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The Global Conversation: Balkan bids to join the EU

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The European Commission is keen to offer the prospect of EU membership to six Balkan states, amid growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

Albania aspires to join the bloc along with west Balkan neighbours Serbia, Montenegro, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Kosovo – most of which were war zones after Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s.

Yet disputes from the past and the need for reforms are among the issues needing to be settled before the EU opens its arms to the new would-be members.

Albania,along with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, has won European Commission backing for membership talks to begin. On Thursday, a Western Balkans summit in Sofia will discuss their accession bids.

Euronews spoke to Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.

We also went to Belgrade, with Serbia edging towards EU membership, perhaps within seven or eight years. Yet obstacles remain, notably over relations with its former province of Kosovo, which declared independence a decade ago.

Euronews spoke to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.

We started our conversations though in Albania, which should know by the end of June whether EU member countries will approve the European Commission’s recommendation to start entry talks.

Efi Koutsokosta, Euronews:

“Serbia and Montenegro, which are considered to be the frontrunners of EU integration, may join the EU by 2025. It’s an indication date. When do you expect Albania to follow?”

Edi Rama, Albanian Prime Minister:

“Today, yes, Serbia and Montenegro are negotiating and that’s why they are ahead of us in this process. But 2025 is a horizon where all of us can be ready if we work hard and we do our job.”

Efi Koutsokosta:

“Do you need a date in order to encourage your people to follow all the reforms needed?”

Edi Rama:

“No, we don’t need a date to encourage our people. We need to open negotiations in June. This is all. And we don’t want anything else. Just to open negotiations and for Europe it costs nothing, not one cent they’ll pay for it. For us, it’s a matter of life and death, in the sense that opening the negotiations means that we are finally in the future and we are finally out of the past.”

Efi Koutsokosta:

“There are some other challenges that the EU is posing. Mr Juncker recently said that there is still organised crime and that he doesn’t want to import this kind of situation in Europe.”

Edi Rama:

“First of all, we didn’t wait for President Juncker or for anyone else abroad to tell us that there is still a big fight to be made with organised crime and corruption and many other things. The point is simple. We have fulfilled our homework for opening the negotiations. And the machine of the Commission, which is a very heavy machine of experts who deal with facts and not with fake news, has given us a positive recommendation with no condition. But from this, to divide the countries into countries with crime and countries with no crime, it’s a bit far-fetched. If there is European organised crime, it is an interconnected organised crime and we need to fight it together.”

Efi Koutsokosta:

“Speaking about your internal challenges, I want to talk about a very sensitive issue for the EU which is media freedom. And recently there was a report by the ‘Reporters without Borders’, speaking about journalists and 80% of journalists feeling insecure for their future and also ‘exposed to insults’ they say ‘by Edi Rama who has called journalists trash, poison and public enemy’. Is this your opinion of journalists in your country?”

Edi Rama:

“I never try to dismiss directly what media sources might say. But when I say ‘trash’ it’s a way to say in Albanian ‘fake news’ because it doesn’t translate well in Albanian. So, I never insulted a journalist personally, directly. I, of course, express my opinion about trash media and we have a lot of trash media in the world today. If they have the right to express their opinions, it doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to express mine.”

Efi Koutsokosta:

“But the same report says also that ‘regulatory standards are manipulated in the interests of the government.'”

Edi Rama:

“This is another nonsense. But I don’t want to talk about… It’s always suspicious when you listen to a prime minister, a president or a politician telling you that the media is lying. But media is lying a lot nowadays. So, this is a problem. And I respect very much the solidarity between media and ‘Reporters without Borders’ or whoever else. They do their job, I do mine.”

Efi Koutsokosta:

“We know that in the Balkans there are many Albanian minorities in other states as well. So, do you perceive yourself as the leader of Albanians, Albanian people or not?”

Edi Rama:

“In our constitution, we have the obligation to protect Albanians abroad everywhere but at the same time I think Albanians have never been better than today, where they live. So, in Kosovo, they have their own state now. In Macedonia, they are part of a real revolution in terms of change of approach towards the Albanian language and towards Albanian people. In south Serbia, I hope their conditions will improve, based also on the fact that Serbs in Kosovo are treated pretty, pretty well and much, much better.”

Efi Koutsokosta:

“But you recently suggested that you could have a joint leader one day with Kosovo. So this created a lot of reactions.”

Edi Rama:

“I am sorry for the reactions but it was not meant to be a shaking statement. It was meant to be an imagination, in a very special circumstance of the tenth anniversary of Kosovo’s independence and in addressing the Kosovo parliament as a witness. And I said, twenty years ago, this was out of the world. And if someone would have talked about Kosovo independence, it would have shaken the world. Today, we are here and what will happen in twenty years? And before saying: ‘Why not have a president for both of us?’, I said that dialogue with Serbia would have been successfully ended, Albanians and Serbians would have been members of the European Union. So, there were a lot of preconditions to go to the point of a president for both countries.”

Efi Koutsokosta:

“Do you regret this statement now?”

Edi Rama:

“No.”

Efi Koutsokosta:

“But you rule out the project of unification of Albanians in the future, probably?”

Edi Rama:

“No. I always said that my dream is that we unify under the sky of the European Union and I never dreamed about a Greater Albania because I have a bigger dream, a Greater Europe, with the Albanians inside.”

Efi Koutsokosta:

“There is an opinion that, of course, the EU enlargement project was revived because there was too much presence of Russians, too much presence of Turkish and too much presence of the Chinese in the region. Do you think that these countries could use this region in order to destabilise the EU?”

Edi Rama:

“Yes, it’s space that someone has to fill. And it’s a space that belongs to Europe and belongs to the European Union. So, the European Union should really take responsibility for this space strategically. Because if there is empty space, of course there will be others that will try to get there and to fill it.”

Serbia, along with Montenegro, is likely to be the next country to join the European Union, possibly by 2025. The EU hopes Belgrade’s influence in the Balkans could help other aspirant members reform. But it is not all plain sailing…

Sandor Zsiros, Euronews:

“Two years ago, you talked to Euronews and you said that your country is tired of waiting for European Union accession. How do you feel now, before the Sofia summit?”

Aleksandar Vučić, Serbian President

“During these two years, we had another drop of EU popularity in Serbia. But anyway, we still have the majority of the population on our side. People are not jubilant anymore about it, but, rationally speaking, they are for our EU path.”

Sandor Zsiros:

“If you look at the budget proposal of the European Commission, there is no indication that other countries should join the European Union until 2027. So when actually could Serbia join the European Union, according to you?”

Aleksandar Vučić:

“First of all, I think that no one has ever guaranteed us that we would be a part of the European Union in 2025. But they were saying: ‘If you deliver…’ It was mainly about the Kosovo arrangement. ‘If you resolve all our problems with Pristina’ and than everything else including the rule of law and everything that we are asked to do, then we might become a member of the EU in 2025. And we are on our EU path since 2000. It has already passed 18 years and that’s why people feel, from time to time, exhausted. But anyway there are no better solutions. We will do our job. And we will invest huge efforts, attempting to find a solution for the Kosovo crisis.”

Sandor Zsiros:

“How will this normalisation between Pristina and Belgrade look in reality? Especially when you look at the fact that last week the Kosovan karate team was actually banned from Serbia, they could not enter…”

Aleksandar Vučić:

“We acted in a very proper way. We allowed them to enter, but with no state flags of Kosovo. Because to us they are not a state. But not only to us. But to all the others. And we agreed that they would come without state flags and there won’t be state flags of Serbia as well, and all the other countries. And you can do it, no national anthems and everything else. They were responding; ‘No, no, we don’t accept it’ because they wanted to be banned.”

Sandor Zsiros:

“Looking from the outside, it’s the same kind of provocation than what happened last year, when Serbia sent this train to Kosovo with a huge Serbian flag and with the banner saying ‘Kosovo is Serbia’. Isn’t it the same? Mutual provocations against each other?”

Aleksandar Vučić:

“There are no mutual provocations. If you see, when you say to us, that Kosovo is an independent state, is that a huge provocation against Serbia? And you think that even your country, the country that you are coming from, has recognised the independence of Kosovo, is that a huge provocation today? Should I consider yourself as a big provocateur? Because you have a different opinion on the legal status of Kosovo than we do? We respect the fact that they think differently, speaking about the legal status of Kosovo, than we do. And that’s the difference. And you really think still that it was a provocation that someone was writing that ‘Kosovo was Serbia’. Wow. I think that Kosovo is Serbia. Am I provoking you? Or what? Are you going to arrest me? Kill me? Or what? If that’s a big provocation. And at the same time, I am very much ready to speak about compromise and to do as many concessions as possible. But not to humiliate Serbian people. And not to undermine Serbia’s interests.”

Sandor Zsiros:

“I would like to ask you why Serbia is not applying economic sanctions against Russia because as a candidate country, you should basically follow the decisions of the European Council?”

Aleksandar Vučić:

“Can you imagine us imposing sanctions against Russia? Russia is the only country, together with China, that is supporting us in the United Nations Security Council when we speak about the territorial integrity of Serbia. What do you expect from us? To cut our both legs? And then to say, okay now everything is good. And to say yes, when we say ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ that’s a big provocation. It shows that even you did not come to me and you don’t think that you should be neutral regarding the status of Kosovo. No. Although there are five EU countries that don’t recognise the independence of Kosovo. Why don’t you say to them, that they are provoking Europe on a daily basis.”

Sandor Zsiros:

“Now the ‘New York Times’ said lately that Serbia edges closer to autocracy. And the ‘Foreign Affairs’ news magazine said that you are Europe’s favorite autocrat, who is providing stabilty, but operating in a ….”

Aleksandar Vučić:

“That was not said by those magazines or papers. That was said by Serbs, my political opponents, that were writing those articles.”

Sandor Zsiros:

“So Serbia can fulfill the Copenhagen criteria?”

Aleksandar Vučić:

“We will be very ready to discuss all the problems that people feel. But I was listening from all the others that, in Serbia, will happen… terrible attacks and murders and everything else but it happened in Slovakia, in Malta, in Montenegro recently. But it did not happen so far in Serbia. You have heard of some of these cases that were happening in Serbia? No. You have not. And it won’t happen. But I am also absolutely certain that we need to do something because one part of our media society and civil society, they are dissatisfied for some reasons. And I am very ready to listen to them and to see what we can do to overcome these kind of different opinions and to see what we can do to sit down together and to find the best possible solutions for everyone. But please buy tomorrow’s papers and tell me, is there anyone that is more attacked than myself?”

with Reuters

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