Newsletter 13/2011 - From Brussels angle

INTERVIEW with Pierre Vimont, Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS), EU

The most important contribution to stability in South East Europe comes from the region itself

Mr Vimont, in view of the latest security-related developments in the world, what is your assessment of security situation and cooperation in South East Europe?

We do not even need to compare the security situation in South East Europe (SEE) with that in other parts of the world – Libya, Southern Sudan, Kashmir, Nagorno-Karabach, Afghanistan – to conclude that the situation has fundamentally changed in South East Europe over the last 15 years for the better. Today all SEE countries have obtained a European perspective with comprehensive Stabilisation and Association agreements in place. Croatia is close to concluding accession negotiations; others are close to opening them.

The Balkan wars of the 90s with their sudden eruption of violence sent disbelief and shockwaves throughout the world and in particular through Europe. We are still looking for answers on how this could have happened. What is clear is that we have to prevent it from happening again and for this a level of security, stability and prosperity in the region needed to be obtained.

The way we thought we could achieve this was through closer integration, both within the region and with the European Union (EU). This is why the EU set up a framework for the accession of the countries of the region whenever they meet the conditions. Accession was offered at the first Western Balkans EU Summit in November 2000 in Zagreb against progress in meeting the conditions and improving regional cooperation, which is a vital component of the process. In the meantime, with a European perspective as a longer term goal, a range of Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) instruments are being used, e.g. we are increasingly exploring the options that mediation offers. In reaction to the Balkan wars, cooperation in defence and security matters accelerated immensely and the first ever CSDP missions became operational in 2003 in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina (and later in other countries like Indonesia, Chad, Somalia).

The most important contribution to stability comes from the region itself. The region addressed the proliferation of conventional weapons and built a clearing house for their control and destruction – South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC). The countries embarked on security sector reforms and established fora to discuss various issues involved – RACVIAC Centre for Security Cooperation, Southeast Europe Defence Ministerial (SEDM), Southeast Europe Clearinghouse (SEEC), Adriatic Charter – and the region moved closer together to achieve approximation to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) standards and membership. By now, Albania, Croatia and Slovenia are members and Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina have a fair chance to becoming members in the not-too-distant future.

The South East European region successfully started military intelligence cooperation and will soon address the issue of counter-intelligence. This demands an exceptionally high trust level which bodes well for the future of the region.

But security is much more than the military aspects of it. It is fighting the flaws of terrorism, corruption, organised crime, cybercrime and natural disaster. It is about building functional judiciaries which enjoy the trust of the people. It is about training the police, prosecutors and judges, but also journalists. It is about good governance. And it is about coming to terms with the past. I am encouraged by the reconciliation efforts, the joint remembrance and the efforts to set up a regional Commission on Truth Telling. This includes the valuable work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which remains an essential condition for membership in the EU, and domestic war crime trials.

South East Europe has made enormous progress on all of these points.

Are there any direct threats to the European security and, if so, what are they?

The threats are coming from the various conflicts in the world which I briefly mentioned, in particular those close to our shores. I evoked Libya but other countries or areas such as Yemen or the Sahel could also be mentioned. In addition, conflicts have lost their territorial aspects. Today we are challenged by phenomena such as cybercrime, economic crime, climate change, energy insecurity and terrorism. We need to find – at a European level – adequate responses to migration. Europe remains open to those who seek refuge from political persecution and flee from genocide, wars, famine and other disasters.

The European Security Strategy adopted in 2003 and updated via an implementation report in 2008 provides the framework for how to deal with security threats. This and our experience allowed us to expand our toolbox and we are committed to constantly improve the capacity to act comprehensively before conflicts break out.

As I see it, there are no direct threats coming from the South East European region. The Balkan wars, the Kosovo campaign in 1999 and the incidents in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia were the last violent conflicts. Dayton/Paris brought an end to the war in BiH and the EU brokered the Ohrid Framework Agreement which prevented a full scale civil war in The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Nevertheless we need to remain vigilant. The violent clashes in Tirana on 21 January this year are a sad reminder of the fragility of the situation and strained ethnical relations in certain areas. The ultimate security guarantee is the accession of the countries of the region into the EU.  

How has the regional cooperation in South East Europe improved, given the turbulent past of the region over the recent decades? 

Undoubtedly there are major improvements. A lot has happened by building up from scratch more than 50 regional initiatives in all areas of public life – democracy, trade, investment, culture, environment - and increasing the regional ownership.

However, let us be clear that there can never be enough regional cooperation. Regional cooperation needs to be pursued on a daily basis and on the basis of the all-inclusive principle and regional ownership. All governments need to fully own regional cooperation and be convinced that this is beneficial for them as a value in itself, not purely in the EU context. We feel that the various initiatives – with due respect for the valuable work they do – are not always cooperating well with each other. There is room for synergies and for rationalisation and here the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) with its strategy is well placed to play a leading role. Participation of Kosovo is an issue of its own. Let me just add that we all must be interested to secure participation of the whole region for the sake of the RCC and the implementation of its mandate.

Other issues which worry us slightly are the so-called bilateral issues. The break-up of Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars have left some issues unresolved. They need to be addressed and solved before accession, through the regional cooperation process and not through the accession process. If they remain unresolved, they are a burden, which increases in weight on the path towards the EU. The EU has called on the countries of the region to address and solve the issues in a European spirit. I realise that this demands political courage, intuition and tact. European integration is not only about free trade and open borders, it is about solving disputes in a spirit of compromise.

Where do you see complementarities between the goals of SEENSA, as a new platform for regional security cooperation in South East Europe, and European Union/NATO security objectives?

When it comes to the management of classified information, we are all in the same boat. We are all interested in exchanging information and trust that this information will not be shared with unauthorised parties. The security standards for classified information should be the same as those of the EU/NATO throughout the region. This is why the EU is negotiating agreements regarding the exchange of secure information with the countries of the region. The last agreements were signed with Montenegro in September 2010 and on 26 May this year with Serbia. The EU fully supports cooperation among the countries of the region in the field of intelligence. In Sarajevo in October we will have the third ministerial meeting on military intelligence. This is a success in itself and a proof of commitment.

How do you see the Regional Cooperation Council in the context of promoter and supporter of advancement of regional security cooperation?

Security is a priority area of the RCC and it is well-covered in the RCC Strategy. We are striving for closer political cooperation, participation of the region in EU led missions, joint procurement, closer cooperation regarding risk reduction and hazardous material, civil protection, rule of law issues, common standards for asylum seekers and refugees, improving the protection of fundamental rights.

Close cooperation with the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) is a conditio sine qua non. The recent SEECP ministerial meetings on defence and justice and home affairs issues touched directly on security issues. In this context, the Regional Strategic Document is an important tool which needs to be implemented jointly.

I am encouraged by the fact that the RCC is actively pursuing the rationalisation of regional cooperation and facilitating access to project planning, financial means and exchange of information. This should help achieve the goals set and further increase the quality of the security cooperation.

Beyond the security sector, I would expect the RCC to continue its constructive role in helping and encouraging the countries of the region to improve relations with neighbours, play a constructive role in the region and solve bilateral conflicts. 

Let me stress this: regional cooperation is a value in itself. Like the Nordic Council and BENELUX, the RCC should be around for quite a while, going much beyond the accession to the EU. It has recently celebrated its 3rd anniversary. I am looking forward to its 30th anniversary.

Pierre Vimont has been Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) since its establishment in December 2010. Vimont, a French national, in his extensive diplomatic career, among other positions  has served as Ambassador of France to the United States of America (2007-2010), Chief of Staff of the Minister of Foreign Affairs (2002-2007), Ambassador, Permanent Representative of France to the European Union (1999-2002), Director for European Cooperation, Department of European and Economic Affairs (1997-1999) and Director for Scientific and Technical Cooperation, Department for Cultural, Scientific and Technical Relations (1993-1996). Vimont holds Bachelor's degree in law.


Pierre Vimont, Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS), European Union (Photo/

Pierre Vimont, Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS), European Union (Photo/