The European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn spoke at the Princeton University on Europe and the crises in its neighbourhood. During his speech he also addressed the situation in the Western Balkans.
Hahn said that the EU rather than being the root of the problem, is the backbone of a solution to many of the generational challenges that it and its wider neighbourhood face today.
He pointed out that the basic “raison d’être” of European integration – peace, prosperity and security – is more relevant than ever; in particular in his own area of responsibility – the EU neighbourhood from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus via the Middle East to the Maghreb, and EU’s accession talks in the Balkans.
After speaking about different challenges Europe faces, he said that the strategic question is more whether shared interests and common gains are best pursued together in an EU accession context – which is increasingly fictional anyway or in an alternative, more realistic yet still ambitious and comprehensive setting.
Hahn pointed out that they will have a first discussion among EU Foreign Ministers about this next week.
“That brings me to the Western Balkans, our own “front-yard” if you will. This is where our policy of “exporting stability” remains particularly relevant. Our job is not done there. It is vital to keep a credible, firm EU accession perspective to the region as an anchor of strategic stability and reforms,” he said.
The migration crisis actually showed that the region is already an enclave inside the EU, EU Commissioner said.
“Still, the fact that EU leaders just recently reaffirmed the path of the entire region to full EU membership is no small feat, especially at times of internal “enlargement fatigue” and one Member State rushing to the exit,” Hahn said.
“As we know, politics abhors a vacuum. If we were to get wobbly in our commitments in the Balkans, someone else could wrestle in – and that someone is actually already trying,” he pointed out.
“In that sense, EU enlargement, with all conditions and criteria, is the best security policy the EU has ever had – just imagine where Poland, the Baltics or others would be today if we hadn’t used the time-window of the 1990ies,” Hahn compared.
He also pointed out that at the same time, enlargement is “not a free lunch”.
“Only local leaders can do the job and deliver to their citizens. They must step up to the plate and build on the progress that has been made. We need to see political will instead of political games, and real reforms not on paper but on the ground – especially in the key areas of the rule of law, competitiveness and connectivity. That may endanger the business model of some individuals – but strategically, there is no alternative. Their citizens know that,” Hahn was clear.
He noted that the EU is “by far the best game in town”.
“But again, we all must be ready to play! We must be better – and tougher – at using our soft power of attraction. We can’t take it for granted. Europe’s gravity might be a force of nature, but it has to be deployed intelligently,” he pointed out.
He recalled that for example, a majority of Serbs still believe that Russia is the biggest investor in their country – while Austria alone invests four times more than Russia.
“I think such misperceptions capture our problem nicely. The issue is not Russia. The issue is that we don’t tell our own story with enough determination,” Hahn noted.
He concluded that clearly, Europe needs to shoulder more in its immediate neighbourhood rather than waiting until Washington bails it out.
“We need to get our own act together. And we can. That’s partly a matter of resources; but first and foremost a matter of collective political will. We are already doing it in most of the Balkans, as a crisis-manager and -solver. We should do it elsewhere too,” he said.