Hannes Swoboda

Interviewed by  DEJAN JOVIĆ

Hannes Swoboda is the former Chair of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. He is an Austrian Social-Democrat, who was a member of the European Parliament from 1996 until 2014. During the decisive moments of Croatia’s accession to the EU, Mr Swoboda was the rapporteur for the European Parliament on this issue. In December 2011, following the results of the Croatian referendum on EU membership, Mr Swoboda proposed the accession of Croatia to the EU. We met Mr Swoboda at a conference in Varna, Bulgaria.


CPSR: In your paper here at Varna, you proposed a Helsinki II. Can you please elaborate on the need for such a new agreement between the West and Russia?

Swoboda: The relationship between the West and in particular the EU and Russia has been deteriorating to a very risky level. Russia did not use the opportunity of overcoming communism and dictatorship to open up and modernizing its economy and society. The reliance on its energy resources helped to finance the state and state involvement in “private businesses” but it covered up also the real longterm issues and problems. And so Russia is far away from meeting its long term challenges.

The West saw Russia weakened and took advantage of it. It offered Russia some cooperation like a modernization partnership and a possible visa liberalization process, but always on its own terms. But for Russian security, acceptance of and respect for its geo-political situation is more important, than some short term benefits. At least this is the position of the Russian leadership. For the time being these “old-fashioned” nationalistic aspirations and President Putin as the leading figure expressing these “visions”, alas based on the past, are supported by the majority of Russian citizens.

The enlargement of the EU and much more of NATO created enormous comfort for the West, but much discomfort for Russia. The dismantling of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact was and is seen in the eyes of the Russian leadership as a defeat and a reduction of Russia’s influence. And of course this is not only a perception, but also reality. And those who lose, generally do not react rationally and have difficulties to adapt themselves to the new conditions. That’s the basic difference to the behavior of those who are on the winning side.

As we are in a stalemate which can switch into a bigger conflict beyond the Ukrainian crisis, we need a new all-European security structure which can give also the losers more comfort and security without dividing Europe again into influence zones. The OSCE which was founded in the aftermath of the Helsinki Conference of 1975 could be the already existing core of an all European security system – besides closer relations between Russia and NATO itself. Inside the OSCE an energy chapter or basket could be newly created and enhanced, as all, at least all European member countries are connected from the supply, demand or transit side with each other. Instead of using energy as a factor of division and dispute it should be used for bringing the OSCE countries closer together and confirm the links on the basis of mutual binding agreements with dispute settlement procedures.

What should be the European approach to Russia?

The most adequate approach to Russia would be one of critical observation, caution but also of confidence-building offers. It is never an either or position which can help, but a multiple approach which is mixing critique concerning the domestic development, defense of the principles of human rights and pragmatic offers to work together on common issues in the foreign and security field but also concerning global developments like international free trade and the fight against terrorism and climate change.

Your views on a “Europe of values” and “Europe as power” suggest that there should be two approaches: one internal, applicable to members of the EU, and the other when the EU deals with its neighbourhood. Can you please explain this interesting idea further?

Consequently we should have a different approach concerning the internal development and the external dimension. Inside the EU we cannot and must not be weak concerning our core values. The reason for the European Union was and is to overcome hatred, racism and xenophobia. And by demonstrating, that with these values we can be also economically successful, we can convince also our neighbors and our world wide partners, that these values are not contradicting economic efficiency, success and stability but on the contrary. Advancing and enhancing the economic and social developments of countries and regions is on the long run connected with personal freedoms and the possibility of democratic choices.

Would this mean that the enlargement should no longer be used as a tool of “liberal interventionism” in candidate-countries?

As the enlargement process should lead to membership it should clearly prepare the accession countries for the acceptance of our values and especially for the respect of human rights and democratic processes. But we should give the countries time to internalize these values and principles and not to accept them just because they want to get the economic and financial benefits of joining the EU. The political leadership must be convinced of the necessity to respect the core values of the EU.

We see a returning of nationalism and even some forms of semi-authoritarianism in some member-states of the EU. Why is this happening, and how can this trend be reversed?

The revitalization of nationalism and extremism is partly a reaction to the new European “political correctness” and could be defined as a natural reaction especially in countries where their own nationalistic past has not been reflected on enough. But certainly also the bad economic development with low growth and high unemployment is a strong contributing factor. The social stress because of stagnation and unemployment and the fight for the limited resources with new workers on the international, European and national labour markets affect especially the lower and less qualified middle classes. As we can see from different election results these strata of society then are open for ideas of “illiberal democracies”!

Only a more growth and jobs oriented economic policy and a social policy with more efforts to combat the rising inequality can help to overcome this negative trend. And the EU must quickly design and implement efficiently a just and fair policy for the refugees and asylum seekers and work on their integration. Migration without integration is only annoying citizens and is food for right wing nationalism and extremism.

You were directly involved in Croatian accession to the EU. Was Croatia ready to join the EU in 2013?

Croatia was ready to join the EU as major efforts to combat corruption and an inefficient state apparatus have been undertaken. Also the policy of healing the wounds after the Yugoslav wars and bringing the Serb party into government showed maturity and readiness for Europe. But the battle is never at end with accession, it is a permanent task in democracy and has to go on in strengthening the efforts undertaken before entering the EU.

Retrospectively, what would you consider to be the main obstacle on the Croatian road to the EU? What were the most difficult issues from the EU point of view?

The – objectively seen as small – dispute between Croatia and Slovenia was the prime obstacle for progress – after General Gotovina was extradited to The Hague. But the fight against corruption and for transparency was in the first phases of negotiations more a lip service than an expression of real intentions. Croatia needed many changes in the Ministry of Justice and much more time than necessary to elaborate a clear strategy for the necessary changes of the judicial system

Was there any moment in the Croatian accession to the EU that you would now mark as “the turning point”?

The two clear turning points were when General Gotovina could be brought to The Hague – from outside Croatia – and when the Croatian and the Slovene Prime Ministers found an agreement on how to solve their land and sea dispute. With these actions it became clear, that Croatia is able to integrate itself into a foreword looking European Community.

What lessons can be taken from the Croatian case, that would be helpful for other candidate-countries?

There are a few very clear lessons from the accession negotiations with Croatia, as with many other cases. First of all, one has to try to solve the bilateral disputes in a constructive way, and the sooner the better. A good neighborhood is always very helpful for joining the EU. Europe does not want to get new, additional problems, it has already enough. And secondly, one should not wait always for criticism and pushes from outside. Much can and should be done even without the EU “interfering”. And thirdly all candidate countries should enhance many contacts with the EU Parliament and all the member countries beyond the regular talks with the Commission.

If we look at Croatia today, it seems that the country is going back to nationalism. In addition, economic reforms have still been slow. Do you think that the situation would be better had the EU imposed a verification and monitoring mechanism, such as in the case of Romania and Bulgaria?

A monitoring and verification process might have helped. But if you look to Bulgaria and Romania, there are still many decisive problems in spite of this process. The existence of a viable and strong civil society and responsible media is the only real help. But often this is lacking, especially in countries who would need them most.

The battle must be fought internally. But we need for all EU member countries, and this permanently, a check list for democratic developments. Not only the years before and immediately after accession are critical. We need permanent observation and scrutiny by the EU Commission on the basis of objective criteria and a score board.