NEWS

‘All sails are pointing in the same direction:’ John Phillips for information

Many are claiming that, post-Iraq, the Balkans are re-emerging as a key area of European policy focus. What can reasonably be expected from the two summits? The Balkans have never gone out of focus. The outside world may have changed its focus, but the EU has had the Balkans as an absolute priority. And you saw even in the middle of [the Iraq war], when [Serb President Zoran] Djindjic was shot, you had [EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris] Patten there, you had [Greek Foreign Minister George] Papandreou there, you had [EU foreign policy chief Javier] Solana there, literally within 48 hours. They were there reaffirming that commitment and support, though it was a shame it was triggered by an awful event. I would say that all sails are pointing in the same direction, and that being the EU. It is all in the perspective of the end-goal, and that was stated categorically in Zagreb [November 2000], that «We would like you to become members when you are ready, and in the meantime we will do everything we can to help.» There is a lot more optimism about the future, regarding EU prospects. Is there a danger that the region could get ahead of itself? Well, the mood is one of justified and guarded optimism. I think there’s a fair bit of realism in that the five countries must take terrific encouragement from the 10 [accession countries]. From the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to 2004 and membership, that’s a phenomenally quick transition. And it’s substantiated; every step of the way is monitored. Just recently we had the five presidents saying «Yes, we’ve come a long way, we have obligations on our side, but yes, we need you guys to help too.» So heads are screwed on. EAR to the ground Let’s turn to your agency itself. What is your remit and how has it changed in the past three years? Very crudely, we manage EU assistance programs, but that needs a bit of context. We are part of a political process, the process of Stabilization and Association, and that very much mirrors those relationships with those 10 acceding countries. We were born out of three crises, and a total commitment to deal with them. Kosovo was first, after the Serb troops left. Now, that was real crisis stuff: demining, rebuilding roads and bridges that had been destroyed, rebuilding houses in Kosovo (out of a total of 250,000, half were destroyed or damaged). Roads, bridges, houses, making water drinkable, treatment programs, sewage management, rubbish disposal – now it’s better but then was in an absolutely shocking state. You can’t have any long words or political rhetoric if you don’t have light and heat. The second crisis was in Serbia. Milosevic fell in October 2000, again the EU reacted incredibly quickly. It was real crisis stuff to get Serbia through that first winter. So again we had the power sector, you had basic foodstuffs brought in, basic medicines, and believe me, none of this stuff existed. It really was like Rwanda. This was weathered, though that first winter was really fragile, very wobbly. Then the third crisis was Macedonia (FYROM), where again you had civil conflicts in mid-2001. The first part is the political agreement, the second part is a very preferential trade regime whereby most products coming out of SE Europe can go into Europe tariff-free. Boosting the economy largely revolves around enterprises, because small businesses are the motors of any economy, something like 90 percent in this case. And the third part is the huge package of financial and technical assistance, not all done by us. The bulk of what we do is development assistance. But now it’s largely about good governance, strong institutions, and this means working with the public and the local administration, the police, the judiciary, public finance, state utility companies, energy, water, things like that. It’s mostly intellectual help – training, working with them to develop legislation, and helping things through Parliament. It even involves drawing up entire blueprints in whole sectors. Now it’s the long-term slog, and most of that is about EU integration. Building a road is about making life bearable. Proper systems of government are about the future. So despite the reputation of technical aid being just about infrastructure, it is really a human sort of enterprise, isn’t it? Very much so. You build a road, but people travel on that road, and that is huge testimony to your commitment. We’ve rebuilt schools, provided chalk and blackboards, looked at curriculum, location and training programs, done job retraining, worked with the media – these are very human things. Also in FYROM, we’ve drawn up codes of ethics and supports for NGOs. We have made initiatives in ethnic reconciliation, small but great projects that bring people together. It sounds like a massive amount of projects, not just dozens but hundreds. What are the criteria you use for determining your projects? You can add another digit onto that. There is a hell of a lot going on at any one stage. How do we choose? The answer is focus and concentration. There are some enormous projects, like 40 million to build a bridge in Belgrade, 50 million into another, but also small initiatives like NGOs, media. We choose them according to strict criteria, and we know the areas we’re focusing on. Has your work helped dispel some of the earlier notions that the EU had neglected the Balkans? The EU never neglected the Balkans; they are on our doorstep, we are neighbors, we have an interest in having stable and prosperous neighbors. Either you export your stability, or somebody else exports their instability. On every level, moral, practical or economic, there is EU commitment. Even with technical support, there is a need for competent bureaucracy and state structures on the recipient side; cooperation is a two-way street. Absolutely. It gets back to the question of good governance. For instance energy, we’ve poured lots of money into coal mines, etc. so that we work with state utilities, where we work and train management, trying to get them to plan ahead. A minimum level of competence isn’t always there, more so in Serbia than Kosovo, but you’re right, that relationship is key to these projects. As your work moves to reform and governance issues, do the problems get more difficult or sensitive, as they touch more on the political side of things? It has to become more political. We support provisional institutions of self-government, building administrative capacity, training students. That becomes semi-political, so that’s why our support for reform programs gets a bit politicized. It makes it painstaking work, which is going to take time. And there are many actors involved. All EU states have bilateral programs. All the big international financial institutions are starting to come in. We’ve paved the way for them; clearly it’s a bigger picture. Investment is a big thing. A little preparatory work from us can bring a lot more money from others. We did a feasibility study of a coal mine in Serbia, costing about a million euros, and it will lead to an 80-million investment from the EBRD [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development], and from [Germany’s leading promotional bank] KfW, the Germans. But the commitment and number of actors involved is phenomenal. One final point is that our work very well reflects the tone and nature of the summits. It is all about reform, strong institutions, long-term development, the road to Europe, etc. And again, our work perfectly mirrors that. We must always show some humility.