HELSINKI – If the European Union is consistent, in particular in its enlargement policy, there is no reason for concern on any other player, in any other part of the world, playing a role that is bigger than the one the European Union has, stated EU’s High Representative/Vice President Federica Mogherini on Friday in Helsinki.
Although, with the nuclear deal with Iran, the situation in Hong Kong, military exercises in the Gulf, and the Arctic, which is a priority of Finland’s Presidency, somehow the Western Balkans managed to find its place among the agenda of a two-day informal meeting of EU Foreign Ministers (Gymnich) in Helsinki.
Before the meeting, strong reactions were coming from Serbia, criticising the invitation of Kosovo who is neither a candidate for membership nor it has been recognised by all the EU member states.
The EU’s chief diplomat addressed these critics right away, explaining that this is a format that has been used already before in different meetings, even if it is not the traditional format of inviting the candidate countries.
“This does not create a precedent. This is simply because we wanted today to discuss the developments in the Balkans – integration and cooperation in the region,“ said Mogherini.
She explained that the EU wanted to have a conversation with all of the Western Balkan Partners on regional cooperation.
“We welcomed all six of them and had a very intense, very candid, very constructive, interesting and lively conversation with them, underlining the importance of being consistent on their side, on the continuation of the reform processes, of reconciliation processes and regional integration and cooperation among them,“ said HR/VP Mogherini.
North Macedonia and Albania waiting for October
Even though the Western Balkans is not among the priorities of Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU, at the joint press conference with Mogherini, Finnish Minister for Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto, reiterated their support for enlargement.
“Finland has been supporting the enlargement process. We hope that things are moving with North Macedonia and Albania,” said Haavisto.
With the decision on the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania scheduled to take place in October, all eyes are now on the Member States. The EU has been criticised for postponements of the decision and possibility of decoupling North Macedonia and Albania, being called out by experts to give the green light to the countries or it will be faced with undermined credibility.
Mogherini called on the Member States to have a consistent approach, especially when it comes to upcoming decisions to be taken, such as on opening negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.
“I can say is that I have seen today even stronger support, determination and awareness among the Member States on the strategic importance for the European Union to be consistent on the next steps of the enlargement process,” said Mogherini.
Having France, that very visibly opposed to the opening of the accession negotiations with Albania, as well as the Netherlands, whose members of parliament voted against opening of negotiations with Tirana, due to the insufficient progress in the fight against corruption and organised crime, positive attitude of Mogherini might come as a surprise.
She also pointed out that she would not disclose if there is unanimity on specific steps to be taken but there is “a general sense that this region is strategically important for the European Union.”
“It is in our interest, economically, security-wise, in terms of management of refugee flows, in terms of infrastructure, to integrate as much as possible the region inside the European Union. It is an interest for ourselves, but also not to forget, it is probably the only region today where the accession process towards the European Union has a deep value of peace-building and reconciliation,” Mogherini said.
She added that some of the countries of the Western Balkans were at war just 20 years ago and that only the perspective of being together in the same family can give them perspective.
“Not only the economic incentives but also the institutional and political incentives, of being in the same family, can give them a perspective to come to terms with a very heavy and difficult history, and to look at the future, which is exactly what the young population of the region expect,” she said.
As one of the priorities of Croatian Presidency over the EU will be enlargement and the Western Balkans integration in the EU, newly appointed Croatian Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Gordan Grlić-Radman explained that Croatia is a strong supporter of opening the negotiation with North Macedonia and Albania in October.
He added that the ministers have also discussed various models of regional cooperation with Western Balkan countries, as well as any important democratic processes and reforms of those countries.
“We support their integration in the EU, but with fulfiling all of the important criteria on their path towards the accession,” he said.
Kosovo to lift tariffs, Serbia to refrain from derecognition campaign
“The resolution on the positive outcome of the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo is one of the core elements of the European perspective of the whole region,” stated outgoing European Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn.
He also expressed his hope that after the elections in Kosovo things will be more clear, and later, with the new personnel on the European side, Hahn said that Kosovo and Serbia should enter into final negotiations.
Some of the things that are blocking these negotiations are tariffs that Kosovo imposed on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also Serbia’s Kosovo ‘derecognition’ campaign – counting now 15 countries that have revoked recognition, with Togo being the last country to pull this move.
“It is important to lift these tariffs which are against the spirit of the Union – the EU is about the single market and there is no tariffs and no customs or duties, and therefore this has to be done, but also Serbia has to refrain from this derecognition initiative that it is doing around the world,” stated Commissioner Hahn.
Mogherini also called both sides to come back to negotiations under EU facilitation, since it was one of the topics that were discussed at the informal meeting.
“I can say that I am quite encouraged by the positive spirit and the atmosphere – given that it is still the Balkans – that was expressed during the meeting by our partners in the Balkans, but also by our Member States,” she said.
When it comes to the visa liberalisation for Kosovo, she pointed out that there is no mystery about the fact that the European Commission has indicated to the Council that the time has come to take this decision.
“Now it is up to the Council to take that decision, and I have reminded the [Foreign] Ministers that we believe it is high time for the Kosovo citizens to see this happening. I was in Pristina, I guess already two years ago, saying that time has come and I hope that the Member States will take this decision that is now in their hands as soon as possible because the requirements have been fulfilled,” Mogherini concluded.