“Expectations very high, but the conclusions realistic”

European flags in front of EP Building in Strasbourg; Photo: European Parliament

BRUSSELS – The “Echoes of the EU – Western Balkans Summit: New Beginning?” was organized in Brussels by the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy at the European Parliament on 23 May.

MEPs, European Commission and experts discussed the EU enlargement process, and the impact and substantial changes of the Sofia EU-Western Balkans Summit.

Genoveva Ruiz Calavera, Director for Western Balkans at the Directorate General for European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations at the European Commission, made the opening remarks underlining the most important takeaways from the Sofia Summit.

Calavera began by touching upon cooperation among Western Balkan countries at the regional level. “A stronger cooperation is necessary to come closer to the ultimate end of EU membership. Moreover, democratic reforms and rule of law are essential components, and it will be for Western Balkan citizens rather than the Commission to pronounce whether they have been implemented”, she said. “Investments in the Western Balkan region will not produce a real impact if reforms are lacking.”

“However, the work yet to be done concerns not only the Western Balkan 6, but also the EU Member States themselves. In fact, the EU needs to be truly open to welcoming new members, and it needs to be functional. Moreover, the highly negative perception among the population of the EU on the potential accession of new member states needs to be addressed”, Calavera said.

She concluded by saying that having the Western Balkans Six and the EU 28 sitting together in a Summit was historical, and in spite of the challenges, it was a landmark step toward eventual negotiations.

According to Anna Orosz, Research Fellow at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT, HU), “the Sofia Summit was the first test of what can be expected in the coming months from the European institutions and the Member States”.

Eduard Kukan, member of the European Parliament (EPP/SK), Chair of the EU-Serbia SAPC and delegated Chair of the AFET Working Group on Western Balkans, said that the Summit was a successful and positive event which brought the enlargement agenda to the table. “However, it was not a ‘game changer’, and unfortunately, it did not bring anything new and concrete. If the expectations were very high, the conclusions were just realistic”, he said.

Kukan stated that the Sofia Summit should be used as a soft power instrument in negotiations between the European Commission and candidate countries. In order to use it as a supportive tool for EU enlargement strategies, it is necessary to mention it in discussions and always refer to it.

Tomasz Zornaczuk, Head of the Central European Program and Research Fellow for Western Balkans and EU Enlargement at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), said that in the last months there has been a revival of EU interest in the Western Balkans. “It was reflected in the Sofia Summit, which produced positive results, especially regarding the dialogue about stability and democracy.” However, he criticized the slow progress of the rule of law and freedom of the press in the Western Balkan countries.