Newsletter 8/2010 - From Brussels angle

INTERVIEW with Steven Vanackere, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Belgium

Common positions command more respect than individual interventions could ever obtain

Mr. Vanackere, as Belgium holds the current EU presidency, could you interpret the main findings of the latest European Commission's enlargement strategy paper and progress reports for our readers? What are the key messages?

The Commission has come to different conclusion for each country, which reflects the specific progress made by each of them. For Montenegro, in the light of incomplete but genuine progress, the Commission recommends that the Council grants the status of candidate country in December. The opening of the real negotiations will depend on further efforts. For Albania, the Commission underlines the need to multiply efforts to improve the country's record, before granting the status of candidate country. As far as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is concerned, progress has been achieved, but a negotiated and mutually accepted solution to the name issue under the auspices of the UN remains essential in order to effectively start negotiations. For Serbia, we await next year's report from the Commission on the country's application. Last October, the Council transmitted this application for advice to the Commission while underlining that full cooperation with ICTY remains an essential condition for membership of the EU. As far as Bosnia and Herzegovina is concerned, progress has been noted but remains limited. On Kosovo, the commitment on its European perspective was recalled but further and deep efforts are needed. For Croatia, negotiations have come close to a final result, for Turkey the train keeps moving though many fundamental problems remain to be solved. The common thread in this rightfully diversified picture is that every country makes progress at a pace which depends in essence on the merits of their efforts in meeting the responsibilities of full EU membership.

How can regional cooperation in general and the Regional Cooperation Council in particular contribute to overcoming the remaining challenges on the Western Balkan's path to European integration?

Enlargement has contributed to extending peace, democracy and prosperity in Europe for the benefit of all European citizens. There must be no doubt that this has thus far been a success story for Central-Europe and we are now obtaining excellent results in the Balkan countries. Regional cooperation is important and will even be essential when countries move into the Union. Today Belgium is still a member of the Benelux with the Netherlands and Luxemburg. Both in terms of political cooperation and in some very practical fields this remains relevant. I meet my Dutch and Luxemburg colleagues before almost every EU meeting and whenever we see an opportunity we formulate common positions which command more respect than our individual interventions could ever obtain.

What could be the biggest threats to individual countries' lagging behind the others in the region when it comes to advancing the European agenda?

Applicant countries must refrain from exaggerated promises to the population, on a long path requiring numerous and sometimes painful reforms as well as efforts towards a climate allowing for regional cooperation. If we have been able to move forward on visa liberalisation for the Western Balkans, this has been achieved by combining rigorous conditionality with the delivery of specific benefits. If governments prove unable to move forward, the expected results of EU integration will not be visible for public opinions. The support for EU membership is of course a key factor to obtain a momentum in the reform process: lagging behind risks to make popular support for the process ever more difficult.

Are there any "success stories" from the region that you would like to highlight at the end of 2010?

Overall, I would mention regional cooperation as illustrated by the high-level meeting organized in Sarajevo in June. In this context, I wish to pay tribute to the strong leadership shown recently by Serbia and specifically president Boris Tadic in moving towards a better relationship with Bosnia and Herzegovina - specifically by coming to terms with the tragic legacy of the massacres of Srebrenica. Serbia's decision to start a dialogue on relations with Kosovo was a key factor motivating our decision to move forward in the accession process with Serbia. We must aim at resolving the remaining potential tensions in the area rather than to risk importing tensions into the Union. The past months have brought us some good news in that respect from Serbia while - as I mentioned before - full cooperation with the ICTY remains a major condition to be fulfilled.

What do you see happening in the EU and in the Western Balkans in 2011 when it comes to further EU enlargement? Could you specify any timelines?

I prefer to avoid timelines. A student can ask his teacher to obtain the schedule of exams at the start of the academic year but he cannot expect his teacher to tell him in advance whether he will succeed in all his endeavours. Still, we can reasonably expect Croatia to come to the end of accession negotiations in a relatively near future. I am confident that if the government in Ankara maintains its efforts we can open negotiations on a new chapter by spring 2011, most likely the one relating to competition policy. For Croatia, Turkey and others much will depend on new steps in taking up and bringing into practice European legislation and policies. This is as such a process to the benefit of all citizens, whether in the EU or in the candidate countries and I remain confident that the enlargement train will move on in line with the EU's commitments toward candidate countries. EU enlargement is a mutually beneficial process and it has been a pleasure and privilege during recent months to contribute to this important undertaking.

Steven Vanackere has been performing duties of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium since November 2009. Prior to this, among many other posts, he has been Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Civil Service, Public Enterprise and Institutional Reform (2008-2009), Minister of Welfare, Public Health and Family Affairs in the Flemish Regional Government (2007-2008), Alderman in the Brussels City Council (Economics, Trade, Port, Flemish Affairs; since 2006), Member of the Flemish Regional Parliament (2004/2007). Vanackere holds Masters Degrees in Law and Economics from the Catholic University of Leuven.


Steven Vanackere, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Belgium (Photo: /

Steven Vanackere, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Belgium (Photo: /