Former Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati, in an exclusive interview with IBNA, talks about Greek-Albanian relations, EU accession negotiations and enlargement, border changes, the presence of foreign actors in the Balkans, the use of history in foreign policy but even his political future.
Mr. Minister, you are one of the few who knows so well and in depth Albania’s accession to the EU. What factors contributed to the delay in starting accession negotiations.
Nowadays it is difficult to say whether the fact that I know this process in depth is an advantage or not, due to the pace of the EU membership process in our region. The EU accession process of the Western Balkan countries is characterized by uncertainty and halfway commitments. This has been clearly demonstrated especially after the financial crisis of 2008. Since then, the EU’s relations with the Western Balkans have rarely been on a path of economic convergence and rapid Europeanization. These two components are clearly interrelated. They are essential for the true transformation of the Western Balkans towards EU membership.
Your question reminds me of the recommendations of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato in 2006. The question at the time was no longer “What to do with the Balkans?”, But rather “What were the right policy tools?” “for the Balkans to reach the rest of Europe and join the EU.” Precisely it is precisely this element that is missing if the way the EU is dealing with the Western Balkans is analyzed. Instead of talking about the “European perspective”, it is time to work for “EU membership”, avoiding plain language for ordinary citizens. Let us not forget that the strategic interest of the EU overlaps in one way or another with those of the Western Balkans.
In conclusion, if I have to make a wish list for 2021, I would like to see the beginning of the EU accession journey to Albania and Northern Macedonia, which has passed a long time; visa-free regime for Kosovo; new pace and quality in the process of accession of Montenegro and Serbia to the EU; The Economic Investment Plan that has been approved by the EU should depend on respect for democracy, the rule of law, and standards in the priority areas. The above-mentioned steps would create new dynamics in the relations between the EU in the Western Balkans.
Bulgaria ‘s opposition to the start of negotiations for Northern Macedonia on historic changes also affects Albania’ s European perspective. Do you believe that it is possible to separate the accession process of the two countries? How could this decision affect further EU enlargement policy in the Western Balkans?
Although theoretically the enlargement process is based on the so-called “regatta principle”, this debate was quite present two years ago, where there were voices supporting a faster EU accession process for northern Macedonia. Nowadays we have a potential opposite scenario, separating Albania from Northern Macedonia. We look forward to seeing our neighbors who are part of the EU actively in favor and show political wisdom in this process. Bringing bilateral issues into the EU accession process seriously calls into question the credibility of the enlargement process for the entire region. The revision of the enlargement methodology should be accompanied by a more cohesive approach and more coherent actions by EU institutions and EU member states. The integration of the Western Balkan countries into the EU would be a step towards achieving an EU conclusion. Ultimately, this will mean that the European integration project is consolidated into a concrete political space with a precise border on a continental scale.
Historical differences between the Balkan countries have largely determined the policy of the states and their bilateral relations. Is it normal in the 21st century for history to define politics? How do you think we can avoid tensions and shape a common and peaceful future in the Balkans?
Your question reminds me of a wise man who has also been a colleague for many years, Nikos Kotzias. He was often reminding us, the foreign ministers, in various forums that “we should not be captives of history.” It is true that history and geography are key elements in shaping foreign policy. However, for foreign policy practitioners, it is not enough to set national positions based on historical needs. We can not rewrite history, but we can create a conducive environment to overcome bilateral disputes. For example, in the case of the “Prespa Agreement”, both Greece and Northern Macedonia decided to overcome the bilateral dispute that paved the way for Northern Macedonia’s NATO membership, and we also hope for the EU accession process.
The Balkans is a region where powerful powers are competing to develop their influence. The US, Russia, China, the EU have turned their attention to the region. Does this interest ultimately help the area?
Southeast Europe has always been a chessboard of geopolitical competition. However, we should not make the mistake of putting all the powerful actors in the same basket. The influence of non-Western political actors in the region has been among the most frequently cited arguments and, apparently, one of the key drivers for the EU engagement with the region.
The US has worked side by side with the EU when it comes to the democratization and transformation agenda of our region. The US role has been particularly useful for the NATO membership of some of the Western Balkan countries. On the security side, the US role in the region remains essential.
On the other hand, powerful non-Western actors are quite present recently through “vaccine diplomacy” and “debt diplomacy”. They have their influence in the region as well. Their political and economic weight cannot match that of the EU. However, the EU must clearly identify the activities of external actors, in their dealings with the Western Balkan countries, which are contrary to EU values and standards, name these effects and hold governments accountable for violating their commitments to EU rules. At the same time, the EU should include the countries of the Western Balkans in its strategies towards China and Russia and in the EU approach to the Middle East, the Gulf region and other areas of ongoing conflict.
Are you afraid of changing boundaries that have come to mind recently through a “non-paper” or is it considered a development that, in certain circumstances, can release hidden tension?
At a 2003 summit in Thessaloniki, EU leaders made the far-sighted strategic decision to offer Union membership to the entire region. Unfortunately, EU leaders seem to have forgotten about it. The influx of non-authors with non-authors for re-drawing current boundaries is a direct consequence of the fact that the enlargement process has stalled; the integration framework for the region has been weakened. Socio-economic entropy, demographic threat and democratic backwardness in the Western Balkans cannot be addressed by embracing 19th century ideas in the 21st century context.
Let us focus a little on the idea of the unification of Albania and Kosovo. Why should such an idea be implemented, since at first glance there is an impression that it will cause a domino of uncontrollable situations and perhaps a new outbreak of nationalism?
I really do not know why it is appearing again as a question. Albania is a member of NATO and must continue to consolidate its democratic and economic system in order to be part of the EU family. As our well-known writer Ismail Kadare said: “Europe is the natural state of Albania. At the same time, Kosovo must complete and consolidate its statehood project. In this way, the role of Albanians for democratic stability and the integration of the Western Balkan countries into the EU will continue to be useful.
One of the thorns of Albania’s foreign policy is its relations with Greece. You have worked hard with former Greek Minister Nikos Kotzias to reach an agreement on some open issues. Why did you not succeed? Are the differences so big after all?
It would not be fair to say or define the whole process that we have carried out together with Nikos Kotzias, under the supervision of the Prime Ministers of Albania and Greece, as a process that did not yield results. We have worked hard to restore trust between the respective teams and countries. Trust is an important element in international relations, both in everyday life when you are engaging with someone or in a project. In this environment, we managed to successfully address some issues which have a practical effect on citizens. Of course, there are still pending issues that need to be addressed. Time is ripe for moving with courage and determination. A future vision is needed to unleash the potential energy of Albanian-Greek relations.
I would like to ask you something about your future your political future. Mr. Minister, you were not a candidate in the last elections in Albania, but you are still an active politician, can you share with us your thoughts on your political future?
Well, it is true that I will not be part of the next parliament and you know that parliament is the most important place where politics is being played. However, I intend to continue my political and civic engagement in public life hoping that my contribution is worthwhile. /ibna