Ahead of a leaders' summit in Brussels, German government envoy Manuel Sarrazin tells DW of the geostrategic importance of EU enlargement for the Western Balkans, and how Russia's war has influenced the process.
DW: The European Commission has come out in favor of candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova in record time. How do you view that recommendation with regard to the Western Balkans?
Manuel Sarrazin, Germany's special representative for the Western Balkans: From my point of view, it's good for the countries of the Western Balkans because it shows that the geostrategic importance of EU enlargement is still there and that there is movement in the enlargement process.
Both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are still waiting in line. What should be offered to these two vulnerable states?
The enlargement promise made at the 2003 Thessaloniki summit counts. Bosnia-Herzegovina is still looking at the 14 basic priorities and the implementation of necessary reforms, so we might finally grant candidate status. The Kosovo government is implementing reforms, which we want to reward. Visa liberalization for Kosovar citizens is one of these necessary steps that must follow. The normalization dialogue with Serbia should be restarted, and both sides must be prepared to deliver progress there as well.
Ukraine, Western Balkans look to EU
Serbia continues to buy gas and grain from Russia, which it passes on to other Western Balkan states and also to EU countries. Shouldn't conditions be stricter?
We, too, import gas. In this respect, we have to be careful to make it clear to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic that we expect him to join the EU's sanctions against Russia, but also that we do not give him the opportunity to claim that means the lights in his country will go out because we also make sure that our decisions have economically justifiable effects.
Serbia is at the center of Russian disinformation and hybrid war that reaches across the entire region. What do you propose to contain this influence?
The most important measure is the credibility of the European Union's enlargement promise. That is why it is so important for us to finally correct the mistakes concerning enlargement policy, visa liberalization and the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania — and to show that if you move forward, Europe will also stand by its promises.
With regard to North Macedonia and Albania, many fear that once more, nothing at all will happen. Shouldn't the EU consider the two candidates separately, and start negotiations with Albania?
You mentioned Russian disinformation — North Macedonia will be a key target of Russian disinformation, which might be a strategic opening for us. That is why it is extremely important at this time to finally start negotiations with both countries.
In view of the sluggish pace of EU enlargement, the Open Balkan idea of regional cooperation has increasingly established itself as an alternative. How do you rate the concept?
Basically, I am very skeptical about the Open Balkan initiative. It needs to be clear that initiatives in the region are inclusive and that there are realistic modes allowing everyone to participate. Second, it is important that no parallel structures emerge. Quite apart from that, it must always be clear that it is in no way a substitute for EU accession.
The Berlin Process, which has not produced much in the way of success in recent years, is another format. What are you offering to make it attractive for the Western Balkans?
The Berlin process has been very attractive over the past years. We accomplished quite a lot, for instance with the Regional Youth Cooperation Office. We have four agreements that would go a long way toward developing a common regional market. We offer to actually achieve these worthwhile goals for everyone right now, to resume them with renewed energy and also with new issues. Germany's new federal government has the firm goal of paying close attention to the region while it is in office. We will make a long-term and strategic commitment.
After a 10-year hiatus, Germany plans to return to the EUFOR Althea mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina. What message does this send?
Proposing the move to the Bundestag was very important to the federal government — to make it clear that Germany is prepared to commit to security policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina and because it is important to us that the October 2022 election can take place in a secure, reliable environment.
You have been in office as the German government's envoy to the Western Balkans since March. Do you see anything differently today than you did back then?
I would have wished that the terrible experience of this large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine would have led to more key players in the region to be willing to change, rather than reinforce, previous behavior. We need to be aware of the fact that our "friends" in the Kremlin know very well that a lot of negative things can be triggered in the region as well. That is why I would ask everyone to gather as much cooperation and positive statements as quickly as possible, before the Kremlin tries to benefit from our conflicts, from the lack of unity between us and within the region.
Manuel Sarrazin was a member of the Bundestag for the Green Party from 2008 to 2021. He is president of the Southeast Europe Society, Germany's most important academic and policy advisory institution on Balkan issues. Since March 1, 2022, he has been the German government's special representative for the Western Balkans.
This interview was originally conducted in German. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.