Wolfgang Sobotka – Austria will ‘never agree’ to Ukraine without the Western Balkans

National Council President Wolfgang Sobotka (ÖVP) insists that Ukraine’s candidate status for the EU must not come at the expense of the Western Balkan states, which are also willing to join. “Austria will never agree to that,” said Sobotka in the APA interview. While Sobotka was promoting Vienna’s “non-paper” on EU integration of the Western Balkans, his Kosovar colleague Glauk Konjufca wants to see the entire region in the EU at once.

“For us it is necessary that we not only give all Balkan countries a perspective, but show a way how we can get to the European Union,” said Sobotka in a double interview with Konjufca in Vienna. In the case of the Ukraine, Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) has “made it unmistakably clear” that there will be “no fast track (rapid procedure)”, emphasized the President of the National Council.

“The vision would be that all Western Balkan countries join the EU at the same time,” said Konjufca. On the one hand, the differences in development between the six states are not that great, on the other hand, this also prevents mutual blockades, argued the left-nationalist politician, whose country is not recognized by all EU member states as an independent state even 14 years after unilaterally seceding from Serbia.

“Always Last”

Konjufca complained that his country “always comes last” in the EU perspective for the Western Balkans, although it is at the forefront in democracy or economic rankings. However, because the differences between the six countries are “no more than 20 or 30 percent,” the EU should offer them all simultaneous accession within a specific period of time. “But that shouldn’t be a gift or a guaranteed promise,” emphasized the Kosovar politician. “You should set a time frame of between six and eight years with certain guidelines and reform processes that are to be implemented in this time frame. Anyone who cannot implement these reform processes will not get through. Anything else would just be playing for time.”

Accordingly, Konjufca’s enthusiasm about the most recent Austrian advance in the western Balkans is limited. The “Non Paper” written by Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg and EU Minister Karoline Edtstadler (both ÖVP) proposes bringing the Western Balkans closer to the European Union in some specific areas, which critics see as undermining the accession process.

Even when asked several times, the Kosovar politician did not want to position himself on the proposal. Instead, he emphasized that the Western Balkan countries had already been promised full EU membership in 2003. He has no doubts that this attitude has changed. “If you put a question mark on the European future of the Western Balkan countries, it would be the worst news of the 21st century, especially given what is happening in the world right now,” he said, referring to the Ukraine war. Konjufca announced that Kosovo wants to submit its application for EU membership before the end of the year.

allay fears

Sobotka tried to allay fears related to the Austrian proposal. “I believe that the countries in the Balkans can live with that very well,” he said. Full EU membership would by no means be off the table as a result of the rumored model, on the contrary. “The process is managed by the countries that want to join. If they meet all these conditions, then they’re in,” he said. At the same time, he criticized the current accession process with 35 chapters, in which one “negotiates endlessly without showing people any prospects”.

In addition, the “Non Paper” draws lessons from previous expansion rounds. Bulgaria and Romania “joined in a very short time” and they wanted to resolve issues such as the rule of law “after the fact”. “You don’t want a situation like that a second time.”

In the Western Balkans, for example, Serbia is “much more advanced in terms of actual economic integration with the EU member states than, for example, in the question of the rule of law”. According to the Austrian initiative, it should therefore be possible to get “economic integration” officially and legally secured before meeting EU requirements, for example on the rule of law. The “non-paper” is therefore “rather an encouragement”, also for the existing member states, not to block states on their way to the EU. “We need an intermediate step in Europe, we need the opportunity for the other countries to go along with us,” he said, referring to the deadlock in the accession negotiations. Bulgaria’s “unbearable veto” over North Macedonia damages the EU’s reputation in the region, “because nobody understands it.” The “non-paper” is “well suited” to preventing such blockages.

Pessimistic about relations with Belgrade

The Kosovar parliament speaker expressed pessimism when it came to reaching an agreement with Belgrade in the dispute over his country’s independence. Serbia has “reached major compromises” in the negotiations over the past few years, Konjufca said, referring to 33 agreements that have been concluded since 2011. “We have come to the conclusion that there is now only one unresolved issue and that is recognition.” However, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has stated that he will never sign the independence of Kosovo. “If Serbia continues to take this position, I don’t think we can make any progress,” said Konjufca, who also emphasized Vucic’s pro-Russia course against the background of the Ukraine war.

When asked about this, Sobotka positioned himself clearly against comparisons between Kosovo and the pro-Russian Donbass. “We completely reject Putin’s narrative,” he said. Kosovo was already autonomous in Yugoslav times before Serbia “robbed it of its independence” in 1989. On the other hand, as late as 1994 Russia issued a guarantee of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. “For us, Kosovo’s independence as an independent state is non-negotiable,” stressed the President of the National Council. Sobotka also emphasized that Kosovo had “shown a very good and clear pro-European stance” on difficult issues over the past few years and also supported Western sanctions against Russia in the Ukraine war. (apa)

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