For years Poland has been striving to be a reliable partner for countries that are similar to us in many respects: culture, historical experience, location in ‚our’ part of Europe (broadly understood). The enlargement of the European Union to include the Western Balkan countries is necessary to ensure stability throughout Europe, as this region is Europe’s ‚soft underbelly’ — potentially susceptible to destabilising external influences, especially from countries such as Russia and China. Paweł Musiałek, Director of the Analysis Centre of the Jagiellonian Club, and Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, discuss the role of the Balkan Process and Poland’s contribution to European integration. Why did Poland organise the Berlin Process Summit in Poznań this year, taking into account that the Balkans had not been on the list of priority directions for Polish diplomacy so far?
Poland was invited to participate in the Berlin Process and to take the chairmanship by Chancellor Merkel on the occasion of the CEBiT fair in Hannover. It was proof of the positive perception of Poland’s commitment and role in the Western Balkans region to date and of the appreciation of our potential as a large EU Member State with a vital experience of political transformation, which it can share with the countries applying for membership. The course of the Western Balkans Summit in Poznań, which was very well received both by the countries of the Western Balkans region and by our partners from the European Union, shows that these evaluations were correct. An example of sharing our pre-accession and transformation experience was the Forum of Cities and Regions organized by the Ministry of Investment and Development in Rzeszów in June this year. Apart from Poland’s vociferous support in favour of EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, Poland’s involvement in civil society dialogue and the Think Tank Forum, organised for the first time as part of the Western Balkans summit, deserves particular attention.
What is the significance of the Western Balkans for Polish diplomacy?
The Western Balkans is the so-called ‚soft underbelly’ of the European Union. This was particularly evident during the refugee crisis when one of the main routes for refugees led through the region. In the countries of the region, the economic development of Poland, which is treated as an increasingly important economic partner, is being closely observed. An example is the growing presence of Polish Airlines LOT in the region. Apart from Belgrade, traditionally served by our carrier, we can fly directly from Warsaw to both Skopje and Podgorica. During my visits in the Balkans, I was able to see many times that the easiest way to get between the Balkan capitals is to fly through Warsaw, from where it is also the easiest way to get to North America and Asia. The growing number of Polish tourists arriving in countries such as Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia also proves the change in the Polish perception of the region. All in all, then, it should be said that, although the Balkans were not at the very top of the Polish priorities, they were and still are an important and recognised region, and the Poznań Summit and the extraordinary activity in this area have contributed to the increase in its importance and visibility.
The summit took place in July. How do you evaluate its effects, and have politically important decisions been made?
The achievements of the Summit should be considered on two levels — the first one is Poland’s relations with the Western Balkans region, whose integration is important for the stability and security of entire Europe. We have been intensifying relations for several years now, but thanks to the Presidency in the Berlin Process and the Western Balkans Summit, they have been significantly strengthened. Their scope also increased, because thanks to the civic dimension, we developed not only political relations, but also contacts with representatives of civil society, think tanks, and the world of culture. At the same time, however, the Summit was also an opportunity to deepen cooperation with EU participants, especially Germany, the European Commission, the OECD and international financial institutions.
Through the Summit, we clearly articulated Poland’s support for the EU enlargement policy, especially President Duda’s speech was mentioned in this context with appreciation by the partners from the Western Balkans. The summit took place at a difficult time for the Western Balkans countries after it was decided at the General Affairs Council organized in June not to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania — a positive political impulse was very much needed at that time. Unfortunately, also in October, the opening of negotiations with these two countries was blocked. This calls into question the credibility of the EU in the Western Balkans. We expect the opening of negotiations to take place during the planned Balkan Summit in Zagreb in May next year.
What is Poland’s role in creating cooperation between the European Union and the Western Balkans?
Our support for the Western Balkans was not limited to political declarations — we paid EUR 0.5 million to the Western Balkans Investment Framework, and we intend to support the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO). Thanks to the fact that we invited so many members of civil society to Poznań and its representatives spent two days mostly in Poland, the Summit had the potential to promote Poland and build its positive image in the Western Balkans.
Proposing an agenda for discussion at all levels from prime ministers to civil society members was the responsibility of Poland as the host. The programme of the Summit reflected the four priorities of our Presidency — the economy, connectivity (interconnection), civil society and security. Of course, in such cooperation formats, it is necessary to continue the achievements of the predecessors — it is not possible to organise a Western Balkans summit at which connectivity, for example, is not discussed. But setting priorities is the task of the host — during the Presidency.
Poland put emphasis on sharing its experience from the period of political transformation and accession to the EU — through the Forum of Cities and Regions in Rzeszów — and on youth problems across the board — proof that these were not only declarations can be seen in that the situation of youth was the subject of the April meeting of foreign ministers of Balkan countries. Let us not forget that the Western Balkans Summit was the culmination of our Presidency, but it was preceded by many months of work and preparations on the part of Poland and our partners, hence the European Commission announced at the summit a connectivity package covering 8 transport and energy projects, and the Balkan countries took new initiatives within the framework of the multiannual action plan for the Regional Economic Area.
Especially in the context of the recent decisions of EU politicians, do you not have the impression that the Berlin process is a ‚consolation prize’ for the Western Balkan countries, which cannot count on real progress in the EU integration process due to the resistance of some EU countries?
From the outset, the Berlin Process has not been seen as a substitute for the enlargement process, but as a parallel process whose effects and projects, such as the connectivity package, are aimed at bringing the countries of the Western Balkans closer to the European Union and increasing their chances of future membership. Regardless of the current readiness or lack of readiness to negotiate for EU membership, improving the quality of the links between the EU and the Western Balkans, as well as the internal cohesion of the Western Balkan countries, can only have a positive impact on these countries, as well as on their chances of becoming fully-fledged EU members in the future.
The fundamental discussion and prospects for membership depend on the internal development of these countries, compliance with the Copenhagen criteria, progress in combating corruption, harmonisation of laws, etc. It must also not be forgotten, of course, that the integration process depends and will depend on the development of the internal situation within the EU itself and the resolution of problems such as Brexit, for example. However, this does not change the fact that the situation within the Western Balkan countries themselves will be the most significant and that the better they are prepared, the better their chances of membership will be. We will soon find out about the opportunities for Albania and North Macedonia to open negotiations with the EU. I am convinced that the final decision will be greatly influenced by the efforts made so far by both countries and their internal situation.
During the meeting in Poznań, Minister Czaputowicz’s support for the enlargement of the EU to include the Western Balkans resounded strongly. What benefits will Poland gain from the accession of the countries of this region to the EU? Won’t these countries compete for EU funds and threaten the stability of an already turbulent Union?
For years Poland has been striving to be a reliable partner for countries that are similar to us in many respects: culture, historical experience, location in ‚our’ part of Europe (broadly understood). Another very important argument is that of security. As I said before, the Western Balkans are Europe’s ‚soft underbelly’ — potentially vulnerable to destabilising external influences, particularly from countries such as Russia and China. It is in our vital interest to increase the security and stability of this area.
Due to the relatively poorly advanced level of negotiations and, consequently, the real accession of the Western Balkan countries to the EU being quite distant in time, it can be assumed that at the moment of obtaining the membership of these countries in the EU, the level of development of Poland will be so high that we will no longer compete for the same EU funds. It should also be understood that the process of adjustment to EU membership requires and will require an internal restructuring of these countries, which should have a stabilising effect on their internal and external situation. Left outside the processes of European integration, due to their proximity and comprehensive links with the rest of the continent, they could have a very destructive impact on the whole of Europe, particularly its Central and Eastern parts.
Is joining the Berlin Process and organizing the Poznań Summit the beginning of a broader strategy of increasing the Polish presence in the Balkans? If so, what further actions are planned at this stage?
As a coastal country of the European Union, Poland has traditionally been active in the neighbouring areas, including the Western Balkans. For years we’ve been present there in different ways. This is evidenced by the growing number of Polish tourists in these countries (which I mentioned before), as well as the improving network of air connections, both regular and charter. The growing Polish economy must also look for new markets. The Western Balkans market, whose total only constitutes half of that of Poland, has the great advantage of it being in close proximity and gives hope for significant growth in the future.
It is an important task for all of us to take advantage of this strong impulse, which is the Polish Presidency of the Berlin Process and the positive associations that the Western Balkans Summit in Poznań has left in the heads of our partners. Thanks to these events, for many representatives of this region, Poznań and Wielkopolska, and with them the whole of Poland, have made a big impact. The choice of Poznań International Fair, one of the symbols of the Polish economy and its innovativeness, was not accidental — it indicated the direction of actions for the future. However, this impulse was not limited only to Poznań. Most of the key ministries were involved in activities related to the Western Balkans Summit and the Polish Presidency. Through the Forum of Cities and Regions in Rzeszów organised by the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy and the Ministry of Regional Development, entrepreneurs and representatives of local governments were also active. Thanks to study visits, both young entrepreneurs and journalists from the Western Balkans had the opportunity to get to know our country. As a result, several articles and materials presenting our country and knowledge about it appeared in the Balkan press and media. All these activities may seem insignificant, but in total, they are the first opportunity on such a scale to become closer and get to know each other better.
Because of the successful Western Balkans Summit, the next joint presidency, Bulgaria and North Macedonia, asked us to make use of our experience during their presidency. The recent Polish-Bulgarian-Macedonian consultation held in Warsaw was a response to these expectations. Both Bulgaria and North Macedonia declare the continuation of some of our ideas as well as better dialogue with civil society and the organisation of the Think Tank Forum.
Does the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the long term, consider extending the format of the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) by the Western Balkans 6? Is there any idea of how to integrate it into the defined areas of cooperation within the TSI?
Geographically, the Western Balkans are certainly part of the TSI. It should be stressed, however, that all the countries of the TSI are also members of the EU. With the Western Balkan countries entering the EU, this issue will probably also arise. At this stage, it is worth emphasizing that the problems of the TSI are primarily the problems of infrastructure development, interconnections and mutual cohesion. Therefore, the priorities of the TSI are consistent with connectivity, one of the flagship programmes of the Berlin Process, where mutual internal relations and links with the EU are long-term, consistently implemented goals. This convergence bodes well for future cooperation. For example, our S-19, Via Carpatia, fits in well with the plans to bring Central Europe, the Baltic States and the Balkans closer together. Another area is energy policy. Moreover, from the very beginning, we have been trying to understand connectivity as broadly as possible, also in the institutional and human dimension. We will certainly be thinking about its further development. It is, therefore, our task to build on the achievements of the Western Balkans Summit in Poznań and the entire Polish Presidency of the Berlin Process. We have invested a lot of effort, attention and resources in this region, which is why it is important and natural for it to remain an essential direction of Polish foreign policy.
The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.
Originally published at https://klubjagiellonski.pl.