BRUSSELS – The EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy held a conference at the European Parliament in Brussels on 18 October.
The focus of the event was to discuss progress in accession negotiations of the Western Balkan countries in 2017, specifically with to regards to internal developments in the region. As the European Commission will only present the country reports in spring 2018, the conference was aimed at stimulating a debate among experts, MEPs and the European Commission.
Eduard Kukan, Member of the European Parliament (EPP/SK), Chair of the EU-Serbia SAPC and delegated Chair of the AFET Working group on Western Balkans, opened the debate emphasizing on the issues that need more attention in the region, such as corruption, media freedom, democratic institutions, and the rule of law.
Dušan Reljić, Head of Office at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), discussed the importance of the EU integration.
He said that the most important factor is not the entering date of the Western Balkan countries, but the level of integration that already exists.
“The countries are part of the European Union, not only because of the geographical environment in which they live, but because of the deeply economic integration that already happens.”
Reljić added that the region has 75% share of their trades with the EU, and the banking sector is almost at 90% in the hands of Western European banks.
Moreover, he emphasized that the most of the direct investments come from the EU.
“Therefore, the countries are already part of the EU but they do not have the privileges and the opportunities that the EU membership provides,” he explained.
Marta Szpala, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), talked about the necessity of involving political organizations, civil society and other bodies rather than just the leaders of the governments.
“Although the progresses that the Western Balkan countries have made, there are still a lot of problems; in particular, the biggest deficiency is that we do not have proper institutions that are able to implement reforms.”
Szpala explained that the EU focuses on talking only to the leaders of the countries, and doing so, it is undermining institution-building processes that is supposed to be the main goal for the enlargement process. Consequently, there are weak standards in rule of law and media freedom.
Ján Cingel, Acting Head of European Neighbourhood Programme at GLOBSEC Politcy Institute, stated that “enlargement prespectives of the Western Balkans are credible, despite the fact that giving a deadline should not be the priority.”
He added that “all the conditions need to be meet and they must be equal for all the candidates. In addition, we have to work in our EU countries explaining to our constituencies why we should accept the Balkan countries.”
For this reason, Cingel affirmed that “it is not homework only for the Western Balkans but also for ourselves to be credible, and once the Balkan countries will fulfil the negotiations processes, the EU and our constituencies should be ready to accept the countries to join.”
Christian Danielsson, Director-General of DG NEAR, European Commission, remarked how the Juncker’s speech on maintaining a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans, and the speech of the President of France Macron, on reinvigorate a European spirit and to envisage further enlargements (the Balkans) were very important in terms of integration.
Moreover, Danielsson stated that “Several reforms need to be implemented, but the Western Balkan countries are already part of the EU, and that is clear when it comes to addressing issues about international crime and security in a broader sense.”