S&D Group: Full support European integration for Western Balkans

BRUSSELS – The S&D Group in the European Parliament remains committed to the EU enlargement process and calls on the European Commission and the Council to fully support the European perspectives of the Western Balkan countries.

Following Commissioner Johannes Hahn’s presentation of the Commission progress reports for candidate and potential EU candidate countries today,S&D president Gianni Pittella MEP said:

“We continue to support the accession negotiations as they represent the best way to build political stability in the region and to accelerate reforms – in particular in the field of judicial systems, the efficient functioning of administrations and respect for minority rights.”

S&D vice-chair responsible for foreign affairs, Knut Fleckenstein, added:

“Fifteen years ago, the EU committed to the perspective of the Western Balkans for EU membership and it remains committed to that goal. However, it is not only the final objective of EU enlargement that counts. The entire accession process is a very important time for the Western Balkans – their governments, public administrations and the civil society – as it is all about crucial reforms that will improve the citizens’ lives.

“We therefore expect the European Commission to maintain an active enlargement policy throughout the entirety of next year in order to give the countries of the Western Balkans all the support they need in order to discuss, adopt and implement their important reforms in the areas such as rule of law, fight against corruption and organised crime.

I welcome the fact that this year’s progress reports aim for more transparency on where in the EU accession process the countries stand and what are the steps that are still ahead. For the future I hope that a postponement of the timely publication of the progress reports can be avoided.”

Richard Howitt MEP, the S&D Group’s foreign affairs co-ordinator said:

“The refugee crisis must not distort EU enlargement policy. It must be dealt with in its own right but so must enlargement countries. That means judging progress on opening negotiating chapters and visa liberalisation on their merits. The Commission has S&D support for emphasising the rule of law and fundamental rights with their commitment to open negotiating chapters 23 and 24 with FYR Macedonia.

“And if the European Union is offering ‘cash for co-operation’, that has to mean Europe is actually offering cash. If the EU wants new co-operation that should involve new money, not reassigning funds already earmarked for the Instrument for Pre-Accession. Doing this would divert the long-term investment needed by the Western Balkans countries and in the short term would risk undermining cohesion between refugees and host communities in situations which are already volatile.

“If we say we are concerned about a return to tensions and nationalism in the Western Balkans region, the EU must be careful not to risk provoking it.

“On the Commissioner’s overall approach this year, the S&D Group understands and supports the new assessment approach attempted and we fully agree with the importance of identifying where there is ‘backsliding’.

“The Socialists and Democrats Group remains committed to EU enlargement and to Europe honouring the Thessaloniki commitments, and we regret the apparent slowing down of the process.

“Therefore, our Group expresses the hope that negotiations will be opened this year with Serbia, that a date for the start of talks with Albania will be set next year and that Bosnia and Herzegovina will also be able to formally take on candidate status during the next year.

“Momentum is a criterion for the success of enlargement as a whole and the European Parliament, Commission and Council must maintain the success of EU enlargement policy by ensuring that momentum.

“As one of the parliamentary mediators and the shadow rapporteur for my Group with respect to FYR Macedonia, I want to place on record that the S&D Group agrees with the critical text following the extremely difficult talks I was personally involved in. There needs to be conditionality regarding the positive recommendation which is connected to the holding of free and fair elections.”