If the western Balkan states were admitted to the EU, it would be beneficial to both sides, says Michael Roth, State Minister for Europe in the German foreign ministry, in an interview with DW.
Deutsche Welle: The first EU Expansion Commissioner Günter Verheugen admitted ten countries as new members of the EU in 2004. His two successors welcomed three more. But in his first interview, Johannes Hahn, the current EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, said that no new countries will be admitted in the next five years. Can you still speak of tangible prospects for the admission of western Balkan countries?
Michael Roth: A clear perspective, meaning our offer of EU membership, exists. But it is not only in the hands of the European Union. The main responsibility lies with political and economic leaders, as well as the citizens, of the candidate countries, as to whether they are willing and in a position to fulfil the relevant criteria for admission.
But if Brussels clearly says that no new members will be accepted in the next five years, the Balkan nations fear that they may become "permanent candidates". Can you sympathize with these anxieties?
I want to encourage the western Balkan states that want to belong to the European Union. There is no question: The road ahead of us is surely rocky, but it is worth it. We are not just an economic community, but also, above all, a union of values. In light of difficult accession negotiations in past decades, we also focus the EU process of rapprochement on matters of constitution, democracy, judicial cooperation, independent media, and finding solutions in bilateral issues. That is also completely correct. That is how the most difficult issues are addressed right from the beginning. Occasionally, frustration can arise because, for many people, things do not move substantially and I can sympathize.
In past months, much has changed in Europe geopolitically. Many experts in the EU see the western Balkans as part of a triangle between Brussels, Moscow and Ankara. Is this actually a new starting point that could introduce new dynamism in the rapprochement process with these countries?
All the states in the western Balkans have made a strategic choice for a future in the European Union. EU expansion lies in the interest of the states in the Western Balkans; it lies in our own elementary interests. Since our populations have become somewhat weary of expansion, it is our obligation to express our own interests in having the western Balkans in the EU soon – if the right conditions are met. The geopolitical situation, meaning foreign policy and security, has become more unsafe. We are interested in a stable, peaceful and democratic Europe. The accession perspectives in the western Balkans combine these expectations. If they belong to the EU, then we will benefit from this because they are safe, stable and democratic countries.
Recently, many German media outlets have published pieces about the threat of Islamism in southern Europe. It is known that people from Balkan countries fight for the IS. How do you evaluate this risk?
It is just as disturbing as the fact that there are supposedly 3,000 so-called "foreign fighters" from Germany who are carrying out nefarious deeds for this terrorist organization. The western Balkans are a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multicultural region with a secularized form of European Islam and that's how it should remain. The states and their societies should continue working on peaceful and respectful interaction and living conditions between different ethnicities and religions. In other respects, the matter of "foreign fighters" is pa roblem everywhere in the EU and it makes it clear that our safety improves if we can offer the western Balkans clear perspectives.
The Serbian government is not going along with the sanctions against Russia. Would a neutral and openly Russia-friendly Serbia be acceptable to Germany and the EU?
Whoever is in the EU is not neutral. We have a common approach and that means being willing to agree to a common stance towards Russia. That does not mean that particular historical, cultural and economic relations to another country, such as Russia, must be cut. Despite the sanctions, even we do not put our relations on the backburner. Quite the contrary, we want to communicate with Russia and Russian leaders. But one should never have the impression that closeness to Russia can be played off against closeness to the EU.
Michael Roth is a member of the German parliament for the Social Democratic Party and has been Minister of State for Europe in the German foreign ministry since 2013
This interview was conducted by Benjamin Pargan.