Few weeks after the European Commission’s enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans was presented in front of the EU Parliament, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker paid his official visit to the Western Balkans region. During last week, Juncker visited Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro which are aspiring to become members of the European Union. Juncker finished his Western Balkans tour in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, currently holding the EU presidency.
During his visit, President of the EU Commission repeated the messages announced in the enlargement strategy, presented as a document for further integration of Western Balkans, where he stressed the importance of the European values at the first place. Once again, it was insisted on overcoming the obstacles before accession, including the fight against corruption, rule of law, border disputes and reconciliation in the region. Juncker underlined that the EU is open to further accession only when the individual countries have met the criteria. Even though the enlargement strategy considered Serbia and Montenegro as front-runners of the accession process, Juncker stated that 2025 is open to all candidate countries.
This year was firstly mentioned in the strategy in the following terms: ‘the Strategy explains the steps that need to be taken by Montenegro and Serbia to complete the accession process in a 2025 perspective; while others could catch up, Montenegro and Serbia are the only two countries with which accession talks are already underway’. But in Albania, Juncker gave a bit different interpretation where he stated that ‘contrary to what we read everywhere, the Commission and myself did not say that Serbia and Montenegro would necessarily be members of the EU in 2025’. Moreover, EU Commission chief said that 2025 date is open to all candidate countries.
On the other hand, EU member states are feeling anxious not to repeat rushed accession that has happened with Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and not to have any bilateral conflicts as it is the situation between Croatia and Slovenia, both members of the EU. But, Juncker stated that he will be returning to Brussels convinced that the place of the Western Balkans is in the heart of the European Union.
Besides meetings with top officials of Western Balkan countries, Juncker had several interviews on the further EU enlargement process. Answering the question for Euronews, Juncker stated that the main thing that is being discussed during his visit is the process of integration, not dates nor the end of the story. He underscored that ‘governments of the region have to understand that all the conditions and criteria for the accession have to be fulfilled, currently they are not, and so it takes time’.
One of the six stops Juncker made on his Western Balkans tour was Sarajevo where he gave a speech in front of the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Juncker reaffirmed both his personal commitment and commitment of the EU to the European perspective of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Once again, President of the Commission said that its future is in the EU, based on fundamental values to be embraced by each country. More importantly, Juncker underlined that divisions have to be overcome, meanwhile, building strong cohesion. Also, in regard to disagreements that usually find its place when it comes to decision making, Juncker told that ‘disagreements create only blockages, paralysis, and unnecessary delays that harm the interests of your fellow citizens and raise questions about your determination to join the European Union’.
Only a few days after the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs visited Serbia, both President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and EU Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn held a press conference together with President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić where Juncker said that accession date was not decided by the EU, but primarily by Serbia. Juncker used the opportunity to repeat the message and to make it clear that 2025 is not a promise, but a perspective and encouragement because as he said ‘any EU-aspiring country deserves encouragement on the EU path, once it makes a substantial effort in that regard’.
One of the topics was legally binding agreement that has to be signed in order to achieve normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. Here, Juncker repeated that the EU cannot import bilateral issues as EU wants to offer the Western Balkans stability, and not import instability.
Head of the Commission also met with President of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi and insisted on voting the demarcation of the common border with Montenegro as it is an important step towards visa liberalization. Juncker expressed his concern that people of Kosovo are the only ones both in the region and in Europe who are not able to travel freely.
‘They are citizens like the others and should have the same rights, provided that demarcation is resolved. Also, concrete steps should be achieved in the fight against trafficking, in the fight against corruption. We want that the relations between Kosovo and Serbia to be put on a new base. It is essential that Kosovars and Serbs find reconciliation between them, which will be legally binding to move along towards Europe’, Juncker said.
Fulfilled with the optimism, President Juncker told reporters in Sofia that ‘accession is not a dream but a reality, a reality that is going to come’. In the capital of Bulgaria, Juncker finished his tour delivering a speech in which he once again emphasised that the future of the Western Balkans lies within the EU.
Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States