«The integration of all Balkan countries is an ambitious, yet certainly feasible goal and Italy is at the forefront to achieve it. The countries in the region face complex but necessary challenges. Each country will complete the journey at its own pace, but it is fundamental that all of them eventually fulfil this strategic objective». Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio is convinced of this, commenting on the idea, evoked by Slovenian President Borut Pahor, of a simultaneous enlargement of the Union to all non-EU Balkan countries.
Last week you spoke of the serious risk of loss of credibility of the Union in the Balkans due to delays in the enlargement process. Do you think this message has been heard in the European capitals?
«In Brussels we all shared the view that the EU cannot look at the Western Balkans simply as one of the regions in its neighbourhood. It is a region at our doorstep, which requires a greater level of responsibility. All member states are in favour of enlargement, even though there may be different sensitivities of the Twenty-Seven on individual points. We need to build on this for a change of pace on the part of the EU».
Which EU countries are currently the most reluctant to accelerate on the integration of the Balkans? And how can we convince them to change their position?
«The dialectic between the member states is always ongoing and we respect the point of view of those who demand that the countries in the region pledge to greater reforms. We too are convinced that their alignment with our European standards is in everyone's interest, but we must nevertheless encourage this process. Italy will continue to strive to revive action by the EU, to ensure that it translates into concrete progress in the European integration of the Western Balkans».
If the enlargement continues to be stymied, what are the risks for the Balkans? And what are the risks for the EU?
«Leaving these countries out of the EU would be a mistake of historic proportions, an unjustified act of political short-sightedness that would favour third parties not necessarily interested in the full integration of the region into the Union. Moreover, we would also waste the most important lever at our disposal to resolve the still open questions and unravel the political knots that continue to block the extraordinary potential of the area».
A “non-paper” circulated at the Foreign Affairs Council signalled “deep disappointment” in the region, not least because of the failed arrival of vaccines from the EU. Could the Union have done more, without leaving the Balkans at the mercy of China and Russia?
«We comprehend the frustration of the countries in the region over the delays in receiving vaccine doses. We too shared the same feeling because of the delays by the pharmaceutical companies. In recent months, I have personally engaged with Brussels to ensure that the European Commission take over the supply of vaccines to the Western Balkans. We are well aware that more needs to be done and, as soon as the vaccination campaign allows it, Italy will also do its bit».
Returning to the issue of enlargement, will there be good news for Albania and North Macedonia regarding the start of negotiations?
«We all hope so, because a year and more after the decision to open negotiations with Skopje and Tirana, further delays are unacceptable. In Brussels last week I stressed that the credibility of the entire enlargement process risks being damaged if we do not unblock this decision and we will continue to work tirelessly until this result is achieved».
Any forecasts for the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue? What solution would you propose to Belgrade and Pristina?
«This is one of the main issues that remain to be resolved. The status quo does not benefit anyone, on the contrary, it leaves the door open to tensions and mutual recrimination that will reflect negatively on the entire region. This is why we continue to encourage both sides to work constructively, through the EU-facilitated dialogue, to reach a final settlement».
And Bosnia? Will it be left behind once again in the accession process or can something be done?
«We cannot allow this to happen. The opportunity to move forward with the reforms that the country needs to adopt is now, before the general elections in autumn 2022. This was the focus of my visit to Sarajevo at the end of March, when I urged all local political players to work cohesively for a common vision on the country’s future».
In which year do you think the countries in the region will be able to become EU members?
«I’m not into making predictions, what I can say is that the sooner we achieve this goal, the better it will be for all of us Europeans. We have young people in the region today who are clamouring to join Europe and we must respond positively».
Pahor also stressed the importance of a guaranteed seat for the Slovenian minority in the Italian Parliament through a reform of the electoral law. What stage are we at?
«We are aware of the importance of this issue for the Slovene minority, but it has to be dealt with in the context of the electoral law reform, whose natural framework is the Parliament. Work is ongoing and there is an active inter-parliamentary dialogue with Ljubljana on this issue. I would also like to remind you that, with law 38 of 2001, Italy has adopted a legal framework for the protection of the Slovene minority, which has been judged as excellent by the Council of Europe».