Interview in NOVA TV, “Кнаус за НОВА: Европска економска зона е подобро од овa статус кво” (“Knaus in conversation with NOVA: The European Economic Area is better than the status quo”)

NOVA TV, “Кнаус за НОВА: Европска економска зона е подобро од овa статус кво” – interview with Gerald Knaus – (“Knaus in conversation with NOVA: The European Economic Area is better than the status quo”) (26 October 2019)

Radical realism – to transform the world, lets take its measure first. Why joining the European single market and the four freedoms would be a huge step forward for all Western Balkan nations.

And why the EU should offer this to all six, with a reformed accession methodology that truly rewards merit. This will be very hard work. But with this EU integration would finally get serious for the region.

Q: Will the ESI Norway in the Balkans proposal mark the end of enlargement ?

Knaus: It is the opposite: with this proposal the European integration of the Balkan countries would accelerate. We are proposing that the European Union opens accession talks with all six Western Balkan countries now to join the European single market, the biggest in the world, with its four freedoms of movement of people, capital, goods and services. And we propose to reform the way these talks take place, to make them fair and transformative.

The immediate goal is for each Balkan country that meets the conditions to be linked as closely to the EU as Norway is in the so-called European Economic Area (EEA). Now, joining the EEA is in itself a very good thing. Norway, a rich country, is still paying the EU a lot to be in the EEA, because it is such an advantage for its people and economy, Of course, the Western Balkans are not rich and need help to catch up, so the EU should increase grants and assistance AND allow them to join the single market in order. Why? Because a stable, democratic, prosperous Balkans is in the EU interest.

Now, North Macedonia citizens might say that they want to join the EU, nothing else. But even then our proposal is good for them. How does EEA accession relate to the goal of EU accession? If you think of joining the EU as a marathon, over 42 km, joining the EEA is running the first 35 km of that very same marathon, on exactly the same road. It is not a detour, it is not an alternative, is is a stage on the same path.

This is not just my theory. This is how it worked in the past. I was young then, but remember well: this is how Austrian, Finland and Sweden joined the European Union more than twenty years ago. All three joined the EEA first. Then, since everything they needed to do for the EEA was also a requirement for the EU, they completed EU accession talks within a very short period of time. To be precise: the EEA entered into force in 1994 and Austria, Sweden and Finland joined the EU on 1 January 1995. This is important: there is no contradiction between the goal of first joining the EEA and then the EU. On the contrary, it is a logical sequence. All EEA negotiators at the time noted how these talks made later fast accession of their countries possible.

Q: what about the commitment of the EU from Zagreb 2000 and Thessaloniki 2003 ? Could we just forgot it?

These commitments remain, of course. At the same time we know that these promises, repeated every year over twenty years, never guaranteed WHEN enlargement would actually happen. Nobody can guarantee this. Every EU member states always kept the right to veto. And they used it. How many times was North Macedonia blocked by a veto of one member state, despite unconditional recommendations by the European Commission to start talks? Nine times! Nobody knows from bitter experience better than Macedonians that the most important thing is a process which is about merit and not arbitrary vetoes, at every step.

So my advice to Balkan leaders is to focus all diplomatic energy on changing the process, not demanding guarantees that can never be given. We do not know now who the French president will be in 2024. Right now there is a lot of sympathy with North Macedonia and Albania in many EU states. This sympathy should help push for a reformed process. If the process is not reformed, what would happen even when you have to open the first chapters? Again, you know: Croatia experienced it, Turkey did.

How likely is it to reform the process in this way? It is hard, too. But if ever there was a moment to do it it is now. There is a new Commission. There is a deep crisis. So this is the moment to put a constructive proposal on the table that can convince all EU members and work for the Balkans for the next years, not just the next months. The key question is not whether talks today will lead to a Norwegian situation of joining the EEA or to a Swedish situation of joining, first the EEA and then the EU. This will be decided later in any case. What is key now is that these talks are fair.

Q: How to explain to Montenegro and Serbia that the game is over?

Knaus: The current accession process has been broken for years. Many Member states don’t believe in it. Frontrunners, like Turkey and Serbia, don’t believe in it any more. What happened to North Macedonia in Brussels confirmed this.Note: Turkey has been negotiating its accession since 2005, Montenegro since 2012, Serbia since 2014. But did opening accession talks process produce the positive changes which were expected? No. Are these countries closer to joining the EU now than they were when they started? No. Turkey has since had a coup attempt. a state of emergency, fighting broke out again in South East Anatolia. And last year in Sofia EU member states refused to give even a vague commitment that 2025 was a good target date for Serbia and Montenegro to join. Nobody has any guarantee, whether talks started or not.

So the process itself must be changed. I feared in a speech in 2014 in Belgrade at an event with the deputy prime minister of Serbia that the current accession process would not survive for more than five years without reform. This was five years ago.

Q: Negotiations for membership was a very efficient instrument for the transformation and reform . what could be the carrot now?

Knaus: Negotiations for membership are only an efficient instrument for transformation when EU is serious about it. The EU has not been serious about the negotiations with the Western Balkan countries. It is not prepared to open them with four out of six. Why? Because accession of the Western Balkan countries is unpopular in many EU members. So a process was designed with so many obstacles that it kills the motivation of even the most committed politicians or civil servant. You can have a hurdles race over over 200 meters. You cannot have a hurdles race over 42 kilometers. This is what the current process has become. This is what your government has experienced too. That is bad for the EU and bad for the Balkans.

The question of incentives is crucial. The first incentive, the major carrot, is that the process helps reformers create a better country for their citizens and children. For this, it must be fair. For citizens it must be transparent. The EU should provide real help reaching Eu standards, not block countries. And each Balkan country should be judged by the same criteria. If more assistance then goes to those counties that perform best, all the better. But you cannot buy the will to reform with money. Yes, money helps. Having a goal that is within reach of a few years helps too. Having EU member states that want you to reach it, not block you, is also crucial.

Q: How would the process of negotiation look like ?

Knaus: There is a website where you can see what the EAA covers. It is a huge part of the EU rules and laws. Reaching this integration now should be the first objective goal for each of the six WB countries. The EU should draw up roadmaps for each area. and then evaluate regularly how far each of the six Balkan countries are from meeting these criteria in each field. These assessments should be led by experts, the criteria public, allowing you to compare countries. There should be a positive competition. And no vetoes once the whole process starts next year until the very end.

Q: What is the potential risk for stability if there is no more enlargement ?

Knaus: Many in the EU fear that Balkan countries are not stable and might return to chaos at any moment. This is a very bad image to have. I would never use fear of instability as an argument for enlargement. On the other hand, the goal of eternal European peace is a great and inspiring goal for the EU and the Balkans. I lived in the Balkans in the 1990s, in Sarajevo, in Pristina, and remember well a period when nationalists first won elections with promises of hate, and then wars and destruction followed. This must never happen again in the Balkans. But it continues to happen, even in Europe, even today. In 2008 there was a war in Georgia. In 2014 in Ukraine. This is why we need European integration, not just in the Balkans, but also in the Balkans.

Q: ESI has put lot of effort in order to promote enlargement of EU towards WB. How you are going to ensure your partners in the WB that it was just a “joke” talking about enlargement?

Knaus: We put a lot of effort into convincing EU interior ministers into lifting the visa requirements for all Western Balkan countries first. And it succeeded. Why? Because it was a merit based credible process. And because we talked to the sceptics, and tried to persuade the ministers of interior in EU member states. This is the only way this can work, and it means that right now we need to talk to France and the Netherlands, to see how to convince them. And to show them that a credible process of accession can be in their interest, too.

Q: Why don’t you join the huge majority of member states and WB countries to find a solution in order to change Macron s mind?

Knaus: I simply ask: do you think it is likely that other member states will be able to change the mind of the French president? It might happen. I hope it does. But it never happened with Greece. So you need a strategy that also works without it happening. And that makes future vetoes in the process less likely. This is how European integration has always happened. It is not new.

Q: Do you believe that there is anything that could satisfy Macron in order to leave his veto on enlargement ?

Knaus: He says the EU is not now ready to promise enlargement to anyone. But the EU should be ready to allow each Western Balkan state to meet the conditions to join the EEA. I think to persuade France of this is possible, if other EU members support it too.

Q: Is there any other member state supporting your ideas ? If yes..which one?

Knaus: We only published this paper last Friday night. But there has been a strong and encouraging response. I received emails and SMS from foreign ministers, parliamentarians and EU officials within hours, expressing interest. But I have no illusions. This would be a historic offer, that would transform the Balkans. But it will take a lot of discussions. Like visa liberalisation. And it will only work if leaders in the region support it too. Not as their ideal scenario, but as a very good way forward for their countries, much better than the status quo.