Conference “The Western Balkans Strategy – Clearing the path towards EU accession?”

Johannes Hahn; Photo: Tanjug / Rade Prelić

BELGRADE – The new EU Strategy for the Western Balkans will direct Brussels’ focus on this region, which is important for progress, peace and stability, it was assessed today by participants in the conference “The Western Balkans Strategy – Clearing the path towards EU accession?“, organized by European Western Balkans and the Delegation of the European Union to the Republic of Serbia.

European Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn underlined that the final version of the Strategy rather than drafts was important and that one should not stick to concrete dates because if they are not met, it can create frustrations.

“We are working on that, there are internal discussions and therefore we did not want to give additional dates. This indicative date – 2025, just indicates, that if countries are very dedicated to the European perspective, they are able to round off the process and negotiations, and this does not refer only to Serbia, “Hahn said.

According to him, the Strategy clarifies the final goal, what has to be done, and offers very concrete measures identified through several main initiatives – rule of law, economic development, connection, reconciliation, good neighborly relations … on whose basis 57 concrete measures have been proposed which the states must implement to go ahead.

“The EU should provide assistance to the countries of the Western Balkans to move forward, we should not be talking about concrete dates, it is important to produce products,” the European Commissioner underlined.

Srđan Majstorović, the Chairman of the Managing Board of the Center for European Policy, said that the EU Enlargement Strategy for the Western Balkans set a timeline and a chain of events for candidate countries and potential candidates in order to be successful in that respect and the message was directed at several addresses – citizens, political leaders, investors and civil society.

According to him, the Strategy is first of all the message to the citizens of this region that the European perspective becomes a perplexing and achievable goal, as well as to the political leaders in the region, that when it comes to mutual relations they have to speak “European” in order to overcome the problems “using a normal tone, and not elevate voices”.

It is, at the same time, a message to investors to come and invest in the countries of the region, Majstorović underlined, adding that this is a message to the civil society organizations because it gives them the importance of building a civil society.

“We see this as a return to the enlargement program … This is a detailed overview of the EU and the Balkans,” Majstorović said.

According to him, this is also a reaffirmation of the relevance of the basic values ​​and principles of the EU, which are peace, stability, and prosperity.

Chairperson of the Centre for Foreign Policy, Aleksandra Joksimović, said that enlargement had long existed as a word “in textbooks” and that the Strategy would bring the Western Balkans into the EU’s focus.

“We are encouraged not to see this as an endless process, we have a time frame during which we will have to work hard and meet the criteria that will lead us to membership in the Union,” Joksimović said.

She said that the enlargement process in the Western Balkans was in favor of both sides, to ensure security, stability, and peace on the continent.

According to her, the responsibility for the EU accession process is shared by the region and the Union, as the success of the Union itself will be measured on the basis of the success of Strategy, while in the Western Balkans it is worthwhile to meet the criteria.

Serbia, as underlined by Aleksandra Joksimović, has the most complex task, because in front of her there is chapter 35 on the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, along with the chapters 23 and 24 concerning the rule of law and the fight against crime and corruption.

The bilateral issues, she says, are such that she hopes that the EU will find the strength to contribute and mediate between countries that have a difficult past relationship.

She asked whether there was some EU strategy to promote the expansion among its own residents and to increase support for further enlargement, as it is at a low level in the Union itself.

Referring to her words, European Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn said that there was a chapter in the Strategy regarding the communication, as it is necessary to inform citizens about what the European path carries with it.

“We know that there is not much enthusiasm for enlargement, but now the time has come and now we have announced a startup to give a positive impetus to everyone. It will take time to successfully complete this process and at the same time prepare citizens, direct them to our intentions because it is important to explain why we are doing this,” Hahn said.

It is important, he thinks, to complete the European project and explain its significance to citizens, and one of the most striking arguments is the economic development of the region.

“That’s why we underline this as something important, that people from the region have better living conditions, so that those who have left return,” Hahn said.

The European Commissioner says that there should be an internal dialogue in which all parts of society must have a say so that Serbia would have a unique solution and decision.

“The European perspective is not only in the interest of Serbia but also the Union itself, it is a strategic investment in a strong and united Europe, with common values ​​that bring stability to the Western Balkans,” Hahn said.

He pointed out that the EU was ready to invest more in relation to what it already had given, and that the Union would give 500 million euro of aid by 2020 and would redistribute funds in the budget.

“The EU is here to support you. We give you perspective and instruments. If Serbia uses them to the fullest, it must double efforts and include all parts of the government and the state. Political urgency is necessary in order to achieve this, especially the reforms in the field of rule of law, normalization of relations with Pristina,” Hahn said.

Civil society, he says, has and will have an important role, as well as other interest groups in the society.

According to him, it is clear that membership in the Union should be understood as a national goal and that different actors in the society should gather, stand together and support this goal.

“One does not need to be critical of one or the other element of society, but to see how different actors contribute to the goal,” he said, adding that this implies the openness of the government and everyone else to include all parts of society, and that is what he is telling his fellow citizens.

At the end of the meeting, Majstorović emphasized that he really believed that this was a good way forward and that now it was necessary that everyone recognised the importance of the Strategy.

Joksimović said that the adoption of the Strategy was a kind of hope and a new opportunity for the Western Balkans and each country in particular, and it would be important for Serbia to use this short time frame because we do not want to have further disappointments.

“I expect the day when Serbia will become a member of the EU,” concluded Aleksandra Joksimović.

Hahn and Joksimović; Photo: Tanjug / Rade Prelić

Hahn points out today in Belgrade that a legally binding agreement on the normalization of relations with Pristina, which must be adopted before accession, does not mean recognition, that the EU does not have a pre-prepared solution, but it all depends on the outcome of the dialogue, and that “the paper is completely empty” .

Because of the lessons from the past, the EU will not accept any new members without prior resolving open bilateral issues, Hahn reminded at the conference “Strategy for the Western Balkans – Opening the way to EU accession”, stating that there is no timeframe for resolving that issue by 2019, but that this agreement should be concluded until the accession to the Union.

“I do not want to prejudge the outcome of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. A dialogue should come up with a solution that would lead to a legally binding agreement. There are many possibilities for a solution and it is premature to talk about a concrete solution,” Hahn said answering the question of whether the legally binding agreement, which the EU wants, meant recognition of independence.

“It is still a completely empty paper,” the European Commissioner underlined.

At the same time, he emphasises that the normalization of relations with Pristina and the solution of bilateral issues are only additional elements, which cannot be compensated for fulfilling other obligations.

“Everything has to be done and this is clearly stated in the Strategy,” Hahn said, pointing out that the EU will not give in to any issues or conditions that are well known.

He stressed that the Strategy gave a European perspective to Kosovo.

“I think that in Kosovo, this should be considered a motivation to work on a legally binding agreement. So far, from Pristina, it has always been said from the majority that the whole dialogue only served Serbian interests, and that was a positive outcome in the interests of European aspirations of Belgrade. Now the Strategy is clear that progress in the dialogue is in the interest of Kosovo as well, and that there must be a positive solution because only this opens the way for Kosovo towards the Union. It should be understood that way, stimulated and speeded up dialogue,” said Hahn.

The whole process is, according to him, based on merit and it is important to remember that this does not mean that everyone must join the team at the same time, but when they are ready, yet they should be provided with a fair opportunity.

He pointed out that the year 2025, the date stated by the European Commission in its strategy, was an indicative time frame, and in order to achieve it, it was imperative for the entire process to be completed by 2023.

“It sounds far away, but when you see what needs to be done in a sustainable way, it is a very short deadline,” said the European Commissioner.

He said that accession negotiations were not only mere negotiations, in which the acquis is taken over and the items on the list are being crossed off, it is rather a process.

He recalled that all member states must unanimously adopt a new member, but that the EU was working on the institutional reforms needed within the Union, among which there was a proposal for the adoption of a decision on the basis of a qualified majority.

Han points out that it is necessary to look into the future, but it is still important that the region works on reconciliation.

“There must be a clear understanding among EU leaders that sustainable reconciliation and stabilisation of the region is possible only if all the countries of the Western Balkans are part of the Union. It is therefore important that leaders contribute to these efforts, support them, and that countries in the region do not block one another on the road to the EU, “the European Commissioner said.

When it comes to the situation with the media in Serbia, Hahn said that there were certain deficiencies, but they exist in many other countries.

He explained that funding should be provided to enable independent media and that there are examples of other countries, adding that no solution is perfect, but can serve as an example.

Referring to the region’s progress reports, due in April 2018, Hahn said they remained the same, with a clear strategy to indicate the gaps and what was to be done, offer guidance and the EU’s expectations.