0_Web_Editor's choice0_Web_Front page – SliderInterviewMakedonija.SlajderPolitics

Bilateral issues and enlargement should not be mixed, Schallenberg tells MIA

In the past months, substantial progress has been made and now is the moment to use this positive momentum and move forward on the EU level, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said in the interview with MIA, underscoring that opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania as soon as possible is the most pressing issue on which we need to deliver in order to restore the EU’s credibility.

Skopje, 9 May 2022 (MIA) – In the past months, substantial progress has been made and now is the moment to use this positive momentum and move forward on the EU level, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said in the interview with MIA, underscoring that opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania as soon as possible is the most pressing issue on which we need to deliver in order to restore the EU’s credibility.

Responding to the question about his expectations on lifting of the Bulgarian veto on start of North Macedonia’s EU accession talks in June, Schallenberg noted that bilateral issues need to be thoroughly discussed and solved between states, but that should be done on a bilateral level and should not be dragged onto the EU stage.

“Bilateral issues and enlargement should not be mixed. And let’s not forget the founding idea of the EU: to overcome war and create prosperity through cooperation,” Schallenberg, who is paying a visit to North Macedonia on Monday for Europe Day.

Regarding the negotiating framework, Schallenberg said that as bilateral issues are not part of the EU acquis, it is difficult to include such references.

In the interview with MIA, he said that enlargement must not be a legalistic, bureaucratic approach but a geostrategic instrument.

“Currently, we have a bureaucratic approach to enlargement, which has not led to substantial progress in years,” Schallenberg said, who underlined that “if we do not act quickly on our promises, the region will turn to others for support. There is no vacuum in world politics, it is either the European model or someone else’s,” he said.

In the interview, he also spoke about the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the possibility of reaching an agreement, Russia’s suspension of gas deliveries to certain countries and how it all affects his country.

Following is the full interview with the Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg:

Mr. Schallenberg, you’re visiting North Macedonia during difficult times both globally and regionally – the Ukraine war has caused major shifts onto the global political scene. What message will you relay in Skopje?

Russia’s war of aggression is a watershed moment for Europe that requires our decisive response. If we want the Western Balkans to be part of our European model, – and of course, we are a staunch supporter of the EU accession of the countries of the Western Balkans – a credible EU membership perspective is more important than ever. Opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania as soon as possible is the most pressing issue on which we need to deliver in order to restore the EU’s credibility.

Today is Europe Day, on 9 May every year peace and unity in Europe are celebrated. The date marks the anniversary of the historic ‘Schuman declaration’ that set out his idea for a new form of political cooperation in Europe. How do you see the EU in the future?

What could be more fitting than to travel to Skopje later on Europe Day – a day on which we remember our collective duty to revitalise the European dream and re-invigorate European integration. A process that is not complete before the six countries of the region have joined our European family. Thus, Europe Day is certainly an occasion to raise awareness. At the same time, we also celebrate the conclusion of the Conference on the Future of Europe today – a one-year-long consultation process with the citizens of the EU but also including the citizens of the Western Balkans on their vision about the future of the Union. In a next step, the EU institutions will take a close look at these proposals. This will contribute substantially to shaping our common future.

The Russian aggression against Ukraine is not letting up, the EU integration process is increasingly being viewed as a security issue, a process has launched to give EU candidate status to Ukraine. A candidate country since 2005, do you think the crisis could accelerate the accession process of not only North Macedonia but also of other Western Balkan countries?

Currently, we have a bureaucratic approach to enlargement, which has not led to substantial progress in years. We need to overcome this impasse by looking at all options with an open mind. I am thinking of a rapid access, a sort of opt-in, to certain elements of the single market but also other areas like security where we should create the possibility to opt-in and participate in the decision-making process. Above all, we need to find ways for the accession procedures to tie reform progress to concrete benefits for the citizens of candidate countries. Enlargement must not be a legalistic, bureaucratic approach but a geostrategic instrument. Now more than ever.

What if it didn’t happen since the EU itself lacks unity over the enlargement issue? Namely, there are hard line member states in addition to those advocating for the EU to expand beyond its current borders. What direction could the region take if there was no certainty that one day it would join the EU?

The enlargement process should serve as a geostrategic tool, where we either export our model of life or import instability instead. This has to be clear to all member states. If we do not act quickly on our promises, the region will turn to others for support. There is no vacuum in world politics, it is either the European model or someone else’s. And we certainly cannot let this happen.

North Macedonia is vetoed by Bulgaria due to a dispute encroaching in history. It is expected the veto to be lifted in June during the French EU presidency, however there are also pessimistic prognosis. What is your opinion, should we raise our hopes this June?

In the past months, substantial progress has been made. I think that now is the moment to use this positive momentum and move forward on the EU level. We cannot drag on these issues indefinitely, there are many existential challenges ahead of us which will need our full attention in the near future.

North Macedonia is constantly being told “settle the dispute with Bulgaria first, then the veto will be lifted”. Do you think that the bilateral dispute, which encroaches into history and the past, should be a precondition for joining the EU? What kind of Union we will have if history is preferred before the present and the future?

We respect that bilateral issues need to be thoroughly discussed and solved between states, but that should be done on a bilateral level and should not be dragged onto the EU stage. Bilateral issues and enlargement should not be mixed. And let’s not forget the founding idea of the EU: to overcome war and create prosperity through cooperation.

Regarding the negotiating framework, the member states are not aligned yet as to what the document should contain. Do you have any information how far the process is and what might happen if a bilateral dispute related to the history and identity of a nation is included in the document? It would be unprecedented and how it might affect the enlargement process?

As bilateral issues are not part of the EU acquis, it is difficult to include such references. But we have areas such as regional cooperation, good-neighbourly relations or protection of national minorities which are an integral part of the negotiations anyway and which should largely cover respective concerns.

The Ukraine war has strengthened the global crisis. Recently, Russia halted gas deliveries to Poland and Bulgaria, Brussels has warned that Europe could be facing a potential crisis in mid-May when the EU member states are expected to reject Moscow’s demands for paying in rubles. What will your country and OMV do in regards to this demand? 

As a private company, OMV holds its contracts with Russia independently. Security of supply is of paramount importance, and that is why the Austrian government and OMV are in continuous dialogue. OMV will continue to fulfill its payment obligations in a sanctions-conform manner.

Austrian Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler has stated that without Russian gas, Austria couldn’t fill its gas storage facilities during the year as the country is 80 percent dependent on Russian gas. Should alternative solutions be sought?

The future for European energy security lies in energy efficiency and renewable energy. While taking immediate action to secure our energy supply in the short term, we must not lose sight of our common goal to end our dependence on fossil fuels. This is crucial for Europe’s strategic autonomy and imperative in light of climate change. We are therefore pushing for a swift implementation of the European Green Deal. At the same time, we are working on diversifying our suppliers. While we must end Europe’s reliance on Russian energy imports as soon as possible, we also need to ensure that our actions hurt Russia more than ourselves. EU member states are affected differently by EU sanctions, since not all of us are equally dependent on Russian oil or gas. This makes international cooperation and solidarity more important than ever.

Russia has started cutting gas deliveries as a result of being sanctioned. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said sanctions will not be lifted unless a peace agreement is achieved. After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer called the talks “direct, open and difficult.” Do you believe that an agreement could be reached in the near future?

It would not be proper to engage in speculation. However, Austria consistently calls on Russia to stop the military aggression against Ukraine, withdraw its troops and return to the negotiating table for serious and meaningful talks. Because one thing is clear, lasting peace will be reached only through dialogue and diplomacy, not with bombs and missiles.

Let’s get back to North Macedonia. Recently, a delegation of eight Austrian companies interested in cooperation with construction companies working in the field of infrastructure has attended a business forum in Skopje. Have the meetings produced concrete results?

I have been told that the Austrian companies, all of them active in the field of traffic infrastructure and logistics, enjoyed the opportunity to get valuable insights into North Macedonia´s plans to expand the country´s road and railway network. As to my knowledge, the dialogue between the companies continues and I am confident that this will lead to concrete business results in the future. Naturally, we would be glad to host a similar delegation from North Macedonia in Austria to further develop our partnership.

Austria is North Macedonia’s 18th trade partner and Austrian companies rank second as investors. Which areas are perceived as favorable to strengthen economic cooperation?

The planned de-carbonization of energy production is one of the areas with great potential for growth of trade and investments between our two countries. Your government´s plan to implement environmental reforms could also become grounds for an intensified exchange of expertise and services, given Austria´s vast experience in environmental technologies. In general, we see North Macedonia´s enormous efforts to modernize its infrastructure and industry as very promising for intensifying economic cooperation.

Ana Cvetkovska

Back to top button
Close