Greek Alternate Foreign Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis has stated that the position of Greece regarding the status of Kosovo remains unchanged and emphasized that Athens strongly supports the continuation of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina with the aim of reaching a comprehensive, legally binding agreement, in accordance with the international law and the EU acquis.

Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Hellenic Republic

Is there real political will in the European Union to revive the enlargement process and, if yes, how?

The Western Balkans is a region of strategic importance to the European Union as an integral part of Europe and it is our common belief that there is no  way for the Western Balkans other than their European integration. It is true that the situation created by the pandemic COVID-19 and the urgent need to face its socio-economic implications delayed the enlargement process and created the so called enlargement fatigue. Certainly there are issues that often dividethe European community and that there are times that a compromise solution is needed in order to safeguard the unity of the Union. But we all remain strongly committed to the EU vision  that a united Europe is a geographically unified Europe, provided that the EU rules are fully respected.

Therefore, the EU tools such as thenew enlargement methodology and the latest Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans with the mobilisation of about 20 billion Euros in investments additionally to the 9 billion Euros of the IPA assistance, could provide the long-term and sustainable development of the Region needed to move forward towards further EU integration.

Let me addthat Greece has consistently supported the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries and we are continuously working on ensuring that the Western Balkans issue remain top listed on the EU agenda. We fully support any individual initiative that could promote further development and prosperity in the region andthat could serve as significant preparatory steps in their own European path. To that end, we are organizing a special Balkan Forum in Thessaloniki on September 15, giving the floor to our Western Balkan partners to share their EUvision, to raise their voices, in an effort to further promote the Dialogue on the Future of Europe.

Do you believe that economic instead of political integration could serve as an institutional framework for faster European integration of the Western Balkan?  What do you think about Mini Schengen (Open Balkan) and similar regional initiatives in that sense?

I believe that it is a mistake to make such a distinction between the economic and the political integration. According to the EU Treaty, the fulfillment of both the political and economic criteria is a prerequisite for any country joining the EU. And we should not forget that the decisions for reforms are taken firstly on political level, followed by direct or indirect economic and social impact.

Consequently, in order to build the proper institutional framework for their European integration, the Western Balkans must continue their reform efforts. Athens has assumed the SEECP Chairmanship-in-Office for one year last July and this role is giving us the opportunity to work with Serbia and the rest of SEE partners with the aim of “Strengthening Southeast Europe Synergies”, focusing on the added value of synergies in a regional and international context, in facing modern challenges and evolving in the demanding socioeconomic environment of current times.

Any other activity or initiative such as the mini-Schengen (Open Balkan) that you mentioned or the Common Regional Market, are totally welcome and could serve as added value to a further modernization and regional integration on their path towardsthe EU.  

In the Western Balkans, bilateral disputes are often used to block the European integration processes. When do you expect North Macedonia and Albania to finally start negotiations on EU membership?

Greece believes that in times of increasing global challenges and divisions, a firm, merit-based prospect of a fully EU membership for the Western Balkans is in the Union's very own political, security and economic interest, as well as the key incentive and driver of transformation in the region.

In this regard, we are looking forward to holding the first Intergovernmental Conference with both North Macedonia and Albania, according to the set conditionalities, the sooner possible. Furthermore, we warmly welcome the explicitly expressed, intention of the Slovenian EU Presidency to keep the enlargement issue high on its agenda, thus increasing EU credibility, and we are ready to work together during the Presidency towards this direction. We hopefully believe that the EU-Western Balkans’ Summit on October 6, held by the Slovenian Presidency, will be a step further towards the economic convergence of Western Balkans with EU and  that will produce tangible results.

What do you see as the main obstacle for Serbia on its EU path?

Greece and Serbia enjoy close diplomatic relations. In the context of the European perspective of Serbia which Greece strongly supports, we are fully prepared to provide any and all technical assistance and collaboration. It is very important to us for Serbia to accelerate its progress and become a member of the European family as soon as possible. We think this is Serbia’s natural place. Serbia is a key partner of the European Union. The priority of the Serbian government for speeding up reforms on the European path with a special emphasis on the rule of law area, the fight against organized crime and corruption, is an important step in the right direction. In this context, we welcome the wise decision of the country to abide by the New Enlargement Methodology, which makes the enlargement process more credible, predictable, dynamic and subject to a stronger political steering.

Let me assure you that Serbia is judged individually on its own merits, and it is the speed and quality of reforms that determine the timetable for its EU accession. Therefore, it is essential to keep up with delivering on its reform commitments and produce tangible results in their implementation. The overall pace of EU – Serbia negotiations will continue to depend on reform progress, with a special emphasis on the rule of law chapters.  Comprehensive normalization of relations with Pristina remains also a key element, regarding Serbia’s Negotiating Framework.

Greece has recently updated the status of Kosovo's office in Athens and expressed interest in strengthening cooperation. Does it lead to the recognition of Kosovo's independence?

As you are well aware of, Greece’s position regarding Kosovo’s statusremains unchanged. At the same time, it is widely known that Greece has pursued a constructive approach towards Pristina, in line with our strategic goal for reinforced stability and security in the Western Balkans. In this regard, Greece has been hosting an “Office of Trade and Economic Affairs of Kosovo in Athens” since 2019, with the aim to facilitate our bilateral cooperation. Without implicating status-related issues, we have recently decided to rename it as “Office of Interests of Kosovo in Athens”.

We strongly support the continuation of the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and we firmly believe that implementation of what has already been agreed remains crucial. After the two recent meetings between President Vucic and Prime Minister Kurti last June and July in Brussels, it is critical that both sides intensify their work towards achieving a comprehensive, legally binding agreement, in accordance with the  international law and the EU acquis.    

What do you expect from the Conference on the future of Europe? Can it contribute to the enlargement process?

During the last 10 years, the EU has been facing some unprecedented challenges such as economic, migrationand sanitary crises. That resulted in a rise of  eurosceptisism, as ever more citizens started questioning EU's capacity to effectively overcome any obstacle in its course "to an ever closer Union". To address this situation, the EU took a brave decision: to address its citizens. The Conference on the Future of Europe aims exactly at giving the floor to the European citizens to raise their voice, by submitting their views, expectations and priorities. It is a bottom-up, a direct democracy process, which takes place for the first time in the history of European integration. This is exactly what we all expect from this Conference, to make our citizens' voice be heard. The European digital platform and all the initiatives we take at national level aim at facilitating citizens' participation in this unprecedented process. At the end, we all wish for a stronger and more efficient Europe, a Europe which inspires and sets a global example. I am sure that in the framework of this open debate, the question of enlargement will be raised, not only as a European policy but rather as a part of a more general quest of who we are, what our values and priorities are within EU. As previously noted, I have no doubt that, when it comes to Western Balkans, no one may question the idea that the future of this region lies within the EU.  

What is the position of Greece on Afganistan and a few words about the potential of a new wave of migrants?

At the moment I do not think that the European Union has a clear view regarding its migration policy and the New Pact on Migration and Asylum which is under negotiation. The process of withdrawal of American and allied forces and the evacuation mission of Afghans and nationals of international partners is expected to be a matter of great concern at European level. Europe is not ready to face a new migration crisis due to Afghanistan.

Our position and our message remain firm and clear.  Greece is not going to turn into “a transit country” for Afghans seeking to enter other EU countries. To that end, we strongly believe that there should be a financial burden-sharing between the EU member states for hosting refugees, as well as effective relocation and repatriation agreements concerning illegal and irregular migrants. Let me stress furthermore that we are no longer talking about a new refugee wave, but we are talking about people who will choose to take risks to enter the European Union.