements, has gained some hope that it will receive candidate status by the end of the year, thanks to the fact that the requirement to fulfill 14 criteria that were previously a requirement for candidate status has been relativized. Now, these criteria are divided into first-order priorities, which cannot be avoided, and criteria that will be possible to fulfill during the accession process, i.e. after obtaining candidate status. The question is, of course, whether more could have been done, but the question is also whether more could have been done in BiH as well? I have been following this scene for decades and at this moment I see a deadlock that has lasted too long even by Bosnia and Herzegovina's standards and is really blocking the country. Expecting that there is some European magic wand that will erase all of Bosnia and Herzegovina's deficits with one decision is simply not realistic. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been given a certain chance in the election year, if nothing else, at least not to repeat old mistakes. Because if it doesn't repeat its old mistakes, it can hope for that step forward and get candidate status. The last good year for Bosnia and Herzegovina on this path was 2016 when Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for membership in the Union.
How do you interpret the general impression in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in the entire Western Balkans, that European leaders gave the European carrot to Ukraine and Moldova this time, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and other Western Balkan countries got nothing? Were you surprised that Ukraine and Moldova skipped BiH?
And I would share those frustrations in the Western Balkans because not everyone in the Western Balkans has the same right to be frustrated. It is a real injustice, and a long-standing one, what is happening to North Macedonia, which has been a candidate for the EU for almost 18 years and all that time has not been able to open negotiations due to constant blockades by EU members, first Greece, and now Bulgaria. In the meantime, Macedonia even changed its name because of Greece, and as a reward, it received a blockade from Bulgaria. I would not put the Macedonian frustration and dissatisfaction on the same level as the frustrations of some other countries that, for example, have a very low degree of compliance with the common European foreign and security policy, such as Serbia. Albania is in a similar position to North Macedonia, and Kosovo has done more than was expected, so Pristina ratified the border agreement with Montenegro, which was a prerequisite for the abolition of visas, but that has not happened yet. That is why Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be as frustrated as North Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo. Those countries are not in the same situation.
What will the acceptance of the French proposal for the unblocking of North Macedonia mean for the enlargement process, according to which the Bulgarian demands become part of the negotiation framework, which is not accepted by Skopje either? Isn't that disastrous for the accession process in the long run?
I agree. It is obvious that we still need more traumatic episodes to solve this problem, which has been imposed on North Macedonia on multiple levels. This is evidenced by the fall of the government in Sofia, and then the vote of the Bulgarian parliament to withdraw the veto, as well as the fact that Skopje will have to change the constitution, which has a devastating effect on the perception of enlargement. We see that in the intensified international circumstances, multilateral international organizations such as NATO and the EU are becoming characterized by either apathy or blockades. I am referring to the Bulgarian blockade of North Macedonia and the Turkish blockade of the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO. A large number of European politicians do not show sufficient interest in solving this problem, and because of this, unfortunately, the weakest will suffer the most. It is neither Stockholm nor Helsinki, but Skopje. This raises the question of the manageability of these organizations with such a large number of members.
Large European countries are suspicious of the further expansion of the Union and condition it by changing the treaty and abolishing unanimous decision-making, believing that this would simplify the functioning and decision-making within the Union, while smaller countries support the expansion, but oppose the abolition of unanimous decision-making. Croatia is also in that group. How to resolve this conflict?
Some European countries do not want the abolition of unanimous decision-making, feeling that by giving up such an important tool, they would lose influence. Everything will remain as before if no consensus is reached on changing the way of decision-making. It is a very serious issue that goes to the core of the functioning of the EU, and it seems to me that at this moment it is not realistic to expect a change in that mechanism, even with the price that the Union will have to pay, given that it will not be able to make strategic decisions quickly. This will increase the degree of conflict in the Union and it will happen that the pressure will increase on the countries that will block the decisions. It would be much easier if these rules were changed and if the number of decisions decided by consensus was reduced. The EU is paying a heavy price for its slowness in decision-making.
I remember that a few years ago Chinese President Xi Jinping told Joe Biden, who was then US Vice President, that the Chinese decision-making system is more efficient than the Western one, which is slow due to democratic procedures. In this regard, the EU is significantly slower than the United States, which also has a democratic system.
This question goes to the very core of the problem that the EU is dealing with, and it will be difficult for some other countries to deal with it as well. What distinguishes the EU from the United States is not just the number of stars on the flags. And the USA, although it is a federation, is a single country, as are Russia and China. The EU is a community of states, which makes the decision-making process extremely complicated. In addition to being complex, the Union is also a community of democratic states, which implies a democratic decision-making process, which sometimes prolongs the decision-making process. In autocracies, the decision-making process is shortened, both in the Kremlin and in Beijing. In the long term, however, countries that suspend democratic rights run into serious problems, and to prevent system collapse and change, authoritarian regimes occasionally express a desire to apply repression, which may work for a while, but not for the long term. This is the difference between the EU on the one hand and Russia and China on the other.
There is also an important difference in the fact that the European Union is also the first integration in history that expands through the voluntary acceptance of the European legal acquis, while we see that Russia is trying to expand in the traditional way, through war and conquest of other countries.
The expansion of the Union is the opposite of what Putin is doing, who is trying to restore the Russian empire, again as an autocratic creation. I think one of the reasons for this decision by Putin, which also concerns his political legacy, is that he cannot allow democracy to flourish in Russia's neighborhood. This is why he reacted so nervously in 2014, when Ukrainians demonstrated on the Maidan that they did not want an alliance with Russia, fearing the possibility of a European-style democracy developing in Ukraine. This is much more dangerous for him than the weapons on the Russian borders. Putin wants to push democracy as far as possible from Russia's borders in order to preserve the autocratic system in Russia even after he leaves power.
That is why there is a lot of symbolism in the granting of candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. However, how much closer is Ukraine to the Union?
It seems that the Ukrainians forget that the Macedonians have also had candidate status for 17 years, but that in the meantime they have not even managed to start negotiations. I think that the mood of Ukrainians towards the EU will vary, as with other countries in the accession process. At this moment, it was most important to stimulate the enthusiasm of Ukrainians, given that Ukraine is now literally fighting for its survival, but also for the right to decide on its future. Ukraine wants to become a member of the EU, and that is why it was important to send this message, but Ukraine's path to the EU will be extremely long, not only because of the changes that await Ukraine but also because the EU must also adapt to the entry of such a large country, the largest territorially European country after Russia with about 40 million inhabitants. A lot of things will have to change in the Union in order for Ukraine to feel the benefits of membership, and the decision-making system will also have to change. It will be a long process and I think that at the end of it, the EU will look different than it does today.
The entry of Ukraine will change the Union much more than the entry of the Western Balkans would, right?
The numbers speak for themselves. The population of the Western Balkans represents only 3.7 percent of the EU population, and the economy of the Western Balkan countries is only 2.7 percent of the EU economy, which means that the economies of the Western Balkans cannot threaten the functioning of the single European market.
Although many doubt that there will be a new expansion at all, both to Ukraine and to the Western Balkans. What do you think?
There will be. I say this based on personal experience and knowledge of this matter. The history of the EU since the 1950s is a history of expansion. Although this expansion took place in uneven cycles, the Union was constantly expanding. A permanent or long-term blockage of that process would be a historic defeat of the European idea. This, of course, does not eliminate the dilemmas regarding enlargement. I hope that external pressures will lead to a change of mood in the Union itself and that the Union will therefore open its doors to newcomers. The only thing that cannot be determined precisely is the dates, which will depend on a number of circumstances. If someone had told us half a year ago that Moldova would get candidate status, we would probably have laughed. However, in the meantime, Russia attacked Ukraine. I would not like the Union to expand only under threats, but it should be a process that is recognized as beneficial for the Union itself, and not only those who enter the EU. With its expansion, the Union spreads its values ??and the idea of ??living in peace, which raises hopes for continued expansion in the not-so-distant future.
Politicians in Serbia these days are talking about joining the EU within five to seven years. Is that realistic?
The only historically important date in the accession process is the date of entry into the EU. We have already witnessed and will witness a setback on this path, which was also recognized as an element of the new accession process methodology adopted two years ago. If a country does not progress as planned, negotiations may be suspended. That is why speculating about the dates of admission in the future does not make much sense, especially in Serbia, where autocratic tendencies are so strong.
Is it even realistic to expect the entry into the EU of a Serbia like this, a country without opposition, where all democratic procedures and institutions are trampled upon and where, as we see, even the election process lasts three months, which only confirms the arbitrariness of Aleksandar Vučić?
It's not realistic. And that should be clearly said to the Serbian political leadership. Although there are those in the EU who would welcome all authoritarian regimes into the EU tomorrow.
You mean, of course, Orban's Hungary. Why is Orban advocating Serbia's entry into the EU so much? Isn't such a plea counterproductive?
He would immediately accept Serbia and BiH, but not North Macedonia, given that he granted political asylum to the former North Macedonian prime minister convicted of corruption. It is also clear why. He would thus increase the so-called club. illiberal members in the EU and then it would be easier for him to suspend EU decisions. That's why I don't think we should listen to him.
Shouldn't Montenegro have already become a member?
I hope that, based on past experience, the announcement from the beginning of the mandate of the current European Commission will come true and that by the end of the mandate, at least one female candidate will have completed negotiations and will be ready to enter. I think that Montenegro deserves it, and that is important for Croatia as well.
Should Croatia have done more in this regard? Wasn't Croatia expected to follow the other countries of the Western Balkans after its accession?
These were justified expectations from Croatia. Croatia could have been a promoter of the enlargement policy, given that we border three countries in the accession process. It is in our interest that these countries become members. I am convinced that Croatia will use the full potential of its members only when we have other EU members on our borders. That's why I'm sorry that we didn't do more on that front.
How do you view Macron's idea of ??"European political community", and then Michel's idea of ??"European geopolitical community". Is it still an attempt to somehow replace full membership in the EU?
I am skeptical of these suggestions. I think that there are enough various processes and forums in South-Eastern Europe that should ensure better regional cooperation. In other words, we have an inflation of different platforms, but no real progress. However, such proposals are characteristic of French politics. We remember how former President Sarkozy once bombastically proposed the Union for the Mediterranean, which, however, did not live up to the high expectations. That's why I see Macron's idea of ??a European political community as a certain type of political prosthetics. In the event of a permanent stalling of enlargement, the Union loses its best tool for stabilizing Europe. What to replace that tool with? That is why we must not allow the enlargement policy to be blocked. I'm not sure we'll be able to replace that policy. The absence of a European perspective would cause major problems within many countries that are currently in the accession process. It would be a big challenge for the pro-European forces in those countries. I think that both Brussels and the EU members are aware of this danger, primarily because of the fear of the spread of the influence of China and Russia, as well as some Gulf countries, in the EU's backyard. That is why I am not inclined to think about alternatives to the enlargement policy.
Many in the Western Balkans see the Open Balkans project as an alternative to EU membership. What do you think about this initiative?
No rational person has anything against regional cooperation, but I think that a certain reserve should be kept regarding this initiative, especially since there is already a Berlin process which, by financing infrastructure projects, tried to facilitate discussions on key political problems between the countries of the Western Balkans. The open Balkans brings an obvious advantage to Serbia, which is the largest market in the region. In the current situation, Serbia did not stand in solidarity with the attacked Ukraine, but with the aggressor. The question arises as to how such a loan can be given to Serbia in the Open Balkans if it remains closed to Kosovo and the negotiations that should lead to the solution of the Kosovo problem. It is an initiative that favors Belgrade and tries to facilitate some political decisions of President Vučić that he cannot make.
Why does the Union always have problems when it has to behave in accordance with geopolitical interests? Isn't the admission of Romania and Bulgaria proof that geopolitical interests can prevail over the accession process?
This is not an isolated case. Look at the case of Greece and Cyprus. If it wasn't for French President Pompidou, who said that the EEC cannot be a club of Catholics and Protestants and that one Orthodox country, which is also the cradle of European civilization, should be admitted, Greece at that time would hardly have entered the EU, and the same happened with Cyprus, which was partially occupied at the time of entry into the EU. However, the Union then showed that it knows how to act geopolitically, as in the current case of Moldova and Ukraine, after all. However, this cannot be an excuse for others to do nothing and just wait to be stroked by the magic geopolitical wand. It doesn't work like that.