European Western Balkans

[EWB Interview] Hahn: Regional Economic Area not an alternative to EU accession

Johannes Hahn; Photo: European Union

Ahead of the Western Balkan Summit in Trieste, European Western Balkans spoke with Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations. We spoke on the situation in each of the Western Balkan countries, as well as on his expectations of this year’s Western Balkan Summit.

This interview is also available in Serbian.

European Western Balkans: The Commission’s report on Chapters 23 and 24 in the case of Serbia states that as Serbia progresses, the attention will gradually be shifted to an effective legislative reform process in practice, as well as to the capacities of institutions in charge of the rule of law. Does that mean that the Government of Serbia is not doing enough in this area? How would you asses the current state of the rule of law and media freedom in Serbia? 

Johannes Hahn: Our overall assessment is that Serbia is still at a relatively early stage when it comes to rule of law issues. Serbia’s action plans on chapters 23 and 24 were adopted about a year ago, enabling the opening of negotiations on these chapters. Since then, Serbia started implementing the measures it committed to under its action plans. This is not only about adopting relevant laws, but also about effective implementation, including an early track record of results on the ground.

Rule of law issues will set the overall pace of EU accession negotiations. Therefore they need to become a priority for Serbia in the coming months. Whatever the challenges are, on freedom of expression and media, independence, impartiality and efficiency of the judiciary, fight against corruption, non-discriminatory treatment of national minorities, handling of war crimes or cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Serbia needs to make further substantial progress to maintain the pace of negotiations. Making real change in these areas is also essential for Serbian citizens and for the business community.

EWB: How do you see the fact that Serbian Government has got the Ministry of European Integration? Will it help Serbia to be more effective in the negotiation process?

JH: I welcome the establishment of the new Ministry of European Integration as I believe it reflects the government’s intention to give priority to Serbia’s strategic goal of EU membership. I hope it will result in prioritising the work on EU negotiations in ministries and bodies dealing with EU issues. The European Commission stands ready to provide the Serbian government with the necessary assistance and support to reach this goal.

EWB: Edi Rama won the majority of votes in the recently held elections in Albania. What is the key expectation regarding the new government? What the opposition should do?

 JH: We now expect a government strongly committed to bring the country forward on EU integration path through consistent reform efforts. The new government should in particular concentrate on the implementation of the justice reform and vetting process, which is crucial in addressing the fight against organised crime and corruption. In this regard, the new government needs also to focus more effectively on the fight against drug trafficking and drug cultivation. It is clear that only with a functioning rule of law the country can progress overall as a democratic society and viable economy and become a member of the EU.

A mature opposition ready to take part to a constructive dialogue is also key for the democratic process of the country.

EWB: You announced that you will send a special mission on the rule of law in Macedonia led by Mr Priebe. What are the key tasks of the mission? On the other hand, the name dispute with Greece is still a topic. Do you expect it will be solved soon in order to unblock the Euro-Atlantic future of the country?

JH: As I have already announced, I am indeed sending senior rule of law experts back to Skopje to follow up on their 2015 recommendations and to advise the new government on addressing systemic rule of law issues. A first scoping mission by the team leader, Reinhard Priebe, already took place on 27 June. This will be followed up by the full team of experts from 17 to 21 July.

We appreciate the efforts by the Prime Minister and his government to reach out to their counterparts in Greece and Bulgaria. It is important to find an agreed solution on name issue and to find a way how to go onward. The EU stands ready to help the UN-process and to facilitate contacts if requested.

Now the new government, together with the opposition, need to focus on implementing the Urgent Reform Priorities and the Przino agreement, to bring back the country on its Euro-Atlantic path.

EWB: It seems that Kosovo is stuck after the elections. It will make the continuation of the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue uncertain. How do you see the future of the dialogue?

JH: The EU facilitated dialogue for the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina continues with the aim of promoting cooperation between the two sides, helping them achieve progress on the path to the EU and improving the lives of the people.

This commitment was reiterated on 3 July, when EU High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini hosted a meeting with Presidents Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaçi. The parties agreed to work on starting a new phase of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina for normalisation of relations and stressed the importance of the implementation of the agreements already reached in the dialogue without delay.

EWB: Montenegro’s officials are not very satisfied with the idea of the common market in the Balkans which you have praised several times. Why do you think it is good for the countries and citizens of the region?  

JH: Indeed in the past there were some signals from Montenegro against the idea of a customs union, which however is not on the table. Let’s be very clear – we do not promote the establishment of a customs union or the creation of any new structures for the region. We are, however, responding to calls from the region itself to develop proposals for greater economic integration, which would help increase growth and create jobs. I am more than willing to lend the European Commission’s political, technical and financial support to this objective but it will be up to the countries themselves to take the necessary steps to accelerate regional economic integration. So, once again, we are not talking about a customs union but about a concept of a “regional economic area”, which is based on the existing commitment of the countries of the region.

I am convinced that greater economic integration will make the region more attractive and competitive. A regional economic area is therefore a promising avenue to create stronger and more sustainable economic opportunities for the region and its people, which is an objective that everyone supports. In this regard, Montenegro has played a constructive and active role and engaged to work together with regional partners in developing the road map. Prime Minister Markovic has signalled his full support to the initiative which builds upon ambitions already agreed during Montenegrin chairmanship of CEFTA in 2016. Let me also underline that the progressive deepening of economic integration in the region should be based on EU rules and principles. In this way, this initiative will be an important milestone on the path for EU accession, and not – as some misinterpret it – an alternative to it. 

EWB: Is there any news on the European future of Bosnia and Herzegovina? What should be done to speed up the process? 

JH: We are fully committed to support Bosnia and Herzegovina to further advance on the country’s path towards the EU, as shown by intensive contacts that both HR/VP Mogherini and I have undertaken with country leadership and institutions over the past months. This will continue in the months ahead and our message will remain that the speed in the process depends on Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bosnia and Herzegovina only.

In this respect, I strongly encourage Bosnia and Herzegovina to re-focus on the Reform Agenda on socio-economic, rule of law and public administration matters as well as on the delivery of the answers necessary for the preparation of the Commission’s Opinion on the merits of the country’s application for EU membership. Likewise, adopting further country-wide strategies in areas such as agriculture, energy or employment will enable Bosnia and Herzegovina to use extensive financial assistance from the EU to improve citizens’ lives. Political distractions and fabricated crises divert time and energy from the reforms that citizens expect, in line with the commitments taken by all political leaders and institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

After a positive year 2016, the year 2017 should not be wasted. We will continue to support Bosnia and Herzegovina with policy advice, technical assistance and financial support to meet its EU membership ambitions.

EWB: Trieste Summit is approaching. What do you expect as key outcomes of this year’s meeting? How do you see the future of the Berlin process and what the countries of the region can expect from the so-called “Berlin Plus”? 

JH: One of the key outcomes will be the announcement of the annual ‘connectivity package’ of transport and energy infrastructure projects. We also hope that leaders will sign the Transport Community Treaty, and adopt an action plan to create a Regional Economic Area. Since its launch three years ago, the Berlin process has brought a new dynamic into the development and regional cooperation of the Western Balkans with concrete results. Therefore, I welcome new, constructive ideas, such those recently launched by the German Foreign Minister, on how to make the process even more dynamic and how to acquire even more funding to reply to the investment needs the region has.

Publication of this article has been supported by the Konrad Adenuer Foundation

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