In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, the EU's new neighborhood and enlargement negotiation commissioner, Johannes Hahn, speaks about his view on the latest developments in Ukraine, the future of the Eastern Partnership, and his approach to Belarus and Azerbaijan. In his first extended appearance before international media, he also set out his strategy for Western Balkan countries such as Serbia, Bosnia, and Macedonia.
RFE/RL: You have talked about moving from a "Dayton logic" (a reference to the 1995 agreement ending the Bosnian war) to a "Brussels logic" when it comes to Bosnia. What is the "Brussels logic" for Bosnia?
Johannes Hahn: I think we have to work on the stalemate which now for years has occurred. It was at a certain moment necessary to create and to keep the peace, but now it is important to have a new structure of cooperation inside the country, to develop the country, and to give people a perspective. What I have heard, and in the meantime I had the opportunity to meet many people and get information, [is that] the people on the ground more than ever are interested in this kind of development of Bosnia and I really count [on] and ask the Bosnian politicians to understand what people would like to see. Now they have had the elections, now it is time to form a government -- and then it is time to make some changes and to deliver.
RFE/RL: What are your thoughts on the Macedonia name dispute with Greece, which has held up Skopje's bid to start talks on joining the EU, and what role the EU can play there, especially since the latest enlargement report was quite critical that the UN-led process now has taken 19 years?
Hahn: This is certainly something which will be an issue for us, for me personally. Of course, there is the UN initiative. Maybe next year, after 20 years and if it is still unresolved, we should have a kind of stock-taking and see if there might be another approach possible. Finally, it affects the further integration of the Western Balkan countries and this is not in the interests of the European Union.
RFE/RL: Do you think that the Macedonian government is really committed to the reforms needed for EU membership?
Hahn: Of course, it depends on them and I think it is important to deescalate and, if you like, disarm in terms of words and statements, because first of all it is important to have a fully functional parliament and this means that all elected parties are also in the parliament and not only elected. So this is one issue.
On the other hand, it is important and that is why it is relevant to resolve this name issue to find a way out so that people in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have again a European perspective.
RFE/RL: Serbia has made it clear it won't follow the EU's sanctions on Russia and you saw how Russian President Vladimir Putin was received in Belgrade recently. Aren't you afraid that Serbia will become a Russian Trojan horse in Europe?
Hahn: Each country [shares] a certain history, but if Serbia -- and this was said several times and also proven by action and by doing -- wants to move towards the European Union, part of this process is definitely to align at a certain moment also to the European Union foreign policy principles. But I think we should not overstress one or the other thing. But it is clear at the end of the process there is an alignment with European foreign policy.
RFE/RL: Do you think that EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's categorical denial on several occasions that there won't be any enlargement in the next years will hurt the enlargement momentum in countries such as Serbia and Montenegro?
Hahn: I think we could clarify and make clear that this sentence was, if you like, an expression about the fact that in technical terms it is rather unlikely to complete the ongoing negotiations. As an example, we have negotiated with Croatia for eight years, but we have just started in the beginning of this year negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro, so it is unlikely to [complete] these negotiations within our mandate.
But as I am also commissioner for enlargement negotiations, I think due to the fact that Juncker has chosen somebody from Austria, where we have a certain proximity and empathy towards the Western Balkans, I think this clearly indicates that also President Juncker is in favor of a further enlargement, but not at the cost of quality. That is why I have always said and emphasized it is about quality and not speed.
RFE/RL: What is your opinion about the recent events in eastern Ukraine? How should the EU respond to it? Is it perhaps time for more sanctions?
Hahn: It is really a very, very bad action and signal (so-called elections held by pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine and Russian military movements) because we were just on the way, which we would have seen as a positive development -- we had this Minsk Agreement, we had apparently a cease-fire. We were starting to discuss [whether it was still necessary to keep the] sanctions?
But after this further violation it is crystal clear that we will not discuss [a reduction of] sanctions and maybe one or another [EU country] would come forward with further sanctions. But this is not what we would like to achieve. We would like to have settlement of this problem. I believe that every politician in Russia, in Ukraine, and in the European Union, we should be aware that we have to serve our citizens and what has been done now is in terms of human and economic issues a very destructive policy with far-reaching consequences.
RFE/RL: One of the things the EU is planning to do is a big donors conference for Ukraine. Do you have a date yet or do you have any idea of what sort of sums you want to collect?
Hahn: I had already a first discussion with [Ukrainian] Deputy Prime Minister [Volodymyr] Hroysman and the Foreign Minister [Pavlo] Klimkin and yesterday with their ambassador here in Brussels, and I was rather clear that first there must be a substantial strategy presented by the Ukrainians themselves [about] how the country should develop itself in the medium- and long-term perspective and if we have a first indication about this path it might be useful to fix a date.
RFE/RL: So the conference will not take place this year?
Hahn: Certainly not. But we have no interest to delay it. As soon as possible we will have it. But I think a necessary precondition is to be clear about the strategy where the investment should be. I am not talking about the eastern Ukraine. I am talking about the whole country.
RFE/RL: When it comes to the talks on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, or DCFTA, with Ukraine again, when will they happen and do you have some sort of strategy about how to tackle these, because there will be tough discussions with the Russians?
Hahn: I mean, we have agreed and everything is adopted. The only thing we have "done," in inverted commas, is to postpone the day of it coming into force. We have postponed from 1 January to 1 January 2016, but there is no reason to negotiate about something that has already been agreed.
RFE/RL: But surely Russia will ask for modifications. Are you ready to meet such demands at all?
Hahn: This is an agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. There is no third party involved in terms of contractors. If somebody can negotiate it, then it is Ukraine and it is the European Union, but both the Ukrainian Parliament, and the European Parliament, and the European Council have agreed about the DCFTA and now it is simply [necessary] to start the implementation...
We have, like in Moldova, prepared and provided money [to Ukraine] to assist the country [in its preparations] for the time when this agreement comes into force because it is necessary to prepare, for instance the business sector, but that is what we have to do in the next year -- nothing else.
RFE/RL: When you leave as EU neighborhood commissioner in 2019, what sort of relationship do you want to see between the EU and Ukraine? Where should we be then?
Hahn: Personally, I have really welcomed and appreciated the announcement of [Ukrainian] President [Petro] Poroshenko. He wants to move his country closer to the [European] Union, but he is fully aware that before presenting an application it is necessary to do homework and reforms. I think he was talking about 50-60 necessary reforms -- so quite a lot. I think this is a very reasonable approach, which we will certainly accompany and support...
If it goes like this, I [will be] happy if in 2019 we are closer to 2020 -- which is exactly the date at which President Poroshenko has announced [he intends to] submit an application. But before that, a lot of work has to be done.
RFE/RL: Is there a future for the Eastern Partnership? Does it really make sense to continue now when three countries are approaching the EU and three countries are not?
Hahn: There is, but you are right [that] we have to make a review of the European neighborhood policy as a whole. It not only concerns the eastern partners but also those in the south. That is why I have been asked by President Juncker to present within a year a revised version of our European neighborhood policy. We have already started to work on it. One of the key elements will be certainly to have tailor-made solutions, rather flexible ones, responding to events, new initiatives.
RFE/RL: What are your goals for the 2015 Riga Eastern Partnership summit?
Hahn: It will be [the] first very important stock-taking about the new neighborhood policy. We have to identify the areas where and how to cooperate. I think it is important to strengthen in particular the [economic] dimension of our cooperation because I believe it is important to support our partner countries in developing their economy. This is also in the interest of the European Union and its business sector to have closer cooperation to improve the living conditions in the partner countries so that there are further and more attractive markets for our companies.
RFE/RL: How are you going to support Moldova and Georgia if Russia starts to pressure them as they have done with Ukraine?
Hahn: Russia should stop [believing] that Europe follows any kind of aggressive policy. Quite the opposite, we are a very peaceful association and rightly so and consequently we have received the Nobel Peace Prize for what we have achieved over the decades. We are respecting the sovereignty of countries, of territories, the right of self-[determination] by people, by citizens, and I think the best solution for everybody is to have a kind of peaceful cooperation based on mutual confidence and trust that will also include Russia. And the sooner they accept it, they understand it, the better it is for everybody.
RFE/RL: What is your strategy for Armenia? The people are still largely pro-EU but the government chose to join the Russian-led Customs Union. Is there a chance to have a DCFTA without an Association Agreement or vice versa, since everything already is negotiated and ready?
Hahn: Everything was negotiated. There was a decision which has to be accepted, but just last week I received the [Armenian] minister for economic affairs to discuss with him the new situation. We have to reflect on that. But once again, it is up to our partners how deeply they would like to organize the cooperation with us. Of course, we have also our rules, our conditions, so for the moment we have to see how under these new circumstances we can restructure [the] kind and level of cooperation.
But we are still interested and we are fully aware of the [sensitivity] particularly due to the geographical situation and history and everything, but I think if there is an adequate kind of cooperation it might be also in the interests [of] and acceptable not only for Armenia but also for others.
RFE/RL: You have said that you want critical engagement with Belarus. What does this mean and are you planning to go there?
Hahn: For the moment, it is not foreseen, but we appreciate and we have registered the moves, the announcements, the statements by Belarusian politicians, starting with the president. [It] has to be seen how sustainable it is. We understand that Belarus would like to have a place in between. Also here it is simply that we are in principle open to further contacts but of course it has to be on the basis of respecting European values and everything which is related to it.
RFE/RL: Are you going to put pressure on Azerbaijan to release political prisoners?
Hahn: This is something we always address in our contacts because it is for us not an acceptable situation and often the European Union is criticized for addressing these issues, even from some business people in the union. They refer to China and others, [where the EU] never [intervenes], but I think it is part of our success story that we guarantee the freedom of people and the freedom of expression and the possibility to evolve and develop themselves.