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European Identity, Politics and the Western Balkans: Interview with György Schopflin, MEP (Part One)

The European Union finds itself in a moment of crisis. The European identity is under challenge from the nationalist discourse in some Member States, while the Eurozone is in need of new rescue strategies and stability mechanisms. In this context, contributor Maria-Antoaneta Neag recently sought out the views of György Schopflin, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) active in the Foreign Affairs committee, and a member of the Delegation for relations with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, on the future of the European Union and the resumption of the enlargement process as to include the Western Balkans countries.

Fascinated by Eastern European studies, nationhood and national identity, Hungarian-born György Schopflin was educated in the UK, where he was employed by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and then by the BBC. He took up university lecturing at the University of London. He has produced various academic works, and is currently also teaching at the University of Bologna, in the Department of Political Sciences.

From EU Intervention to Democratic Deficit

Maria-Antoaneta Neag: The EU has entered a period of change: elections, austerity measures, protests, new governments etc. What effects do the events in Greece and Italy have on EU stability? Were the changes of governments imminent and necessary for the stability of these countries?

György Schopflin: Let me start by answering the last question: people think that these changes were overdue. It raises a number of very interesting points. First of all, these are clearly technocratic governments. They did not emerge as a result of elections and I think democracy as a general principle and system accepts that in such situations of danger or emergency, one can take steps which are not democratic.

What is interesting and new is that in both cases of Italy and Greece, the new governments came not as a result of domestic pressure but as a result of external pressure, from the European Union, the European Central Bank, France and Germany. This really raises very interesting questions about exactly where the democratic legitimacy of the actual government comes from and if it is reciprocal. Does this mean that at a future stage, Italy can instruct France to get rid of its government and install a technocratic government because the French are endangering the EU? Where does this stop? I don’t have an answer to it but I think that in terms of democratic theory and practice, these questions have to be asked.

The second point I wanted to make is that the EU is really taking decisions which intervene in the domestic affairs and even in the domestic stability of MS. I wonder how much legitimacy there is to it, especially when the general view of the European citizens is pointing in the opposite direction, away from Europe. That again raises difficult questions regarding the democratic deficit. There is a great deal of power which has accumulated in the symbolic Brussels, the legitimation of which is very thin.

That brings me to the heart of the issue. One justification for intervention is that economic developments are moving much faster than political developments. This is very clear if you look at the last two or three years and it has partly to do with the 24-hour-markets, the capital movements which, in a way, are autonomous of any state or any government, and this has been the case for 15-20 years.

Does this mean we need ‘more Europe’ as Angela Merkel has just said, or does it actually mean we have to go back to the nation state? Both processes are taking place and the difficulty I see is that it is almost impossible for practically anybody to understand that they are simultaneously citizens of their own country and citizens of Europe. The idea of European citizenship has basically not taken off. Until they do see themselves as having a voice in both, the legitimacy deficit that I’m talking about will remain in being.

Here I think that the national political elites have a really major task for which they are not yet prepared.  They are not prepared to discharge it. They don’t see, for the most part, that the solution to the economic processes has to be at the European level. We accept in principle that organised crime is global and we try to work against it at the European level. I think that from this perspective, there is a strong argument in favor of a much more effective Europe, but I think the transfer of more power to Europe is simply unimaginable without a much greater popular acceptance of power at the European level.

I think that the utopian solution is that the national political elites would accept that the European institutional system should have a much more direct link with the citizen, which really does mean that if you are a citizen of Romania or Hungary or any country, you accept that you function politically at two levels. I don’t see it.

A Pan-European List for the European Parliament

MN: You are the shadow rapporteur on behalf of the EPP Group on Andrew Duff’s own initiative report of the “Modification of an Act concerning the election of Members of the European Parliament” in the Committee of Constitutional Affairs. One controversial proposal relates to the idea of a pan-European list which would represent the European interest and strengthen the European identity. Do you think this proposal will ever be accepted by the European Parliament and the Council?

GS: There was a James Bond film called “Never Say Never Again.” I can’t see it happening at this time. Regarding Pan-European list, the idea is that 25 Members of the Parliament, either in addition to the existing 751 or coming from the existing 751  (this is still unclear and undecided) which should be elected on a separate or European list. We debated this in the Constitutional Committee countless times, so we are basically pretty clear on how this should be, but we are only a small minority within the European Parliament. What surprised me is the great majority (probably 60% or maybe even two thirds of the European Parliament) is hostile to the idea, and that includes my own EPP Group.

I don’t think it would stay on the table for too long. Formally it’s still there, but I don’t think there is real support for it in the European Parliament. Some people think that it’s irrelevant with the crisis, others do not see how it would change anything, while others are concerned that this would establish two “classes” of MEPs (European members and domestic members).

My counter-argument is that with the growing power being transferred to the symbolic Brussels in terms of economic governance, one needs some kind of elected representatives who could, in a way, supervise and control this. I think my argument is right, but I’m only one MEP out of the 751: that’s democracy, I accept it. Frankly, this idea will still remain on the ground, at least at this time. It may be that something will change quite radically and then the Pan-European list will get a great wave of support.

MN: Do you have any views from the Council?

GS: I haven’t heard anything from the Council, but I think the MS are probably taking the view that they will deal with this proposal when it becomes important.


The Western Balkans- Looking toward the Future

MN: In this moment of EU crisis, what is to be expected from the countries in the Western Balkans?

GS: I think we can separate Croatia from the others, because we can very much agree that it would join the EU in middle of 2013 and I think the Croats, whether they understand what they are joining or not, basically think that it’s a good idea to join the European Union. That’s true of every country that has acceded. They didn’t really know fully what they were doing. This contributes to the democratic deficit that I was talking about.

Regarding Serbia, my impression is, and I was there very recently, that the European Union still functions as a magnet. This has partly to do with the illusions, partly with reality – meaning that whatever happens, it’s better to be inside then out.

Serbia is interesting and I’ll talk a little bit about this because I’m the shadow rapporteur for Serbia. There is a growing sense of unease in Serbian society about the EU. The support for accession is diminishing. I think it’s around 50%, so it can go up again and it can go down. I have to say it’s the standard process that every MS has undergone: the closer they got to it, the less support there is. This didn’t mean opposition to it. An awful lot of people said “I don’t really know” and prefer to just keep quiet about it. This was the case of Hungary in 2002-2003. I don’t know what things were like in Romania, but probably something fairly similar.

The elites in Serbia are on the whole committed to joining. What is interesting is that the Serbian Progress Party, which used to be a nationalist party has switched. Tomislav Nikolić, with whom I spent an hour back at the beginning of November said, “I’m unconditionally in favor of the European Union, among other things.” This is interesting. I think what it signals is that the Serbian elite, including the radical one (which was really close to Šešelj and the anti-European position) has understood that if you want to become the Prime Minister of Serbia, you can’t be anti-European. Is this tactical, is this sincere, does it matter? I leave these questions open. To be truthful, I think that Nikolić is sincere. I think he really has changed his mind and understands the situation better.

Here I would add one other thing, which is true for every country inside the EU or those wanting to join it. I think the elites, especially the media elite, the intellectuals, are not interested in what is happening in the EU. They don’t take the trouble to learn about the European Union. Also, the academics who are working on it don’t seem to be able to transmit that knowledge to the wider public. I see a gap, a black hole. People say: “there’s the European Union, oh yes,” and then the curtain comes down. They don’t see it and the power issues actually at the heart of the EU simply don’t get transmitted. This feeds into what I was talking about earlier: the “disconnect.” You may remember the first and second Irish referenda on the Constitution/Lisbon Treaty. They used the word “disconnect” which means the gap in understanding, the gap in knowledge; so no wonder the Irish were so reluctant to vote for it.

I think it’s a fairly universal and widespread position throughout Europe. Even if you are moderately interested, where do you find the information? There are various websites, if you really want to know about the EU, you can discover it without too much trouble. However, only a small minority takes the trouble to go through the European news. It is certainly the case for Hungary. When I talk to people in my virtual constituency, they are always very interested, but I don’t think their interest lasts beyond the meeting!

What is European integration for, anyway? European integration is for all sorts of things, but the two which really count, in our part of the world, is that it gives us parity of esteem and status. Each member of the EU, on paper, to some extent in reality, is equal to any other member; in other words, size doesn’t really matter. Secondly, the EU is a superb conflict resolution mechanism. War in Europe, especially if you are an EU member, is absolutely unthinkable. That’s why, in the West, people were so shocked by Yugoslavia breaking up in terrible bloodshed.

To give you one illustration – three or four years ago, the Slovak National Party (SNS) led by Ján Slota, published a map on its website from which Hungary had disappeared. Romania was given the Tisza frontier, which you remember Romania was once promised with the 1916 secret Treaty of Bucharest. The Austrians got quite a lot, Slovaks got Northern Hungary, I think the Serbs got some parts too. In other circumstances, this could have been seen as a direct threat to the integrity of Hungary, and bear in mind the SNS party was part of the ruling coalition, in the Slovak government. Frankly, people in Hungary sort of laughed about it. I don’t think they would have laughed about it had it not been for the European Union.

That’s why I say the EU is a conflict resolution mechanism: it creates a level of security that Central Europe has never had before. Think about the repeated interventions by the great powers in the 19th and 20th centuries or the inter-war period: Germany constantly intervening, playing Hungary off against Romania. The great powers took a very active interest in the two Balkan wars (1912-1913), supplying arms, sending military observers etc. This is unthinkable today. That is part of what the EU brings us, whether the elites in South Eastern Europe are fully conscious of it. However, I think to some level, there is an understanding of it.

The EU as a Conflict Resolution Solution for the Balkan Countries

MN: You’ve mentioned the EU as a conflict resolution mechanism. Do you think the EU can be a conflict resolution solution for countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina or for the Belgrade- Priština dialogue?

GS: Yes! It’s not easy and I think the two situations need to be separated, Bosnia-Herzegovina on the one hand, and Kosovo and Serbia on the other.

I think the Serbs know they really don’t have another alternative but joining the EU. Russia is not an alternative and I don’t think they want Turkey back as their patron. I think that 500 years of Ottoman Empire rule was enough for them.

The Serbs basically know, even if they don’t like it, that if they actually want to join the European Union, they have to recognize Kosovo. The question that I found, when I was there recently, is “On what terms?” Can they do something less than full independence of Kosovo?

The answer from Brussels, as indeed from Berlin, is no. The Serbs are still coming to terms with that and their idea is to create a situation in which Kosovo is de facto independent but actually is formally still a part of Serbia and enjoys complete internal sovereignty. This won’t happen. It’s very difficult to lose territory, it’s very painful. I think that complying with EU conditionality will actually make a difference.

The Non-Consensual Bosnia and Herzegovina

MN: What about the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina?

GS: Whereas Serbia is a single state, even if there are quite some major divergences within the country, nevertheless, I think that there is a fundamental coherence. This is not true of Bosnia. The main problem, which nobody here – whether it is Brussels or Strasbourg – wants to confront, is that it’s a non-consensual state.

The Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniaks don’t want to live in the same state. Geography and, to some extent, history and politics pushed them in that direction. Is this democracy? What do you do when people living on a particular territory which has been given the status of a sovereign state don’t want it anymore? Belgium is the obvious example. I think that the future of Belgium hangs in the balance and I’m not sure that a break-up really matters. I can certainly see a scenario where Scotland opts out of the United Kingdom.

Most people think that states are there forever, but I think states are the product of history. They are human creations and they can change. The configuration of states can change. We pretend otherwise. On the other hand, I think it’s possible that somebody will eventually say to the citizens of Bosnia that they don’t have an alternative:  you have to live in this state whatever it takes and we will force you to do it even if it takes 100 years. I don’t see anybody rising up to say it and, in a sense, this is what is needed if the EU, the world, the US obviously, wants to ensure that Bosnia will become a single state.

Frankly, what I see is that Republika Srpska wants an autonomous status which is so autonomous that it can deal directly with Belgrade and Belgrade is not unhappy with this. They really don’t want too much to do with Sarajevo, they don’t like it and the level of tension below the surface is still very high. It’s a traumatized society, in fact it’s not a single society, but three traumatized societies. There, I think the task of EU conditionality is much greater.

MN: How do you see the rest of the Balkan countries?

GS: Montenegro can make to the EU it fairly soon, although there are still some serious problems: criminality, the Russian presence, but those are different things.

I see Albania as being a long way to anything that remotely resembles an integrable state. I think Enver Hoxha’s regime was worse than that of Ceausescu, hence the communist legacy is worse too.

I feel very regretful about Macedonia because I think it is integrable. I don’t see why nobody is saying to Greece to stop this fight. If Greece is being bailed out and is saved from complete collapse, than the least it can do is to abstain from the fight against Macedonia and accept that it is going to be called that way, and that this name doesn’t really pose a threat to Greece.

Reconstructing Histories

MN: What do you think about the trend in Macedonia to “build their own history” in terms of public works and monuments?

GS: Everybody does this.

MN: Isn’t it like a threat to the so called European identity which we all desire?

GS: No, I really don’t think this for one moment. Every country constructs its own history. There is no such thing as totally objective history. Let me give you one instance. It’s still part of the Hungarian mindset to talk about Mohács, 1526, a terrible defeat at the hands of the Ottoman army. It was partly Hungary’s fault, but we won’t go into these arguments. We talk about the catastrophe of Mohács. If you go to Istanbul, you see signs of celebration of a great victory of Mohács, which is right. They are right in their own way.

There are countless discussions about Transylvania, the Daco-Roman continuity or not. I did once suggest we should start talking about the Daco-Hungarian continuity and that would solve the problem. It’s nonsense. In a way, it’s a ridiculous historical debate but, on the other hand, in terms of identity construction, it’s really very significant. Think about the way Ceausescu constructed the entire Dacian past which is similar to what Macedonia is doing with Alexander the Great. I haven’t seen the new statue live, as it were, but it seems to be complete kitsch which reminds me of another 100 meter-high golden statue, that of Saparmurat Niyazov from Turkmenistan. I don’t want to be unkind, but that statue of Alexander the Great does look like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz.

Turkey and Russia’s nostalgia over the Western Balkans

MN: You’ve mentioned the Ottomans and Russia, and their influence in the Western Balkans. Do you think they will give up on the Western Balkans so easily, as both Turkey and Russia have some strategic investments in Serbia, Montenegro and other countries from the region?

GS: They will not abandon their interest entirely. Some of it is economic investment, some of it is political. The question is: can they actually do it, is it important enough for Russia to maintain these significant outposts in Serbia, Montenegro and to some extent in Croatia. I don’t know if they are present in Bosnia in any significant way. Actually, the Russians are also present in a number of other countries. Can they do it? Can’t they do it? The question is the terms on which Serbs actually want them. It’s a two way relationship.

As far as Turkey is concerned, Erdoğan repeatedly denies that there’s any significant strategic interest, but of course he has. When they had the commemoration of the Srebenica massacre, Erdoğan went there and he was the leading figure. He was the most important person there. Everyone deferred to him. In other words, to Bosniaks and to some extent to Kosovars, Istanbul is an important source of moral and economic support. Whether that’s quite so significant or straightforward or welcome for the Serbs and Bulgarians, I wouldn’t like to say.

George Friedman, a hard-line geo-strategist, argues in his book “The Next Hundred Years,” that sometime in the future, Turkey will emerge, it’s already emerging, as a major world power. It’s one of the states that produces over 1% of the world’s GDP. It’s not quite one of the BRICs, but it’s getting that way. It’s a serious player, in regional terms, and to some extent in world terms.

The Turks would want to push their military power northwards, which means back into South-Eastern Europe and then the only counter-force would be a Polish-Romanian alliance and Austria, Hungary, unless Hungary isn’t already occupied. Hungary is indefensible, it’s all flat. If the Turkish army were to advance, Hungary would be occupied very quickly. The battle line would be the Carpathians. I think the idea of expanding the Turkish power northwards which encounters Polish-Romanian power looking southwards, that’s something that doesn’t have to be military, but I think that’s something that makes you think very seriously.

Turkey, sooner or later, if it goes in that direction, will find itself engaged in a very serious contest with Russia. The countries around it mostly speak Turkish languages. Azerbaijan is, in particular, Turkey’s closest ally. All sorts of interesting scenarios can be constructed.

The difficult that I see is that the large states of the West, in a way are not that interested in the smaller states of Central and South-East Europe. I think the French generally feel that the 2004-2007 enlargements were a mistake.

Enlargement Fatigue

MN: Many people are of the view that Romania and Bulgaria may have joined too soon and that the political criteria prevailed over the other Copenhagen aspects. Do you think this was one of the reasons of the postponement of the enlargement in the Western Balkans?

GS: It’s there in the background. Formally, things are going ahead. The Enlargement Directorate of the Commission is working very hard on this and produces these country reports every year. No enlargement can take place without the political will of the existing 27 Member States. I think it will happen, but not in the near future. The negotiations with Croatia began in 2005 and Croatia will enter in 2013; 8 years, it’s a long time.

MN: How long do you think the other Western Balkan countries will have to wait before they receive a comprehensive answer from the EU?

GS: Serbia will very likely get candidate status, but no date. So, how about 2020?

[End Part 1]

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