BRUSSELS – European People’s Party Group organized a high-level conference titled “EU – Western Balkans: how to build together our common future?” on 16 October in the European Parliament.
The high-level conference was the follow-up to the annual EPP Group conferences on the region. The aim of the conference was to foster discussion with experts and political leaders to assess the current political situation in the region and to further support the EU integration process of the region. The conference focused on the fields of rule of law, fight against corruption, bilateral cooperation, and socio-economic development through regional connectivity and digital economy.
The Chairman of the EPP Group Manfred Weber opened the conference by saying that “the discussion on the Western Balkans is one of the priorities for the EPP Group”
“I have no doubts that the countries of the Western Balkan will be part of the European Union but politically speaking we need to give them a clear EU perspective and the EU has to be a credible partner to allow concrete progresses in the region” he said.
Weber added that “the ongoing process of rule of law and fight against corruption must continue and we all agree that an independent judiciary system is essential for growing investments in the region”.
Andrey Kovatchev, Vice-Chair of the EPP Group responsible for Enlargement and Mediterranean Policy, delivered introductory remarks. “Our aim in the EPP Group is to support all efforts of the countries in the Western Balkan towards European integration and we need to ask ourselves how we can move forward and achieve faster integration” he said.
He listed positive steps and long-standing challenges. The first category included the agreement between Sofia and Skopje and the ongoing negotiations between Skopje and Greece; the accession of Montenegro to NATO and the recent elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He also mentioned his hope regarding the progress on normalisation of the relations between Belgrade and Pristina under the EU umbrella.
According to Kovatchev “the new strategy of the European Commission with concrete steps in IT, Erasmus programme and other initiatives that give benefits to people in the Balkan region represents a great achievement”.
He concluded by discussing problems and challenges “that explain why progress towards EU integration has been very slow.”
“Some countries are lacking in the areas of rule of law, fight against corruption, and economic development. There is also a growing ethnic tension between national communities” he stated.
Eduard Kukan, Chair of European Parliament AFET Working Group for the Western Balkans, said that in the last years the focus on EU enlargement has grown. With the Bulgarian Presidency and the current Austrian Presidency, the EU regained more confidence in the integration process.
“Over the last few years, the EP has been pushing for intensification of the integration process. After the opening negotiation with Montenegro and later with Serbia, welcoming proposal for opening negotiation with Macedonia, supporting visa liberalisation of Kosovo and the association and stabilisation agreement with Bosnia and Herzegovina, we now except decisive steps of the EU accession path from the countries of the region” Kukan stated.
Moreover, some of the EPP-affiliated parties participated in the conference and gave their contributions to the discussion.
Avdullah Hoti, head of the of the Democratic League of Kosovo, argued that Kosovo first needs to go to early general elections and then resume dialogue with Serbia.
Moreover, Hoti stated that “security, stability and development of the region depend on the normalisation of relations between the two countries. However, any ideas of territorial exchange or border corrections should not be part of the dialogue”.
“We fully support the EU agenda regarding Kosovo and the reforms of justice and fight against corruption and we highly appreciate the role of the EU in this process and the support of the United States” he added.
Aleksandar Nikoloski, Vice-President of Macedonia’s VMRO-DPMNE, affirmed the importance of the EU path. “We believe in the European future of Macedonia and there is no other reliable alternative. We are part of the same family and we should continue to be part of it” he said.
However, Nikoloski discussed the problem that Macedonia is facing regarding the change of the name. He added that “it is necessary to reach a better agreement with Greece, and the current government is not delivering adequate measures”.
Bakir Izetbegović, Chairman of the BiH Presidency and President of the Party of Democratic Action, talked about the importance of the EU as trading partner. “More than 70% of our exports goes to the EU and two-thirds of our import comes from EU countries”.
“Within the framework 2015-2018 reform agenda, Bosnia and Herzegovina began to implement measures for social and economic reforms. However, implementation of reforms and fulfillment of conditions for progress on EU integration suffered delays due to internal issues. We need to move forward, and the EU is one of key factors for growth and for creating new jobs” Izetbegović said.
Lulzim Basha, leader of the Democratic party of Albania, discussed the importance of digital technology in the region. “None of the achievements mentioned before such as cross-border cooperation, the fight against corruption, and the fight against crime can be achieved without IT connectivity and integration”.
He added that “IT connectivity can help also the multi-ethnic coexistence in the region that feel culturally and socially isolated and it should be efficiently used to decrease migration of young people.”
Vladimir Orlic, Deputy Head of the Serbian Progressive Party Parliamentary Group, focused on the importance of regional connectivity with the aim of bringing the Western Balkan region closer to the EU in order to attract more investments and accelerate the flow of people, youth, capital, and services.
Joseph Daul, President of the EPP, concluded the conference by underlining the continuous engagement of the EPP Group towards the Balkan region.
“Reconciliation is the key to find a balance and to succeed in maintaining peace” he said quoting one of the founding fathers of the EU, Robert Schuman. “Without reconciliation it is not possible to maintain peace and a conflict will occur again” Daul stated.
“It is also necessary to focus on younger generations and not only on the next elections. Rule of law, independent judiciary system, fight against corruption, and freedom of media need positive changes otherwise there is no future” he added.