On Monday, January 26, 2015, The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) hosted United States Senator Christopher Murphy, for GMF’s first installment of its Transatlantic Talks series for 2015. The series pairs senior governmental officials from one side of the Atlantic with senior journalists from the other to discuss the most relevant issues to the transatlantic partnership. Nenad Zafirovic, the U.S. bureau chief of the Serbian Public Broadcasting Corporation, moderated the conversation, which explored opportunities for the Euroatlantic integration of the Western Balkans and what role the United States should play in the region. GMF President Dr. Karen Donfried welcomed the audience and introduced Senator Murphy, highlighting his recent trip to the Balkans last December as chairman of the Subcommittee on European Affairs.
To start the conversation, Zafirovic opened by assessing the current state of affairs in the Balkans and trying to identify a path forward integrating the region further into Euroatlantic institutions. Senator Murphy’s shared his impressions from his trip last December to Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, Albania, and Montenegro. “I chose to come back feeling optimistic,” he said, and “impassioned about the role the U.S can play in the continued development of the region.” Senator Murphy noted the tendency towards peace throughout the region, which had once been wrought with violence. Throughout his visit, he met with American corporations whose “familiar refrain” underscored the remaining obstacles to European integration: the rule of law, corruption, banking sector independence, and economic security.
Zafirovic then steered the conversation to internal dynamics within various Balkan countries and what they mean for the region as a whole. Speaking to Kosovo, Senator Murphy remarked that “there was no one on either side that didn’t have an expectation that dialogue wasn’t going to continue” with regard to normalizing relations with Serbia. He also commented on relations between Croatia and Serbia, calling Croatia to actualize its marketing as a “model” for EU integration and Serbia to forge ahead with the necessary, but “tough” steps needed to strengthen ties with the EU.
In addition to internal reforms, the United States can also play a constructive role in hastening Balkan integration into the EU. Zafirovic explained the persistent economic unease prevalent across the region, questioning whether or not U.S. investment could be used as a stabilizing agent. Senator Murphy noted great willingness of U.S. companies to invest in the region, but underlined that internal conditions, vis-à-vis judiciary and freedom of speech, must be improved. With regard to energy policy, he agreed that it is at the “top of the list where there is opportunity for U.S. investment.” An outspoken proponent of the region’s energy independence from Russia, Senator Murphy recalled being in Bulgaria with Senator John McCain during the announcement of the abandonment of South Stream, the proposed natural gas pipeline from Russia through the Black Sea to Eastern Europe. Pushing the U.S. to provide another option, he asserted that “the alternative…has to be liquefied natural gas,” though also indicated that there is “clearly a future for nuclear power in the region and in Europe.”
Giving his insight on a host of topics, Senator Murphy also fielded a range of questions following the opening conversation. The discussion also touched on TTIP negotiation and its implications for the Balkans; terrorism and the presence of fighters from Syria and Iraq returning to the region; Russian aggression and militarization of information; Ukraine’s current crisis and how it informs Western attitudes toward other post-communist countries; and the prospects for renewed U.S. and EU dialogue on the region.
In conclusion, Zafirovic asked about the potential agenda facing the new U.S. Congress as it relates to the countries of the Western Balkans. Senator Murphy underscored the importance of U.S. engagement in the region. Moreover, Senator Murphy emphasized that Congress and the U.S. should take the lead in geopolitics, but without “leading with the edge of the sword.” He also indicated the need to invite Montenegro as a member of NATO, as well as increased economic exchange and defense cooperation for all of the Western Balkans. Finally, Senator Murphy highlighted his determination to engage his colleagues in Congress to visit the Western Balkans, with the goal of incentivizing engagement and support for the region’s path toward Euroatlantic integration.