This year’s Strategic Streams conference, organized by the Forum for Strategic Studies (FORST) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES), was held on May 5th at the Metropol Hotel in Belgrade, gathered, as in previous years, a large number of interested participants from the fields of diplomacy, international relations, and economics. As a traditionally established forum where experts in these areas discuss the most important geopolitical event of the year, the fourth annual conference of FORST, under name Strategic Streams 2022: Europe after presidential elections in France – Franco-German cooperation and the Western Balkans, focused on leading strategic trends after the French presidential election and the impact of Franco-German cooperation on the EU enlargement process in the Western Balkans, with an indispensable review of current events in Ukraine and their impact on the further dynamics of relations between the European Union and the countries of the Western Balkans.
Strategic Streams 2022
The conference participants were first addressed by the President of the Forum for Strategic Studies, Dr. Neven Cvetićanin, who briefly presented the history of FORST and expressed hope that conferences organized by this think-tank could soon grow into something like Strategic Streams Conference Series as a recognizable brand, and Dr. Max Max Brändle, Director of the Serbian branch of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, who greeted those gathered and expressed hope that the European Union would overcome its structural weaknesses and continue the enlargement process with new enthusiasm and more political will in the wake of French elections and the new situation in Ukraine.
The introductory speeches were also followed by a speech of the Ambassador of France to the Republic of Serbia, His Excellency Mr. Pierre Cochard. Mr. Cochard pointed out that this year’s elections, which coincide with the French presidency of the European Union for the first time since 1995, were marked by geopolitical developments, and that European issues were therefore on the table as a factor to be taken into account. He praised the quick European response to Russian actions in Ukraine in the form of targeted sanctions, as well as the fact that during the French presidency, the EU adopted the so-called Strategic Compass as a kind of white paper of European defense. As for the Western Balkans, the ambassador pointed out that President Macron said as early as December that this region would be one of the two geographical priorities during the French presidency, and that the Western Balkans region should be presented with a sincere European perspective with clearer dynamics, which is not something directly related to the war in Ukraine and does not derive only from geopolitical reasons. The ambassador emphasized the importance of acknowledging the date when the region will be admitted to membership, as well as the fact that Serbian citizens can already benefit from the integration process through projects such as Erasmus or Horizons 2020. Finally, he praised Serbia’s support for Ukrainian sovereignty, but also added that it would be better if Serbia expressed its stance more clearly, and emphasized the importance of sharing a common vision and attitude towards the events on the continent.
The participants were then addressed by Dorothea Gieselmann, Deputy Ambassador of Germany in Belgrade. Firstly, she stated that she agreed with the views of Ambassador Cochard, and then, alluding to the topic of last year’s conference of FORST – Europe after Angela Merkel, noted that she was satisfied that this year’s conference was not called Europe after Emanuel Macron. She pointed out that the stability and continuity of a European France are a blessing to be thankful for and good news for Europe, especially in the midst of events in the East of the continent. According to Ms. Gieselmann, these events represent a new geopolitical round in Europe, something that will also affect the region of the Western Balkans. Therefore, Ms. Gieselmann welcomed the renewed interest of Europe in the region, but at the same time, she added that she expects to see a stronger sign of Serbia’s commitment to Europe.
The first panel of the conference, titled The Importance of Franco-German Cooperation for the European Union and the Enlargement Process, opened with a short video address by Adis Ahmetović, rapporteur of the German Bundestag for the Western Balkans, who also welcomed Emanuel Macron’s victory and the importance it carries for the European idea and the enlargement policy. Ahmetović also pointed out that the victory of liberal forces in Slovenia is a positive signal as well, that France and Slovenia stand firmly behind the European idea and that he hopes that both Macron and Scholz, but also the entire Union, will now work together to hasten the admission of the whole region to the Union. He expressed the desire to achieve three goals: Western Balkans in the European Union, a strong European Union, and peace in Europe.
Then Philippe Folliot, a member of the Senate of the French Republic, who arrived in Belgrade as the exclusive guest of the conference, addressed the audience and first expressed satisfaction that he has the opportunity to directly support the work of the Forum for Strategic Studies, recognized in European circles as a serious, promising and credible think tank from the Balkans, which can represent a quality contribution of the region in formulating strategic guidelines for a common European future. Then Senator Folliot spoke about the fact that we currently have a lot of classic politicians in Europe, but that Europe currently lacks statesmen like Charles De Gaulle, the former president of France, who would have a clear vision of Europe’s development. He mentioned that classic politicians, such as many in Europe, think about the next elections, and that statesmen like De Gaulle thought about the next generations, and expressed hope that Europe facing a number of challenges – from the war in Ukraine to potential economic the consequence of that war – will be able to formulate a clear strategic and geopolitical vision of which the Western Balkans will be a part.
Former member of the European Parliament Knut Fleckenstein said that historically it has always been positive when the Franco-German alliance worked well. Also, the essence of this partnership was never, as he emphasized, that these two countries tell other members what to do, but instead to give impetus, new power to the idea of the European Union. He also expressed hope that this alliance could evolve as a Paris-Berlin-Warsaw axis, although with a disclaimer that is still difficult for now. Fleckenstein also said that Chancellor Scholz and President Macron share common goals and fight against nationalist tendencies within the EU itself and that they are both convinced that the Western Balkans should be a part of the European Union. He added that he agrees with the French president on the need for structural changes within the Union for it to function better, and welcomed the change in Germany’s attitude towards a larger defense budget. In addition, he emphasized the importance of strengthening Europe’s own defense capacities, which in that sense should not depend on who is the person in the position of the President of the United States. Finally, Fleckenstein noted that, although it is important that Macron and Scholz have no dilemma that Ukraine should be given all possible help and that the most important thing now is to stop the aggression, they must keep in mind that the day after the war will come at some point and that it will be necessary to build something for the benefit of the entire continent. They have that in mind and I call it responsibility, he added. When asked by the moderator how long the war will dominate the EU agenda and how it will affect the dynamics of enlargement, he said that the issue of aggression against Ukraine will be the number one priority in the European Union’s agenda until the aggression ends, but that does not have to mean that the enlargement process, as a kind of a bureaucratic giant, should be put on a back burner, but, in his opinion, accelerated instead. Fleckenstein noted that he considered irresponsible the promise of Ursula von der Layen given to Ukraine regarding the candidate status at the moment, which is also true for Georgia and Moldova, because the promise of membership, in his opinion, cannot be seen as a sort of a safety belt during times of war. When asked what would be the ideal desirable candidate for the EU under the conditions of the events in Ukraine, Mr. Fleckenstein pointed out that it would be a country that shares the common positions of the Union when it comes to the unacceptability of aggression. To the reporter’s question on whether Germany would take the lead in negotiations with Serbia after a meeting between President Vučić and Chancellor Scholz, he added that it is always good to have a German chancellor on your side, but that he could not replace 27 or 26 other opinions.
Dr. Neven Cvetićanin, President of the Forum for Strategic Studies, also took part in the first panel of the conference, where he presented his position on three potential scenarios for the Western Balkans amidst the Ukrainian crisis: the most optimistic, according to which the entire region would be admitted to membership due to geopolitical encirclement, then a realistic sectoral integration scenario according to the new accession methodology where individual sectors of regional countries would become parts of the European system, and finally the most unfavorable, the so-called Casablanca scenario of delayed integration due to the crisis and Europe’s preoccupation with its own problems. Regarding Ukraine, Dr. Cvetićanin believes that at some point, a Korean scenario of a de facto division of Ukraine would occur and that sooner or later this issue would be resolved in something resembling a New Yalta conference, which is a thesis that he has been advocating academically for some time. Dr. Cvetićanin also agreed with other speakers on the need to strengthen European strategic autonomy in the future.
The second panel, called The European Union’s capacity for enlargement to the Western Balkans, started with speeches by Duško Lopandić, former Serbian ambassador to the European Union, and Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Paris-based Institute for European Perspectives and Security (IPSE). Through a video link, visitors could hear Mr. Petar Marković, Head of the Mission of Montenegro to the European Union, Mr. Jean-Yvess Leconte, member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the French Senate, Jean-Marrie Bockel, a former minister in the French government and a statement by Bojan Maričić, Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Macedonia for European Affairs.
Ambassador Duško Lopandić expressed the opinion that the war in Ukraine is a completely new territory that Europe has not seen for decades, and that it represents a watershed and a great comeback of geopolitics. This situation, as he states, makes it impossible to pursue a policy that would be balanced between East and West, since we are now in a binary situation where there is no middle ground. As for the enlargement, he believes that it is not justifiable for a country, with the exception of Turkey, to be left in the waiting room for nearly two decades. His position is that it would be good to set a date, such as 2025 or 2027 when the current EU budget and President Macron’s term end, so that this process has a clear limit, or perhaps 2030, as proposed by some Slovenian sources. He stated that it would also be good to show more solidarity with Ukraine in the form of humanitarian aid or the reception of more Ukrainian refugees, especially when domestic demographic problems are taken into account. Gradual harmonization with the EU foreign policy and the acceleration of technical harmonization are two other issues that need to be worked on in the future, Ambassador Lopandić pointed out.
A European vision of the further course of the European Union’s enlargement process was offered by Mr. Emmanuel Dupi, President of the Paris Institute for European Perspectives and Security (Institut Prospective et Sécurité de L’Europe), who spoke about a realistic scenario for the sectoral integration of the Western Balkans into the EU. He agreed with the presentation of Dr. Neven Cvetićanin from the first panel that previous is the most realistic scenario for the continuation of the European integration of the region at this time. He also spoke about the idea of European strategic autonomy and France as a leading country in the European Union in whose interest is the realization of that idea, which includes, among other things, the privileged relations of the Western Balkan countries with Paris and Brussels, where Serbia is especially important as the central country of the region, of which France and the European Union are aware.
The Montenegrin position on the future of the enlargement process was elaborated by Mr. Petar Marković via the Zoom platform. Mr. Marković stated that Montenegro recognizes a new geopolitical moment in Europe and a new moment of possibilities within the French presidency. He pointed out that Montenegro, as a front runner among the Western Balkan countries, does not have the luxury of waiting for the deepening process to be completed before enlargement, which can take years, and in that sense, he is close to the views of Mr. Lopandić. Mr. Markovic also listed three possible future scenarios: the so-called fast track enlargement, for which a negative response has already been received from the Netherlands and Germany, then the dilution of the process and phased sectoral expansion, which in his opinion would be especially detrimental for Montenegro as the front runner of this process, and the third scenario, Enrico Leta’s idea of the confederation of Europe and the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which in some way would be nothing more than a codification of the status quo. In that sense, Montenegro still advocates the so-called merit-based acceleration which is in line with the principle of the regatta. Mr. Markovic denied that Montenegro views regional forms of integration such as the Open Balkans or the Berlin Process with suspicion as something that distracts from the main thing, ie. EU membership, but also stressed that EU membership is the main goal and that other forms of integration are not something that Montenegro is fleeing from as long as they are in the service of achieving the primary goal. He ended his speech by saying that he believes that Montenegro could become the next member without disrupting the functioning of the EU, and remarked that if there is a reluctancy within the Union to admit a veto player who does not share common European values, Montenegro is undoubtedly not one such example.
Another French view was presented by Jean-Marrie Bockel, a former minister in the French government and Jean-Yves Leconte, a member of the French Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, both also through the Zoom platform. Both high-ranking guests of the conference from France spoke through video platform about the process of European integration of the Western Balkans as a process that includes key reforms in the Western Balkans countries in order to bring their state and social structure closer to the European Union. The key reforms that the European Union and its leading members expect from the countries of the region are, above all, the establishment of a functioning rule of law, the fight against corruption, as well as the establishment of a functioning parliamentary democracy and clear democratic values, in accordance with the standards established in the European Union.
Finally, panelists and participants could hear the recorded statement of Mr. Bojan Maricic, Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Macedonia. In his video address, he stressed the importance of the enlargement policy as one of the most successful European policies and emphasized the importance of the Western Balkans for the stability of Europe as a whole. He also added that the goal of Northern Macedonia is full membership in the Union and that he hopes for progress on that issue during the French presidency. He added that Northern Macedonia is actively working with Bulgaria to resolve bilateral issues that could be a hindrance to this process. Following in the footsteps of previous speakers, Mr. Maricic once again highlighted the dangers of the status quo and the slowing down of the enlargement process, which could potentially lead to a rise in the influence of third parties in the region. He quoted the words of President Macron: Europe is what protects us from crises and wars, and called for a renewed European interest in the region that could in turn have a positive impact on domestic reform processes as well.
After the address of the panelists on the second panel, questions from the audience and fruitful discussion followed. At the very end of the conference, Dr. Neven Cvetićanin, President of the Forum for Strategic Studies, thanked all conference participants, all people present in the audience, as well as presented media, for another successfully held annual conference Strategic Streams of FORST.