It has already been assessed that Romania’s first Presidency of the Council of the EU will be everything but a formality. With the exit of the UK from the EU on 29 March and the European elections in May, to name just the most obvious challenges, it can be argued that the following few months will be crucial for EU’s future. Romania has nevertheless committed itself to an ambitious agenda, which also includes the Western Balkans. We talked about these topics with the county’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Teodor Meleșcanu.

European Western Balkans: Romania has listed support for EU’s enlargement to the Western Balkans as one of the priorities of its Presidency. While the potential accession certainly depends on reforms undertaken by the candidate countries, would you say that there is willingness within the EU as a whole to advance the process if and when the results start coming in?

Teodor Meleșcanu: EU enlargement, which remains one of the most successful policies of the European Union and an important priority on the European agenda with a great potential to strengthen the European project, is strongly promoted by the Romanian Presidency at the EU Council.

In the current European context, marked by the Brexit process and the European elections, followed by the beginning of a new EU institutional cycle, as well as the challenges the Union has faced through the last years, the enlargement policy has remained an essential investment in the stability and security of the entire European continent. Last year, the Commission published its Enlargement Strategy, reaffirming EU’s engagement towards this policy and its strategic importance for the Union, which was later reconfirmed through the Council Conclusions on enlargement, adopted in June 2018.

The enlargement policy was also placed among the priorities of the successive mandates of Bulgaria, Austria and now Romania at the helm of the Council of the EU. This positive context, together with the interest of both the European Commission and the EEAS – qualifying the region as top EU priority, contributed to unlocking positive evolutions and generating success stories. The recent entry into force of the Prespa Agreement was a tangible proof of EU’s transformative effect in the region.

Such concrete steps are a proof that the enlargement continues to benefit from EU’s attention. In spite of challenges that may arise, the added value of the enlargement process plays not only for the states joining the European Union – which are going through the process of democratic transformation, strengthening their institutions and modernizing their societies – but also for the Union – which becomes an extended space of shared values and a stronger global actor. This does not mean, however, that Romania will abandon its principled position regarding the need that candidates fully respect the accession criteria. In fact, the objective of this comprehensive process is to promote truly European societies in terms of values ​​and principles, enabling the enlargement of the area of ​​stability and prosperity to the benefit of both current and future EU members.

In this process, a positive and consistent track record of alignment to EU standards, through the comprehensive reform process by candidates and potential candidates, is essential in order to maintain a positive momentum and turn it into positive decisions for the Western Balkans. A credible perspective of joining the European Union for those candidates and potential candidates, who prove a firm commitment to reform and democratization remains essential for the credibility and efficiency of the EU’s external action, which serves to achieve the goal of a strong, united and more cohesive European Union. When the necessary level of preparation of the candidates is achieved, they should become EU members.

EWB: Is the EU enlargement going to be in focus at the Sibiu Summit on the Future of Europe on 9 May?

TM: The complex process of reflection on the future of Europe, started in Bratislava and finalizing in Sibiu, will define the future of European construction. The year 2019 will remain a milestone in this process, marked by the launch of a new institutional cycle, but also by the unprecedented departure of a Member State from the European Union, an unwanted event, to which the other Member States must respond with a message of unity and of pro-European commitment and pro-expansion for the future.

The future of Europe and strengthening its role as a global actor are closely linked to the European Union’s ability to continue to project stability and prosperity in its immediate neighborhood. A consolidated, strong and efficient European Union, capable of integrating new members, is in the best interests of both the Member States and of the candidates and potential candidates from both the Western Balkans and the wider South East Europe. We hope that enlargement will continue to feature on the European agenda, as a policy instrument that has contributed strongly to the unity of the European continent that has potential to strengthen the European project and contribute to the goal of a stronger and more cohesive Union.

EWB: As a country that has not recognized Kosovo as an independent country, how does Romania see the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue? What would be its optimal result, provided that it resumes?

TM: The process you have mentioned (Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue) is facilitated by the EU and stems out of a Resolution adopted by United Nations General Assembly in 2010. This document was submitted by all EU Member States. Therefore, the Dialogue benefits from the support of all EU Member States. The text of the Resolution welcomes the readiness of the EU to facilitate a process of dialogue aimed at achieving progress on the path to the EU and improve the life of the people.

The ideal result would be, of course, in the spirit and in the letter of the Resolution. Consistent and in good faith implementation of the agreements and understandings achieved within the framework of the Dialogue must be implemented will have to mirror in the everyday life all inhabitants in Kosovo. As the Dialogue enters its eight year, we consider essential to focus and show political will in order to overcome the difficulties and to reach a solid, lasting, viable result, in line with aspirations for a better life of the people represented by the entire establishment in Belgrade and Pristina. Such a solution has to resolve the problem, contribute to the regional stability, and consolidate the security of the Western Balkans as a whole, and not to create difficulties.

EWB: At the time of this interview, serious anti-government protests are taking place in Albania, Montenegro and Serbia. Is there anything EU could do in order to help soothe political tensions in these countries?

TM: It is our belief that open and honest dialogue among all political actors and with the civil society will bring about social peace. Implementing reforms, with the proper consultation of all stakeholders, will also legitimize the entire process of alignment to the acquis.

Representatives of the EU and its institutions can only help by mediating between the political and/or social actors, if they desire such assistance.

As Presidency of the EU Council, we encourage the political establishment to hurry the implementation of necessary reforms for EU accession and award full independence to the judicial system, in order to ensure the trust of the citizens and meet their expectations for democratization.

EWB: Several weeks ago, informal meeting of the foreign ministers (Gymnich) was held in Bucharest, one of the topics being EU-China relations. Are there any controversies when it comes to China’s role in the Western Balkans?

TM: The EU-China relations were granted a significant place on the agenda of the informal meeting of the ministers of foreign affairs from the EU Member States, which was organized in Bucharest, between 31 January-1 February 2019, during the Romania’s EU Council Presidency.

The discussions highlighted the need to maintain a common, coherent and coordinated approach at EU as well as candidate level in the relationship with China. At the level of the candidate countries, the support of the 16 + 1 format was reiterated, provided it represents a transparent cooperation platform complementary to EU relations.

Most candidate countries have called for more EU involvement in development projects in the Western Balkans region, otherwise they have to identify new strategic partners, such as China, to provide financial assistance for their economic development.

EU ministers underlined the importance of respecting European principles and values ​​and applying reciprocity in dealing with China. In most candidate countries, Chinese investments are in strategic areas such as infrastructure (road, digital, energy).

Coming to Romania’s immediate region, I would like to emphasize the connectivity theme, which came into spotlight with the adoption by the EU, in October 2018, of the Europe-Asia Connectivity Strategy.

Romania was a strong supporter of this important document. Due to its geographical position, Romania has a vested interest in becoming an active actor with connectivity initiatives. We believe that promoting complementary initiatives would positively enforce the cohesion and the development of regional ties, especially in transport infrastructure.

We should make better use of the natural avenues that can facilitate a rapid increase in the flow of people, goods and services and generate synergies with existing policies towards regions and partners with strategic importance for the European Union, such as states from the Western Balkans, Eastern Partnership, or Central Asia.

We support projects that increase inter-operability, respecting a set of principles that should be paramount such as transparency, rules-based procurement, reciprocal market access and financial sustainability.

EWB: Romania is one of the most recent members of the EU, and its experience can serve as an important feedback for the region of Western Balkans. How has the now 12-year old EU membership changed the country?

TM: The 12 years of EU membership have brought tangible benefits for our society as a whole, clearly reflected in the daily life of our citizens. EU membership offered the opportunity to be directly involved in the European decision-making process, shaping policies that bring an added value and prosperity to our societies, including through our first mandate as EU Council Presidency.

Overall, since its EU accession, Romania has achieved significant progress, marked by a profound transformation and modernization process in all strands of public life, such as economic growth, administration, sectoral reforms. For example, our national GDP is more than double and our annual growth rates continue to be amongst the highest in the EU.

Constantly implementing the acquis has led to a professionalization of the central authorities, as well as civil services. Taking part in the decision making process of the EU has made our voice heard in Brussels and elevated our profile at European as well as at international level. These are only a few examples of the positive changes EU integration can bring to the candidates and potential candidates.

Our citizens are benefiting from the opportunities generated by the four freedoms of the internal market: free movement of goods, services, capital and workers. Furthermore, cultural exchanges and the access to educational exchange programs like Erasmus – which Western Balkan students can already benefit from – are only few examples of benefits with wide-ranging positive consequences for our country and for our society.

From an economic perspective, the increase in trade with our European partners, the rise of foreign direct investments in our economy and the development of entrepreneurship in a competitive environment are just some of the positive consequences of the accession.

Moreover, the use of EU structural and cohesion funds has substantially contributed to the economic growth of Romania.

Romania will continue to offer full support to the candidates and potential candidates in the process of European integration, both on the political and technical levels, bearing in mind the lessons learned from our relatively recent experience acquired in this process. Advancing the European perspectives of the region has been a constant focus of Romanian policy for many years and will continue even after the handing over the mandate of our Presidency to the Council of the EU.