European Movement Serbia asks: Exits, arrivals and changes – a threat or an opportunity for reinventing the EU?
The EU is currently facing multifaceted changes. The global environment is rapidly changing, starting from the instabilities in the Near East and the north of Africa, the refugee crisis and terrorist threats, to the emerging (economic) powers in Asia and the development of a multi-polar world of global stakeholders. On the other hand, the EU is facing some major challenges from the inside, such as a crisis of trust among its citizens, growing populism and euroscepticism, a lack of solidarity among its member states and calls for multi-speed Europe and “exits” from the Union. However, this is not the first time the EU has faced such crisis, the 80s were also filled with intense debates from which, in the light of the need to reform the European Community and declining popularity of the European vision, emerged the Single European Act and an even stronger Union.
The European Movement Serbia discussed the opportunities that the looming threats of Brexit, consequences of a ‘multi-speed’ EU, the responses on the refugee crisis and the role of candidate countries from the Western Balkans in ensuring a stable, prosperous and influential Europe, with Petros Fassoulas, Secretary General of the European Movement International.
Two weeks ago the UK Prime Minister Cameron negotiated a deal to give the United Kingdom special status inside the EU in a bid to avoid Brexit. What is the better option for a stronger EU: letting Britain leave and strengthening the commitment to a deeper and ever-closer Union without Britain; or creating a multi-speed EU with Britain on board?
I think that the first thing worth keeping in mind when it comes to the Brexit debate is that whatever problems the EU currently has, and whatever demands the UK is making, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It isn’t just the UK that is making unreasonable demands, the EU has some real structural faults and it would be a mistake to believe that if the UK was to leave, somehow we could all march forwards towards the completion of the European project unhindered by this awkward passenger that we picked up somewhere along the way.
Of course, at the same time, the idea of a multi-speed Europe has its own dangers. By that I mean watering down our commitment to some of the fundamental values of the European project, like free movement for example or the single currency, can pose significant dangers to the European prism as a whole. So, as ever, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and what was attempted to be done late February is to find that common ground where the UK would feel accommodated and the EU would not be stopped from adhering these values and moving forward. I would like to believe that the deal that was agreed achieved that.
All member states need to invest themselves fully in what they subscribed to, because that has been the problem for a while now. We have seen over-promising and under-delivering in many things including the migration crisis. So, if the member states put their minds and their hearts behind the common solutions we clearly want, the project will be a success for everyone. If we continue the way we are, committing ourselves to things that we never actually implement, the citizens who we are supposed to be doing this on behalf of are going to turn their backs to us, and that is the bigger problem, in spite of whether the UK goes or leaves.
There is a growing fear in the Western Balkans that a multi-speed EU would (again) leave the countries from this region in the periphery, without an equal voice and far away from the circle where decisions are being made. Is this fear grounded, and can you see any of the WB countries someday joining the core of the EU?
I do agree that a multi-speed Europe creates that risk, where you have directorate of bigger, stronger, more experienced member states pushing forward, and the rest of us just catching up or hitching a lift without actually having a say on the direction in which the vehicle is going, the way that it is driven and the speed, and with those who come late into the journey usually finding themselves at the back of the bus without any say in it. I would like to avoid that. The whole concept of the EU is that we are a family of nations, that we are all equals among equals. Somebody always takes the ownership of a particular area that they care and feel passionate about, be it Scandinavians on the environment, French on defence, Germans on transparency, or Mediterranean countries on the relations with the Arab countries, etc. but the fundamental premise is that we are all equals in the same boat with the same responsibilities and of course the same rights. I would like to see that continue. Now, that does not stop anyone from assuming a leading role on specific areas, but the only way to guarantee that we are all equal is to strengthen the European institutions. They are supposed to be the depository of national interests, where everything gets mixed and European interests get produced.
We need a much stronger European Commission that would be able to ensure that smaller member states, as well as bigger member states have a say in whatever policies we adopt. We need a more effective and impactful European Parliament, where again everybody irrespective of their nationality can be a rapporteur and can personally shape legislative proposals going out of the Commission and through the Council. And of course, we need the European Council that is truly representative of all member states where one, two or three member states cannot impose their will on others through financial or political means. The best way to ensure that our EU remains a family of equals is to strengthen the European institutions and make sure that the decisions that are made there take into consideration everybody’s views and everybody’s interests. Frankly I don’t think that it is fair for a country to be expected to go through a fairly difficult process of EU accession and not be offered an equal status.
So, in these times when the threats of “exists” are looming, do you think that Serbia joining the EU can still bring a positive change?
The experience Serbia can bring, not the least because of its difficult past, is valuable. The Balkans are a mirror to other regions, we see what is happening now in Ukraine, possibility of disintegration there, and even farther afield in the Caucuses, the tensions between ethnic groups and nations, and of course the influence of Russia. I think Serbia can bring certain experience acquired through some soul destroying events that can help the EU to improve its response towards the regions like Caucuses, Ukraine etc. So I do believe that Serbia, not if but when it becomes a member of the EU, has a lot to bring on the table and that will allow it to have a leading role in one aspect of EU’s policy.
How do you find Serbia’s reaction to the refugee crises? And how did Serbia’s response affect its image and reputation in the EU?
The closure of the boarder by Serbia, along with other Balkan countries, has had a negative impact in efforts to adequately and humanly deal with the inflow of refugees into Europe. It has worsen the conditions for those affected by this mass population displacement and has done very little to address the underlying issues. Up until that point Serbia’s stance appeared responsible and engaged, publically at least. Serbia was prepared to do what the EU required it to do. It consistently called for the EU to come up with a common position, one that addresses the issues rather than tries to balance off individual national interests. Unfortunately, under current circumstances, Serbia is more part of the problem than a part of the solution. But it takes two to dance this one, and I think that it is the EU’s responsibility to come forward with a coherent plan, to demonstrate that its own members are sticking to the plan and then explain to our neighbours and the candidate countries how they can be part of this plan, and so far the EU has not been doing this very well.
(Interview conducted by Ms. Tara Tepavac, researcher at the European Movement in Serbia)