European Western Balkans

[EWB Interview] Ćerimagić: We need EU accession to be beneficial for WB states today

Interview with Adnan Ćerimagić, analyst at the European Stability Initiative.

European Western Balkans: RCC’s most recent Balkan Barometer shows that the number of those who believe that the EU membership would be good for their country (42 percent) is smaller than the combined number of those who believe that the EU membership would be bad (19 percent) or neither good nor bad (36 percent) for their country. Does this come as a surprise?

Adnan Ćerimagić: No. Currently joining the EU remains a very distant and uncertain prospect for citizens from the Western Balkans. They do not know when and if it will ever happen. Instead what they see is a situation where everyone talks about their countries moving closer to the EU, and bad living conditions in their daily lives.

What is needed is an EU accession process that is beneficial to these countries today, that produces economic growth, better services and less corruption today. If citizens see this, then support for the EU as a goal would strengthen.

EWB: What would need to change in the accession process itself?

: The whole language of EU accession is a bit surreal. Esoteric even. A country is a potential candidate, then a candidate, then a chapter is opened. Ask even parliamentarians how it helps citizens of a country concretely to have “a chapter opened”, and I wonder what you would hear. Most would struggle to explain what it means, and they would be right: it means very little.

We need a different language. It must become obvious that EU accession is about safer food, better air quality, more investment, less corruption, better education – a better life – and not in a distant future, but now.

EWB: Can you give a concrete example?

: Yes. Let me take a very concrete example: the number of people dying in traffic accidents. In the Western Balkans this is much higher than across the EU. In recent years EU member states cut the number of fatalities by half.

Now imagine that the European Commission prepares a simple list of all EU measures that the countries in the Western Balkans would have to adopt in this area. And then do a regular annual update on the progress countries make.

This would empower politicians interested in reform. It would also help the media and public to pressure those governments to implement those reforms. It would motivate civil servants. And it would not be abstract talk about EU standards and chapters, but a debate on how to save lives.

EWB: Very often high level of corruption is described as a significant problem for the countries in the region and a major obstacle for implementation of reforms. How can the fight against corruption bring more results?

: There’s corruption everywhere, in the EU and in the Western Balkans. To reduce it we need to focus efforts, understand the sectors where the problem is biggest, and understand if efforts to fight it bring results. People understandably get cynical when everyone talks about fighting corruption but their perception is that it gets worse.

Now imagine this. There is a regular survey on corruption in the six Western Balkans countries, similar to the Eurobarometer published by the European Commission for EU member states in 2014. It looks not only at perception but how much corruption people and businesses experience, and in what sectors. And then, 2 years later, it is repeated. Suddenly we would know what we are taking about.

EWB: Last year BiH applied for the EU membership and currently European Commission is preparing its opinion on country’s readiness for a candidate status. Authorities seem to struggle to collect information and agree on a joint set of answers to questions handed over by the European Commission in December last year. Next month they will enter in the eleventh month, which is by far the longest time a country needed to provide answers. Why is this so?

: A lot of time is being spent by some who do not understand that Bosnia-Herzegovina is a federal state where coordinating a joint task – such as providing answers to a questionnaire – is not about shifting competences between different levels of government, but about using their competences effectively. Answering a questionnaire is a very important exercise, and if it is done well then this time would be well spent.

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