The European values must be at the heart of the EU integration process

Conference "The Netherlands, the Western Balkans, and the EU"; Photo: European Fund for the Balkans

BELGRADE – The European values must be at the heart of the EU integration process, it is concluded at the event “The Netherlands, the Western Balkans, and the EU”, organised by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) and the Clingendael Institute, and supported by the European Fund for the Balkans on June 6, in Belgrade.

This was the second BiEPAG – Clingendael event in two weeks and in two locations (The Hague and Belgrade), which raised important questions on the developments in the Western Balkans and the relations with the EU and the Netherlands.

The three topical panel sessions were an opportunity for the policy experts from the Western Balkans and the EU, the civil society representatives and the diplomatic corps to discuss the following topics: the EU enlargement, the foreign influence in the Western Balkans and the bilateral disputes in the region.

The discussion was opened by Aleksandra Tomanić, Executive Director of the European Fund for the Balkans and Henk van den Dool, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Serbia.

Tomanić pointed out that this follow-up to the recent BiEPAG event “Serbia, the Western Balkans” which was organised in partnership with the Clingendael Institute is just supporting the very idea of the European Fund for the Balkans and BiEPAG to stimulate frank exchange and discussion between the leading think tanks in the EU and in the region.

“After the last week’s progress report by the EC, and the clear messages that countries of the region have received, it is now extremely important to talk about whether the member states will embrace and support the EC findings and the assessment in June. The Netherlands is one of the EU members, which is known for its “strict but fair” position vis-à-vis EU. The main reason for this political stand lies in the Dutch’s firm position regarding the respect of the rule of law and democracy as a crucial condition for joining the EU,” said Tomanić.

The Dutch Ambassador in Serbia, Henk van den Dool discussed the Dutch Parliament stance when it comes to opening negotiations with Albania and Macedonia, which is according to him a direct reflection of the general mood in the Dutch society and its attitude towards the inflow of migrants, the migrant channels through Holland to the United Kingdom and some stereotypes that are already embedded in the minds of the people.

He insisted that the EU fundamentals should be widely discussed outside the conference rooms, the political circles and the think tank events, since the real debate should be at homes, in the schools, in every little corner of the countries.

“I am leaving Serbia sadder and wiser than four years ago when I took over this position. The political will can move things forward or hold them back. The latter is now the reality of Serbia. The citizens must insist on the transparent and predictable legal system, respect of the fundamental rights, media freedom, as these are the prerequisites for a democratic society,” the ambassador said.

In the first panel Wouter Zweers from the Clingendael Institute, Jan Marinus Wiersma also from the Clingendael Institute and Srđan Majstorović from the European Policy Centre in Belgrade and a member of BiEPAG, discussed what the real obstacles to the EU enlargement are and whether this stuck process can be overturned.

According to Wouter Zweers, there is a common interest for the citizens of the Western Balkans and the Netherlands and it is connected with a stable democracy, security and freedom of expression.

“65 per cent of the Dutch citizens are against EU Enlargement. This may also be a result of lack of knowledge and I believe that the Dutch politicians should pay more attention to this,” he said.

Srđan Majstorović added that the EU should make a move when it comes to Albania and North Macedonia, the economic development and security of the region are on the table, along with the fact that citizens of the Western Balkans can benefit from stable democracy and the rule of law.

“European politicians need more courage to speak to their citizens on the common challenges and interests of having the Western Balkans in the EU. Both the EU and the Western Balkans are now failing to communicate the benefits of the European Union,” Majstorović said.

On the other hand, Jan Marinus Wiersma who has been dealing with the foreign affairs topics and the Balkans in the last 35 years was clear when saying that the negotiation process is just a commitment to work, but it is nonsense to think it is a guarantee for membership.

The speakers of the second panel Nikola Burazer from the European Western Balkans, Vuk Velebit from Talas.rs and Marko Savković from the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence discussed what is the reality, what are the causes and consequences of foreign influence in the Western Balkans.

“If we look at the facts, the EU is still a dominant trade partner and investor in the Western Balkans compared to both Russia and China. As for Russia, it is preventing the consolidation of the region with its influence in each Western Balkan state separately, and that is why it is the biggest threat to EU enlargement,” stated Nikola Burazer the Executive Editor of the portal European Western Balkans.

Marko Savković believes that the EU should provide a comprehensive plan on how to address foreign influences.

“Foreign influence will grow because it is fueled by domestic demand. We must point out that Russia and China have become more assertive in projecting power in the areas of strategic importance as infrastructure and cybersecurity,” Savković explained.

Vuk Velebit, an author of the MA thesis on the creation and spread of the pro-Russian narrative in Serbia media said that he believes that Russia does not need to invest anything in regard to the pro-Russian narrative in Serbian media since there is already a strong pro-Russian public opinion.

“Russia acts as a spoiler in the Western Balkans and it uses every opportunity to poke the eye of the West,” he said.

In the third panel, Donika Emini from the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies and a member BiEPAG, Srđan Cvijić from the Open Society European Policy Institute and a member of BiEPAG, together with Zoran Nechev from the Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” and a member of BiEPAG, discussed the regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations.

Donika Emini argued that when it comes to Serbia and Kosovo they used to fake the dialogue, and now they do not even bother to do so.

“The latest report was just technicalities, which just supports the anti-EU atmosphere. It is also not popular to talk about lifting the tariffs on Serbian goods in Kosovo since the tariffs are a useful tool for political manipulation in the hands of populist leaders, especially ahead of the elections,” said Emini.

Having in mind the recent developments, Srđan Cvijić argued that warmongering and anti-EU propaganda cannot bring any good to the Kosovo and Serbia dialogue.

“In Serbia, pro-Russian propaganda carried out by the pro-regime media has intensified since the beginning of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. A compromise solution between Kosovo and Serbia is impossible without stopping the anti-Western and anti-Albanian propaganda in Serbia,” Cvijić said.

Zoran Nechev stated that solving the bilateral dispute between North Macedonia and Greece on the name issue is definitely a regional success story that can be shadowed if North Macedonia does not get the date for the start of accession negotiations.

“Democracy is a precondition for resolving bilateral issues. The strongmen strive to preserve their power and democratic leaders to solve problems. A Greek-Macedonian settlement was possible because of the will of two governments that came to a solution through direct negotiations,” he concluded.