Gabriel Escobar: If the US had more of a decision-making role, the entire region would be in the EU by 2030

The Institute for Politics and Economy of Southeast Europe (IPESE) from Belgrade, which recently started its work, publishes its first video interview with Mr. Gabriel Escobar, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Special Envoy for the Western Balkans. Zoran Korać, Founder and Director of the Institute, spoke with him.

The key messages of the conversation are that the United States of America will continue to advocate for the progress of the Western Balkans and see it as an area of enormous opportunities that should be fully integrated into the European Union. If the United States of America, as Escobar pointed out, had a greater role in decision-making, by 2030, the entire region would be within the EU. He sees a very positive future for Serbia and the region as a whole and wants Serbia to be more firmly “anchored in the community of friends that the USA has in Europe”. When it comes to the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina, Escobar points out that it is necessary, without delay, to start the process of implementing the Association of Serbian Municipalities.

Below is a transcript of the conversation:

ZORAN KORAĆ: We are honored to be joined by Mr. Gabriel Escobar, Deputy Assistant Secretary and Special Representative to the Western Balkans. Mr.  Escobar thank you so much for being with us today.

GABRIEL ESCOBAR: Thank you Zoran.

ZORAN KORAĆ: At the beginning, I must say that you are a veteran of the diplomacy on the Balkans. It’s been around 25 years you are connected with our region.


ZORAN KORAĆ: I tried to calculate how many personal contacts you had, relations with the most prominent politicians in the territory of former Yugoslavia. I tried to count and I reach something like 200-250.

GABRIEL ESCOBAR: That’s about right.

ZORAN KORAĆ: That’s amazing. So, you are the right address for answers for a few questions really few questions. Okay let’s start with first one. For the last few years the United States government, think-tanks, and politicians have advocated for a long-term stability prosperity and sound diplomatic relations in Balkans. Will the United States continue to advocate for these objectives?

GABRIEL ESCOBAR: Absolutely. Absolutely. We’ll stay very, very engaged in the Western Balkans. So, I want to start by saying that for the US government even though the news is dominated by the tensions and the political problems. For the United States government, the Western Balkans still remains an area of enormous opportunities. The defining characteristic of the Western Balkans right now really is strong economic growth and strong economic potential and that the region has the potential to be leaders in IT, shipping, energy, infrastructure, transportation and even tourism. The region has great universities, it’s got a talented workforce, and a young workforce relatively speaking. So we’ll continue to invest in that and hope that that investment in the future of the of the regions will help to overcome some of the political problems.

ZORAN KORAĆ: This is a good news for us, thank you. At the beginning of your mandate you were very enthusiastic. You even said that you would do your best to bring the Western Balkan states to the European Union. Do you still have that enthusiasm after all?

GABRIEL ESCOBAR: I do and I think the young people of the region have that enthusiasm. And look, to be honest, given the rates of growth, the region is a market of about 20 million people, an economy of about 120 billion Euros with an average growth rate of 7% or higher. That’s almost 5% higher than some of the larger European Union countries. So, the Western Balkan, when they’re fully integrated to Europe, will be a driver of economic prosperity, a driver of job growth and I’m still very enthusiastic about that. Now, the challenge is do the leaders of the region also see that possibility or are they going to remain entrenched in their current thinking about ethnic rivalry and political crisis on a permanent basis.

ZORAN KORAĆ: Thank you. Kosovo’s current situation: turbulence, tension… what can you tell us as you’ve been there I think two or three days ago. How’s the situation? What’s going on there? What can we expect?

GABRIEL ESCOBAR: Yes, look, what we had in Ohrid: we reached an agreement. A legally binding agreement that opened the door to a peaceful, constructive and predictable relationship between Serbia and Kosovo on European terms. When we left Ohrid we had a lot of enthusiasms. In the two months since we reach that agreement we’ve had a lot of political crises and I would say all were predictable and avoidable. So, we have to find a way to de-escalate the process right now the de-escalate the situation and go back immediately to start focusing on the implementation of the Ohrid agreement. For Serbia that means to begin the process of not blocking Kosovo’s European and International integration. For Kosovo it means immediately starting the process of the implementation of the association of Serbian Municipalities. We have to work on both of those immediately.

ZORAN KORAĆ: Ambassador Hill yesterday said, by the way Ambassador Hill is very active, very dedicated to the development of bilateral relations between the US and Serbia. But he mentioned that right now the Serbian part is collaborating in a very good manner, in a very good way, and that Serbia as a partner is reliable. But he added that he is not sure that Mr. Kurti, Prime Minister, is as he mentioned ‘our partner’ – that he is a partner of the United States.

GABRIEL ESCOBAR: I have to clarify that – Mr. Kurti is a partner. Now, he’s a difficult partner at times but he is a partner. Kosovo is a partner. Serbia is a partner. So, as we move forward we want to use the good relations that we have with Kosovo and the improving relations that we have with Serbia to find a way, to find a mutually acceptable and mutually beneficial path so that both of them can be part of the European Union together. And not only that, but for both of them to help open the door to greater integration for the rest of the region. So, we are looking to use our good relationship to help broker that future.

ZORAN KORAĆ: Thank you. And finally, actually before that, could you tell us how do you envision Serbia 2025-2030?

GABRIEL ESCOBAR: Well look, if the United States had more of a decision-making role, by 2030 the entire region would be members of European Union. But in the meantime, by 2030 we do expect that the investments in the economy will start to create real opportunities. I imagine that by 2030 all of the countries of the region will be well on their way to fulfilling all of the requirements for full membership in the European Union, will have gone a long way to cut down on corruption, to open opportunities for young people to find long-term economic futures in the region. So I see a very, very optimistic future for Serbia and for the region as a whole.

ZORAN KORAĆ: And could you tell us about Open Balkan as basis or beginning of the collaboration between states in the Western Balkan, but still there is no Montenegro, no Bosnia, and that means it’s not complete.

GABRIEL ESCOBAR: Well look, I think the most important part of any economic integration plan must be alignment with the European Union. The European Union, trade with the European Union constitutes about 70% of all the trade of the region. So, in other words, focusing on the European market is absolutely critical. The European Union has already set out some guidelines and some metrics through the Berlin process. So the Berlin process has to be important but in the meantime any and all economic configurations that bring the region closer together and closer to Europe, we support as long as they continue as long as they do not interfere with their commitment to the European Union, and as long as they’re open to all of them. It’s almost to say that if two or three or four countries decide that they want to do their homework in advance then it’s okay as long as that homework is the requirements of the Berlin process. We support all of it not exclusively and not one over the other, but all of them that bring the region close together.

ZORAN KORAĆ: Ok, it means that we pass to the main point of our interview. Serbian population, Serbian people, Serbian state can count that the United States will continue to work closely with Serbia and helping Serbia to reach membership in the European Union?

GABRIEL ESCOBAR: Yes, absolutely, we will be a strong advocate. And look, with regards to our relationship with Serbia. For over 140 years the United States has enjoyed a strong relationship with Serbia. In all of it, it has been a very positive relationship with the exception of the Milosevic years. So that was the only period in which the United States and Serbia were not close friends. From the American side the door is open to re-establishing that relationship, but at the same time our relationship with Serbia should not threaten anyone else. We continue to have strong strategic partnerships with Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania. And want the same relationship with Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. So, we want Serbia to be more firmly anchored in the community of friends that the United States has in Europe.

ZORAN KORAĆ: Thank you very much. And the last thing, would you mind me asking if there is something exclusive that you can share with us or nothing exclusive. We read in the newspaper that probably visited the White House this morning or?

GABRIEL ESCOBAR: I have been invited to give a briefing to the White House on the results of my trip to Belgrade and Pristina. And based on the progress or the lack of progress we will have to decide our next course of action.

ZORAN KORAĆ: Thank you very much for this interview. And by the way I’m leaving to Montenegro. It’s election.


ZORAN KORAĆ: Let’s I hope that the right parties will win.

GABRIEL ESCOBAR: I hope. And you know any party in Montenegro that is focused on European integration, that is committed to Montenegro’s NATO membership, and is committed to the fight against corruption can count on our support.

ZORAN KORAĆ: Thank you very much.

GABRIEL ESCOBAR: Thank you very much, Zoran.



(The video interview of Zoran Korać, Director of IPESE, and Gabriel Escobar, US Special Envoy for the Western Balkans, can be downloaded from the website with reference to the source: Institute for Politics and Economy of Southeast Europe)

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