HAHN: Careful with the rhethoric, words may become as swords (06/11/2015)

“I understand the differences in stances, but there must be a common understanding that the future of Kosovo is a European perspective. And it must be in the interest of citizens and through this, in the interest of the politicians, that there is European perspective and that SAA is implemented”, said the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, in an interview for “Koha Ditore” published on Friday, 06 November 2015

Brussels, November 5: EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, precisely at the time when the approval and publicizing of the annual package for expansion is expected to take place as well as the individual reports of progress, is visiting Kosovo. This visit comes in unpleasant time, when in Kosovo, the conflict between the Government and the opposition has escalated. On the other hand, Kosovo has just signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement, which also is not seen from the same perspective by all parties in Kosovo. For all these issues and about the general situation in Balkans region, on the verge of the visit in Kosovo, in an exclusive interview for “Koha Ditore”, speaks Commissioner Hahn.

KD: Why you are visiting Kosovo exactly now? Was this planned and does this have to do with the Progress Reports, political situation?

Johannes HAHN: It has been my purpose since long ago to regularly visit countries in the region. I have not been in Kosovo in a while and I wanted to come back again. Now I am visiting Kosovo for the third time within a year and I am very happy that this is taking place right after we have signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement and we can discuss about what is waiting for us in terms of its implementation.

KD: Signing of the SAA is in one way the end of one process and it should be a commencement of another one. What could now be Kosovo’s next step?

Johannes HAHN: I think it should be taken seriously by everyone that SAA provides a bigger possibility for a much closer cooperation with EU in many fields, and the purpose is of course to achieve a bigger European perspective. Is should also help in economical development, in achieving increase and creation of jobs and in offering Kosovo people a perspective to stay in their country and not leave.  We expect SAA to be an important step and we must now focus all the efforts, both in EU and in Kosovo, in its implementation.

KD: There are interpretations that, through this Agreement, EU recognizes Kosovo as an independent state, whereas the others say that from the legal form it differs from SAAs with other countries in the region. Does EU recognize Kosovo as a state through this SAA?

Johannes HAHN: Look, as a member of the Commission, I have to respect the legal status of the country, but we have strong interest to help Kosovo, first of all in developing its economy, society and in inclusion, as other countries in the region, in the European perspective. For example there are a lot of talks in the region about the Berlin process. This process implies the cooperation in joint projects and better inter-boundary connection in the region, and this helps the progress and development. Transport, railways and roads, supply with energy are the first fields in this process, and then also the youth, contacts between people and cooperation in protecting the environment. For this we need a legal framework and contractual relationships, which help us assist Kosovo in its challenge for fulfilling these challenges. This SAA is such and it is between European Commission and Kosovo and it is not necessary for it to be ratified by member states, but it is a legal framework, which helps us in improving mutual relationship. “If there will be a positive report this may lead to a request from our side that Kosovo be given the visa liberalization. Of course, the positive report would be the recommendation, and then it is up to member states to decide”, stated

KD: The natural step after SAA would have to be the application for a membership to EU. Can Kosovo do this legally and get a status of a candidate without being recognized by all member states?

Johannes HAHN: No, you have to be recognized by all the states. But the focus now should be in developing the country economically, in increase and creation of new jobs. We have done a lot to get this Agreement. It has more than 500 pages. As for now we will focus on its implementation. I think that this is also important for the citizens, because it is not worth wasting time and energy discussing theories. Let’s do first things first.

KD: You are going to Kosovo at a difficult time. We have the political conflict between the Government and the opposition. How do you see the way out of this situation?

Johannes HAHN:  I understand the differences in stances, but there must be a common understating that the future of Kosovo is in a European perspective. And it must be in the interest of citizens and through this in the interest of the politicians, that there is European perspective and that SAA is implemented.

KD: Are you going to meet the representatives of the opposition during the visit?

Johannes HAHN: I will have a speech in the Assembly and I will have the possibility to address to all the political parties. I hope that this will be an opportunity to send some important messages. I have met in the past also opposition party leaders. I will be there only for few hours, but I will have the opportunity to meet the representatives of Serb parties, I will visit a monastery also, because it is important to include the church also in our common efforts. Next time I will meet the others as well.

KD: When you are mentioning the Serb orthodox church, what do you think about the process of Kosovo’s membership to UNESCO? This church, as well as Serbia, with harsh words has objected such membership, by even using harsh words such as comparisons of Kosovo with ISIS. What is your stance with regard to Kosovo’s membership to UNESCO?

Johannes HAHN: I must remain impartial, because it is my obligation to remain such as a representative of European Commission. But even earlier, as a Commissioner for Regional Development, I was engaged and we have spent a lot to finance the preservation of cultural and religious heritage. This heritage, these churches, regardless in what territory they are situated and to what territory they belong to, are heritage of the whole Europe. They present the diversity of Europe and they are European values, because Europe is even identified through them. It is cultural buildings that bring tourists to Europe, not only the climate and beaches of Europe. People come to visit the beauties and our cities, cultural and religious buildings. Therefore, it is our obligation to preserve them, because they are as well an economical opportunity. Tourism today is a big market and this can be seen as an opportunity for profit for Kosovo as well.

KD: When we speak about travelling, when will visas be removed of Kosovars? There are expectations in Kosovo that in December, European Commission will give also the formal recommendation for removing visas?

Johannes HAHN: Kosovo has made lot of progress in fulfilling the criteria for having a positive report. Few conditions have remained, which, according to our experts, will not be difficult to fulfill in the coming days. Therefore I am very optimistic that we may have a positive report.

KD: But with “positive report” you imply even the formal recommendation for visa removal?

Johannes HAHN: If there will be a positive report this may lead to a request from our side that Kosovo be given the visa liberalization. Of course, the positive report would be the recommendation, and then it is up to member states to decide.

KD: How satisfied are you with repatriation of Kosovars…?

Johannes HAHN: This is what I wanted to say also. I would like to express my gratitude to Kosovo authorities, the President, the Prime Minister and the rest, for the efforts they have put in telling people there is no point in seeking asylum in Europe, because Kosovo is a safe country and they do not fulfill the conditions for obtaining asylum. If you look the figures of asylum seekers, they have reduced significantly and member states are aware of it. This has had a positive impact even in the visa liberalization process.

KD: Talking about the refugee crises, the Balkans corridor has become the main corridor for their arrival in Western Europe. More than half a million has passed through this region. How do you see the development of this crisis in the future?

Johannes HAHN: This is a great challenge for the region, because we are talking about more than 600,000 people. Having so many people move in one territory is not a small challenge. This is a global crises and it takes a joint solution with joint efforts. In this direction, it is necessary to say the Western Balkans should not become Europe’s parking place for the refugees. Therefore, with the initiative of our President, Juncker, we had a summit for this. We will fail if we believe that there can be individual solutions.

KD: Is there any risk that due to refugee crisis to burst an armed conflict in Balkans, which the German Counselor talked about some days ago?

Johannes HAHN:  I hesitate to use the expression “armed conflict”, but this challenge provokes some bilateral issues, it creates conflicts for which we thought to have been resolved, it feeds populism and nationalism, therefore I am interested to work on a sustainable solution in order not to risk what we achieved with so much efforts during these years to achieve positive results. We have great achievements through the Berlin process as well. We see that some leaders mark the anniversaries together, such as Srebrenica. All these are good signs for reconciliation in the region and we dare not risk it. However these achievements are still fragile.

KD: The situation in the region is fragile. There are protests in Montenegro that burst into violence, threats of referendum in the Serbian entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Macedonia the agreement to get out of the political crisis is not always being implemented.  Even the leaders that behave nicely with each other in Vienna and Berlin, when they return home change their rhetoric. We heard lately how the Serbian leaders compare Kosovo with Islamic terrorists, the Patriarch of the Serbian church calls for ‘return to Kosovo with or without force’. Is Balkans sliding again to instability?

Johannes HAHN: I must repeat again that we are not where we would want to be, but in general, we are going to the right direction. Of course, it will not help i one party or the other produces unnecessary rhetoric, as they create damages and injuries that do not help. Therefore, I would call all of them to be careful with their words, as words may be as a sword, especially in this region that suffered so much in the recent past. Therefore they must be very responsible. Cooperation is decisive and all voices that create irritations and injuries do not help.

KD: We promised that we will not ask about the Progress Reports….

Johannes HAHN:  I would answer that “work is continuing”!

KD: It has been a year being in the position of the Commissioner that also deals with EU enlargement. Do you observe that there is a proper interest of the member states for the process of EU enlargement?

Johannes HAHN: There are some differences to be made here, as the ones that are closer they are more interested for enlargement than the ones living farther. If we take into consideration the political authorities in Europe they are aware that there is a need for final integration of Western Balkans, as the last stone in the project of European integration. But we must also convince our citizens for the advantages that enlargement would bring; therefore, I am focused that much in the economic development. This development makes the regional countries better, it is an interesting increasing market, there are possibilities for business and the European business community notices it. On the other hand, in order to invest these businessmen look at how the rule of law is implemented and the rules are followed. Economic development also stabilizes the rule of law and only in this way we may find investors that may risk their money to establish a company, believing that there is an independent judiciary. This is an evolving process that helps us convince the European citizens that when the moment arrives, the membership is possible. I think that politicians must move one step ahead and have a vision, pot not miss the sense of reality and the contact with the citizens.