BRUSSELS – The Centre for European Policy Studied (CEPS) held an event about reforms and the future of enlargement in the Western Balkans on October 27.
The event was moderated by the Research Communications Officer at CEPS, Toby Vogel. The speakers were the Director for Western Europe, Western Balkans and Turkey, European External Action Service, Angelina Eichhorst, and a senior researcher at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, Marko Kmezić.
The discussion centered on the recent developments in the Western Balkans and assessed implication for the EU’s enlargement strategy.
Eichhorst talked about the importance of the European perspective of the Western Balkans as a whole. There is a lot of work to be done, but a clear prospective for all the six countries.
“There is a big picture of where and how we can invest and move together, not just for the next summit in February 2018, but way beyond”, Eichhorst affirmed.
“The priority concerns the rule of law and fundamental rights and there is negotiation on that because this is what EU is built on.”
She continued saying that there is an opportunity to work together on the main challenge which is to make a win-win scenario, where both the Western Balkan countries and the EU will benefit from this cooperation. This is a challenge that is already coming up but the strategy needs still to be discussed.
“There are 20 million people in the six countries of the Western Balkans, the majority of whom willing to be part of the EU. However, people that live inside the EU do not see the benefits of bringing new members. This is a real issue that the institutions in Brussels must work on it,” she explained.
“The wind is back in Europe’s sails, we have now a window of opportunity but it will not stay open forever,” said Kmezić citing the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.
Kmezić affirmed that this sentence can be linked to the process of EU integration of the Western Balkans inasmuch as there is fresh wind in the sails of enlargement.
“Despite all the problems and difficulties that the EU is facing, the setting and the moment has never been so right for the past decade to re-engage in the process of integration of the Western Balkans,” Kmezić stated.
“It seems that at the moment the EU 27 is more unanimous than the UK 1” he said.
In this situation, according to Kmezić, the EU may find useful to demonstrate that there is still a growing interest for membership and that some countries are interested in joining the project, while some members are leaving.
Moreover, Kmezić explained that there are some external circumstances that make it necessary to strengthen the Union’s structures across the continent, such as the potential Russian influence, the United States President Trump’s criticism on trade, refugees, or defence policies that should provide incentive for Europeans to come together under a more resilient Europe.
“I believe that this is an opportunity to convert this European crisis into innovative solutions that would bring the Western Balkans into the sustainable prosperity and stability of the EU” he stated.
Macedonia represents, according to Kmezić, the first democratic transfer of power in the region in four years and an apparent break with the success autocratic rule in the Western Balkans.
In fact, he affirmed that “The Macedonian moment is increasingly becoming the only path toward renewing democratic rule in the region, and there are some lessons to be learnt about the Macedonian moment for the other Western Balkan countries and for the EU.”
Kmezić underlined that “the biggest failure was linked to the electoral revolutions in the 2000s, when there was a lack in building and respecting institutions and rules. Another failure was the support of the current generation of strongmen, who build a highly personalized system of control.”
“For these reasons, the EU should not seek for another personal level State, instead it should engage itself in the strengthening of institutions over people and the building of professional and transparent institutions able to break the power of patronage networks across the region,” he emphasized.
Kmezić concluded saying that “following the change of governments, the EU’s interest in critical input from expert NGOs and civil society fades out. This is something that it should not happen again because I believe that civil society should remain as strong as it was before the change of governments and it should be used in the process of institutions building.”