COMMENT

Ries: Security in Europe depends on stability in the Balkans

GIORGOS TERZIS

Charles Ries served as US ambassador to Greece from 2004 to 2007 and principal deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs from 2000 to 2004. He is currently vice president of think tank the Rand Corporation.

TAGS: Interview, Diplomacy

Peace and security in Europe depends on achieving stability in the Western Balkans, Charles Ries, who served as US ambassador to Greece from 2004 to 2007 and principal deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs from 2000 to 2004, has told Kathimerini in an interview.

Although he avoids openly commenting on the name deal between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, out of courtesy to current US Ambassador in Athens Geoffrey Pyatt, Ries points out Albania’s membership of the NATO security alliance as a very positive development, while expressing hope that FYROM will soon follow (as the Republic of North Macedonia).

Furthermore, Ries expresses hope that the European Union will take these Balkan countries on board. In the same interview, Ries, who is vice president of think tank the Rand Corporation and an expert on Brexit and its potential implications, talks about the lingering impasse in London and makes no secret of his concern that, barring a deal to delay Britain’s exit from the Union, we could witness the worst-case scenario of a no-deal Brexit.

Ries, who is to discuss Brexit at the Delphi Forum later this month, recognizes the rise of Euroskepticism and similar isolationist trends in the USA, but nevertheless remains optimistic. He believes that Brexit sends a clear message to the Europeans about the significance of the bloc. He deems that realization is growing in the US that the country is strong thanks to its alliances.


I understand that you do not wish to openly comment on the Prespes accord, but I am interested in hearing your outlook for the region in the wake of latest developments.

As much as it was in the 1990s, achieving peace and security in Europe depends on achieving stability and prosperity in the Western Balkans. Membership in NATO by Albania, and I expect soon by Northern Macedonia, are important steps forward. Further EU enlargement will depend somewhat on internal developments within the Union, but I hope the EU remains open to countries in the region that meet its high standards for democracy, human rights and anti-corruption, and are prepared to make the major effort involved in accession.

Two-and-a-half years since the UK’s referendum on Brexit, its implementation has proved extremely difficult, while no one can be certain what a final agreement will look like.

The UK narrowly chose Brexit in a referendum in 2016. High on the list of voter concerns were a wish to constrain immigration, a desire not to be subject to European Court of Justice jurisdiction, and a feeling that EU regulations and trade priorities harmed the British economy. At Rand in 2017 we published a study of the potential economic consequences of various Brexit scenarios for the UK, the rest of the EU, and the US. We found that from Britain’s standpoint, all the scenarios will involve economic costs, as compared to continued full EU membership. Our analysis showed that for the British, the costliest scenario by far would be “no deal,” in which it would leave the EU with no preferential trading regime at all. In the absence of a deal, British and EU goods crossing the English Channel would be subject to duties at WTO rates, a sharp change from the Single Market’s seamlessness. Even a EU/Canada-style free trade agreement where tariffs were set at zero would be economically worse than membership for the UK, as it would require customs and rules of origin checks on traded goods. This too would have costs.

In this case the economy is directly related to politics, and I am referring to the “backstop” and the Irish border. Do you see room for compromise?

In addition, there is the serious problem of Northern Ireland, where the Good Friday Accord is based politically on a fully open border. When the UK leaves the EU, the border between the UK’s Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland becomes the (only) land border between the UK and the EU. What kinds of customs checks will be needed depends on what the trade arrangements will be. (The UK and Ireland have long had a bilateral agreement allowing for free movement of people without immigration checks.) In order to protect the Good Friday Accord, therefore, the EU is insisting the UK, after a transition period, remain “as a backstop” within a Customs Union (same external tariffs, same regulatory rules) with the EU until some other solution is technically feasible (through yet-to-be designed unobtrusive electronic checks for example).

The backstop idea alarms Leavers in Britain who fear the country would never regain sovereignty to do its own trade deals or run its regulatory systems.

Between Leavers opposed to the backstop, those who would like to rerun the referendum to find a basis to remain, and those fearful of no deal, there is no majority in the British Parliament for any solution. Prime Minister Theresa May is asking the EU for flexibility on implementation of the backstop. But if nothing can be done to postpone things, Britain will fall out of the EU with no deal on March 29. This would be the most disruptive solution economically, both for Britain and its trading partners (including the US). Foreign investors are already avoiding new commitments to the UK. The global economic consequences may not be severe, but the British may have to adopt emergency measures to wave trade through and minimize shortages.

Ongoing developments relating to Brexit are based on intensifying Euroskepticism in the EU, or if you prefer, a more general tendency toward isolationism, also observed in the USA.

Euroskepticism is on the rise in a number of EU countries. Some Americans are similarly skeptical about the value of international engagement and multilateral institutions. Part of this is the normal swings in political discourse. Another part may be a reaction to a rise in inequality and a loss of economic optimism within countries, and hostility to the elites thought to have been insensitive to the issues.

The European Parliament elections often are used for protest votes, since their outcome does not directly affect national governments, and this year may be no exception. But the turmoil and cost of Brexit shows many Europeans the enduring value of the EU, so Euroskepticism may not be the wave of the future it appears to be. And in the US, challenges to NATO have led the Congress to register strong bipartisan support for it, and a decisive return to the idea that America is stronger for its alliances.

So are you optimistic then?

Yes. When times are difficult, it is all the more important for friends to stand up for each other.

Online