“What the Western Balkans Strategy means for Serbia” – Speech by Commissioner Hahn

Johannes Hahn; Photo: European Union

BELGRADE – European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn, held a speech yesterday at the conference “The Western Balkans Strategy – Clearing the path towards EU accession?“, organised by the European Western Balkans and the EU delegation to Serbia.

Read his full speech below.

“President Juncker said last September: ‘in the future, the EU will be more than 27’.

The strategy we released two days ago puts this beyond doubt once and for all: Serbia’s and the region’s European perspective is clear and unambiguous. Serbia’s EU accession is not only this nation’s own strategic goal. It is also the EU’s firm and unquestionable objective.

With the strategy, we have, for the first time, given Serbia and the other countries in the region an indicative timeframe to join the EU.

Until recently, the goal of EU membership has seemed remote and unreachable to many of you. This should now no longer be the case: Serbia now has a 2025 perspective. If the country does its part and meets the conditions, it could potentially be ready for membership by then.

That’s why this strategy is extremely good news! Not only for your political leadership. But, first and foremost, for all Serbian citizens – for the country’s European future.

Of course the 2025 perspective is only indicative. It is not set in stone and it certainly does not mean that Serbia can simply wait for the time to arrive! It is not a blank cheque and Serbia has therefore a lot of reforms to enact and implement until then. In fact, 2025 it is extremely ambitious but it does give Serbia a clear perspective, with a best case scenario in mind.

The strategy has the potential to create a completely new dynamic, to hit the ‘reset button’ and turn Serbia’s goal of EU membership into reality. This means taking urgent action now and sustaining a new reform momentum.

You will have noticed that this strategy is one for the entire region. While Serbia has been clearly confirmed as a frontrunner, the wider European perspective is valid for the whole Western Balkans.

Because, ultimately, it is in Serbia’s best interest to be in a stable, peaceful and integrated region, with its partners moving firmly forward on their European paths. I trust and believe that Serbia, as the largest and an important country in the region, will lead by example. Your progress towards accession can serve as a strong encouragement to the entire region.

Merit-based process

But a credible enlargement perspective also requires credible efforts and reforms. Our drive to support the accession process in the Western Balkans does not include any free passes. The criteria have not changed; future accession will depend fully on the objective merits and concrete results achieved by each country in meeting the necessary conditions.

For Serbia these conditions are clear: The pace of its accession negotiations depends on Serbia’s ability to implement reforms, in particular in the rule of law area.

As President Juncker said: ‘The rule of law is the foundation on which our Union, which is a legal community, is founded. It is of such fundamental value that only states that comply with it can join.’

Let me be very clear: For the EU, rule of law reforms are not a paper exercise! They are not only about strategies, action plans or reports – no matter how important they are; and certainly not simply about adopting legislation.

In fact, rule of law reforms are about deep, far-reaching, transformational changes. Strengthening the independence, impartiality and efficiency of the judiciary; stepping up the fight against corruption and organised crime; creating an environment that fully guarantees freedom of expression and of the media. These are some of key challenges that have a direct and tangible impact on citizens’ lives.

We are now at a critical juncture: Further progress can only be achieved if Serbia gives the utmost priority to tackling key weaknesses on the rule of law.

More concretely, we need to see legislation adopted; institutions set up and strengthened; and, in many areas, we need to see how these institutions work in practice and the results they produce. Serbia must “talk the talk and walk the walk” – because the EU needs to be convinced that things change on the ground.

Which brings me to the next topic: regional reconciliation.

Your country and your region have to deal with the difficult transition to democracy and functional market economies, as in the previous enlargement. But your region also faces the legacy of the past, including the recent armed conflict and a number of remaining bilateral disputes.

This entails new challenges – for the EU, but also for you as an aspiring Member State. I need to be crystal clear what this means for the EU: we will simply refuse to import unresolved status issues.

Thus, if Serbia is to join the EU, it has to solve its bilateral and border issues. You all know what this means first and foremost, and the strategy spells it out clearly – Serbia needs to conclude and irreversibly implement a legally-binding agreement with Pristina before it can join the EU.

This is a topic which has dominated regional media over the past days – and understandably so. I am fully aware that some might not appreciate that the strategy puts is so blandly. But as future partners we wanted to be clear about our expectations. Serbia’s friends need to tell Serbia the truth, that’s what we do.

I sincerely hope that this strategy will open a window of opportunity for Serbia and Kosovo to resolve this matter once and for all. The time to do this is now.

This is why the internal dialogue, launched by President Vučić, carries such significance. It is important that all parts of society make their views heard, so that Serbia can come to a joint conclusion and start to look towards the future.

But the prospect of EU membership is not only in your interest. It is also in the EU’s very own political, security and economic interest. It is a geostrategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe based on common values and a key driver of transformation in the region.

The challenging reforms that need to be carried out in the Western Balkans do not only require the full involvement and backing of Serbia. They also require our support. That’s why the EU is ready to considerably invest in the Western Balkans in the coming years – even more than we already do.

This includes six new flagship initiatives and significantly increasing our support to the region as well as ensuring that our Union is well prepared and ready to welcome new Member States.

Increased support from the EU during the accession process, including participation in certain Union policies and programmes, will allow you to already benefit from increased stability and prosperity that will in turn facilitate your journey on the European path.

Pre-accession assistance will also be significantly increased. In 2018, more than EUR one billion of Pre-Accession Assistance funding has already been foreseen for the Western Balkans. Over and above existing allocations we are foreseeing an additional EUR 500 million of assistance up to 2020 from internal reallocation of budget lines.

You can see – the EU is here to support you. With this strategy, we provide you with the perspective and the instruments you need.

Whether Serbia makes full use of them will entirely depend on you. In order to turn the extremely ambitious 2025 perspective into reality, Serbia needs to redouble its efforts. Its EU aspirations will have to become the country’s number one project, carried forward by all parts of government and society.

A strong political push and a national effort that will mobilise all the talent of the country will be required to deliver on reforms, in particular on the rule of law, fundamental rights and the normalisation of relations with Kosovo.

This will by no means be an easy ride. Far-reaching and unpopular reforms might be required. Tough choices will have to be made, and will have to be made now. This will require the work and input of all of you – not only the political leadership, but the opposition, academia, civil society, media, and business.

I firmly believe that the process of European unification, which began in 1989, will only be complete with the accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union.

Jointly, we must now commit to making this happen.”