In his last interview as director for the Western Balkans in the European Commission’s Directorate for Enlargement, Pierre Mirel said the EU will remain devoted to transitional justice in the Balkans as part of the accession process – noting, however, that progress is slow.
“If we compare it to where Europe was 20 years after World War II… the progress that the Balkans is making in this area is still very slow,” Mirel told BIRN.
“Things are changing, mainly as a result of the work of civil society, but I also see a political will emerging to deal with this issue,” he said.
“I am mainly referring to the recent meetingwith Serbian President Nikolic and Croatian President Josipovic, which turned a new page in relations between their countries,” he added.
“Ties between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are also developing to a great extent,” Mirel continued.
EU Chapters as tool for reform
Speaking about the opening of membership negotiations with Serbia, Mirel says Serbia will follow in the steps of Montenegro.
“Chapters 23 and 24, dedicated to the rule of law, security and human rights, are now the first ones to be examined in the screening exercise, and should be among the first ones to be opened on the basis of the candidate country’s detailed action plans,” he said.
“This is what Montenegro is currently doing. It will be Serbia's first task in the accession negotiation process,” Mirel explained.
According to Mirel, negotiations on Chapter 23 have proved a powerful tool to push forward reforms in this area, which includes domestic war trials.
“Domestic war crimes must be properly investigated and prosecuted. This was a closing benchmark in the accession negotiations with Croatia and will be an important element of future negotiations with Serbia, falling under Chapter 23,” he said.
As the Western Balkan states do not have extradition agreements for war crimes, Mirel says bilateral protocols signed between prosecutions to exchange evidence are crucial.
So far, Bosnia and Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, and Serbia and Croatia have signed such agreements.
“These protocols represent major steps, strengthening regional cooperation in dealing with war-crime cases and the definition of concrete parameters that help the process of reconciliation in the Balkans,” he said.
“We will provide additional financial assistance in 2014-2015 to Bosnia and Herzegovina of 14 million euros to support reducing the backlog of cases by 50%,” Mirrel added.
Speaking about the role of the ICTY in the overall reconciliation process, and recent criticism of its work, Mirel said EU conditionality had been the right way to bring perpetrators of crimes to justice.
“At the same time, it is true that extraditions and ICTY trials did not lead to wide-ranging debates in the region on facts and crimes but rather on conditionality itself, and often on what was considered as EU unfairness,” he continued.
“I guess there are a number of reasons for this, among which are political attitudes, glorification of the indictees by some parties and the role of the media.
“The fact that an ICTY outreach programme was not set up early on probably also played a role,” Mirel noted.
Justice not only in court
According to Mirel, transitional justice is not only about what happens in courtrooms, but about knowing the past and telling the truth in a wider sense.
“Transitional Justice is about the rule of law, in the broadest sense,” he said.
“It is about building up a culture of democratic governance and protection of basic human rights. It is about ensuring that the process of transition and change is all-inclusive.
“It is also about eliminating segregated schools, such as the so-called ‘two schools under one roof’ system in Bosnia. How can reconciliation ever take place if pupils from different communities or ethnicities ignore one another?,” Mirel asked.
Speaking about other burning issues in the area that still need to be resolved, Mirel said there had been insufficient progress on the question of missing persons.
“In my view, there cannot be reconciliation if there are still thousands of cases of missing persons, and when their families, 20 years after the war, still cannot find the remains,” he said.
“More needs to be done to bring closure to the suffering of the tens of thousands of families with missing relatives. We co-finance the International Commission on Missing Persons, ICMP, through the IPA but this support must be matched by political will.
“Leaders need to put missing persons at the top of their agenda. In this context, it is very positive that Croatia and Serbia have agreed recently to cooperate fully,” Mirel recalled.
Another problem, Mirel says, is refugee returns and integration, which is “one of the sensitive and most difficult problems that directly affect the lives of a number of people in the region”.
Kosovo-Serbia dialogue a success:
Looking back on his work as EU director for the Western Balkans, Mirel says his biggest memories were the structural dialogue on the judiciary in Bosnia and Herzegovina, launched in June 2011, and the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.
“Besides this, I can say that my work was also to try to understand the Balkans, which was not always easy, especially when it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Asked what was his turning point in deciding to deal with the Balkans more closely, Mirel says it was a visit to Srebrenica.
“Previously, my engagements related to Turkey and Croatia, and one summer before I took over this post in 2006, my family and I visited Bosnia and went by car to Srebrenica,” he recalled.
“My daughter, who was 15, saw the list of names [of the victims] written on the Srebrenica memorial and asked: “Father, what did Europe do?”, meaning, why didn’t Europe do anything? And this is how I decided to dedicate my work to this region,” he said.
Mirel is convinced that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the EU, and that the EU is willing to accept new members if they fulfil the set criteria.
“The economic crisis is still on-going and has definitely impacted on the EU as, in such situations, you become more inward looking,” he said.
“Yet, despite that, the European Council has reconfirmed the importance of enlargement: Croatia became a member, we have accession negotiations with Serbia and a stabilisation agreement with Kosovo,” Mirel pointed out.
“The Council in Brussels has set the bar pretty low for Bosnia,” he added.
“For the first time ever, it has said that Bosnia will be able to apply for membership once the Sejdic-Finci ruling [of the European Court of Human Rights in 2009] is implemented in the constitution,” he added.
The ruling obliges Bosnia to change its constitution to allow minorities to run for top posts currently reserved for Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.
“Bosnia is the special case, which is why the EU [Enlargement] Commissioner, Stefan Fule, is so much involved and had so many meetings with political leaders to try to make them agree on these changes,” he continued.
“This proves that, despite difficulties, enlargement is moving forward but for the process to continue it is also important for the Balkan states to convince [EU] member states that the situation here is also changing.
“It is also important for political elites here to translate commitments and deeds to the EU into actions, measures and reforms,” Mirel said.
Since he retired from European Commission, Mirel plans to continue his career as a lecturer at Paris, but he will not forget the Balkans.
“I will at least have time to visit places I have never seen instead of going from hotels to ministries and back and forth,” he concluded.
By Marija Ristic
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