For the second consecutive year, the Balkan Trust for Democracy/GMF’s Belgrade Office staged a public launch event of the Transatlantic Trends survey on the first day of the Belgrade Security Forum, the largest annual foreign and security policy venue in the Western Balkans. Organized on September 30, the event marked the beginning of the conference proceedings and provided guidance for subsequent discussions on pressing issues of today. The report findings were presented and explained by Dr. Constanze Stelzenmüller, senior transatlantic fellow of the GMF. Ms. Gordana Delić, Director of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, moderated a discussion panel joined by Mr. Michael Kirby, US Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia, Mr. Michael Davenport, Head of the European Delegation in Serbia, Mr. Giuzeppe Manzo, Ambassador of the Republic of Italy in Serbia, and Mr. Goran Svilanović, Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council. The panelists provided their comments on American, European, Italian, Russian and other public opinions included in the survey, as well as their interpretation of how these views impacted European prospects for the Balkan countries, not included in the survey.
In her presentation, Dr. Stelzenmüller pointed out that a plurality of EU citizens desired more independence in transatlantic relations and that opinions on US leadership were in decline across Europe, especially in Germany following the NSA spying allegations. However, the average EU approvals of their own governments’ handling of international affairs were lower than general support to Obama’s foreign policy, resonating high expectations from American leadership. Europe was also demonstrating signs of economic recovery and, while Germany and Netherlands were the only EU countries with majority support for euro, the opinions in other countries were not as negative as earlier and almost two-thirds of Europeans viewed the EU membership as beneficial for their respective countries. While majorities in US and the EU still perceived NATO as essential for their security, there was a rift in opinions on its purpose outside of European borders. The presentation also analyzed key results of Russian public opinions, mainly unfavorable towards US and the EU, but increasingly open for cooperation with emerging economic powers.
In his opening remarks, Ambassador Kirby stated that it was very important that European citizens saw benefits of EU membership and that this could be a great motivation for Serbia and other EU candidate countries to seek to join this community. Ambassador Kirby underlined a number of positive changes that were made in Serbia regarding protection of human rights, and also noted the relevance of energy as key security issue, having in mind the climate change and recent developments.
Ambassador Davenport also observed that it was much easier to see Serbia as a future partner, with the fact that the majority of people in the European Union had positive attitude towards EU enlargement proving a strong signal for Serbia to continue down its chosen path. He expressed expectations that the EU enlargement strategy to be published on October 8 will demonstrate further European commitment to the issue. Ambassador Davenport also highlighted what seemed to be changing notions of leadership, since even 61% of UK citizens desired more EU leadership in international affairs.
Ambassador Manzo underlined that the EU citizens traditionally liked Europe because it meant peace, freedom and security, however now they were in demand of the new EU of strong economy. The ongoing Italian presidency of the EU put on agenda issues of relevance for citizens, such as unemployment, immigration, combatting effects of economic crisis and EU enlargement. The fact that European citizens believed that Europe had been successful in overcoming obstacles, and that these new problems could also be solved within the EU, should be seen as a possible benefit for Serbia as well.
Mr. Goran Svilanovićstated that the Regional Cooperation Council’s mission was to support each country on its path of EU integration, despite existing problems, such as corruption and effects of economic crisis that should be solved. The greatest problem in the region remained high rates of poverty and unemployment that left ample room for radical ideas and actions. On the other hand, grim economic situation has forced the governments to open up to foreign capital preconditioned by the rule of law. The citizens of Balkans continued their strong support for the EU and transatlantic relations, but were aware of realities and tried to attract investors from emerging economies.
The presentation and panel discussion were followed by a Q&A session with an impressive audience of 120 government officials, diplomats, international experts and scholars, civil society and media, corporate sector representatives, provided relevant questions for subsequent debate and comments from the panel. The event ended with a clear message that citizens from both sides of the Atlantic, but also those in Serbia and the region, asked for more Europe. Serbia is playing a key role in the EU enlargement process in the Balkans, and the EU should encourage its further steps in that direction.