Following the successful conclusion to the first phase of the accession process of North Macedonia and Albania, Commission is now working on the Enlargement Package for the Western Balkans, which is expected in June, as well as economic plan for the region, European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi says for our portal.

Previous weeks have been packed with events for the enlargement wing of the European Commission: during what now seems to have been the worst week for the continent hit with the Coronavirus, EU Member States gave the green light for the beginning of accession talk with Albania and North Macedonia. The Commission deserves most of the credit for this success, with its proposal for the new enlargement methodology and updated reports on the progress of Skopje and Tirana widely seen as instrumental for the final compromise.

Meanwhile, the “geo-political Commission” seems to be facing renewed challenges in the region it wants to integrate at the time when medical assistance is being increasingly politicised. In his first interview for EWB since becoming Commissioner, Mr Várhelyi answers our questions on the recent developments in the relationship between the EU and the Western Balkans.

European Western Balkans: Do you believe that the adoption of the new methodology and opening of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania shows that there is political will for enlargement among the Member States?

Olivér Várhelyi: With the revision of the methodology for the enlargement process and with the decision to open the accessions talks with Albania and North Macedonia we have put the enlargement policy back on track. We have restored its credibility, not only for the Western Balkans but also for our Member States.

Let me stress that the top-level commitment to the European perspective of the Western Balkans was always there. Enlargement remains one of the key policies of the European Union, and even last October, when the European Council did not reach an agreement on the opening of talks, the EU perspective was not disputed. It however became clear that the process lacked credibility.

Our geo-political Commission took this seriously. As soon as we took over, work has started. Credibility was placed at the heart of the revised methodology, the first out of four principles. We have also put more predictability and dynamism in the process, and we gave it a stronger political steer. Through this we have addressed the concerns, and I believe strengthened the policy.

The new approach was endorsed unanimously, including by the EU leaders. The decision to open the talks with North Macedonia and Albania was a practical confirmation. And we were able to take these decisions despite the difficult situation brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic.

We are not resting: the third element of this three-track approach, economic and investment plan which is even more relevant now given the expected negative impact of the Coronavirus crisis on the economies of the region, is under preparation in view of the EU-Western Balkans summit. Hence, I am confident that the priority we are giving to the Western Balkans and its EU perspective has the full backing and political support of our Member States.

Oliver Varhelyi and Stevo Pendarovski; Photo: Presidency of North Macedonia

EWB: Now that the EU leaders have supported opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, the next step is for the Commission to draft the negotiating frameworks for these two countries. When should they be expected?

OV: The preparation of the negotiating frameworks has already started. We plan to put them on the table of the Council as fast as we can, I hope by June, when we will come forward with the Annual Enlargement Package. This way the discussions on the negotiating frameworks in the Council can start quickly too.

EWB: When the Council adopts the negotiating frameworks, the first intergovernmental conferences can formally take place. Do you believe that this can happen this year for both countries?

OV: At this stage, there is no specific date for the first Intergovernmental Conferences (IGCs). As a next step, the Commission will put forward the Negotiating Frameworks, based on the revised methodology. Then the Frameworks will need to be discussed and agreed in the Council – the first IGCs will be convened by the rotating Presidency of the Council as soon as possible after their adoption.

Both North Macedonia and Albania – as well as all other Western Balkans partners for that matter – are also expected to continue with reforms. Albania has to specifically fulfil some requirements ahead of the first IGC, but it’s already very advanced in this process and the annual report will serve as an update to the Member States in this regard. The key is that the process is very much merit based. There is nothing else that matters in this. And concrete dates were not set for that reason.

Oliver Varhelyi and Edi Rama; Photo: Twitter / OliverVarhelyi

EWB: The new methodology can also be accommodated within the existing negotiating frameworks with Montenegro and Serbia with the agreement of these two countries. What is the procedure for these two countries to accept the new methodology and do you expect them to do so?

OV: As soon as the revised methodology was proposed by the Commission in early February, I traveled to Belgrade and Podgorica to present it there as well. The response was positive.

One thing is indeed to be clear: there will be no change to the negotiating frameworks of these two countries. They are well advanced in the talks and the rules of the game can’t change when the game is already in progress.

However, there are plenty of benefits coming from the new methodology. The changes – for example chapter clustering – can be accommodated within the existing frameworks, with the agreement of the two countries. With the methodology endorsed, you will start seeing its implementation, including in the Annual Enlargement Package.

EWB: When should we expect this year’s enlargement package? Could it be postponed due to the crisis?

OV: The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic is having an enormous impact on all of us: the EU institutions, Member States and the Western Balkans. We are all very heavily focused on addressing it to save lives, by supporting the health sectors, and on mitigating the socio-economic impact, to avoid even more devastating consequences. Our core tasks however continue and I expect the package to be put forward in June.

Oliver Varhelyi and Duško Marković; Photo: Twitter / OliverVarhelyi

EWB: Will this year’s annual Commission reports include the assessment of proportionality of extraordinary measures taken by the candidate countries to combat Coronavirus?

OV: The Annual Enlargement Package is still being prepared and we are looking at how the ongoing crisis will be reflected in the reports, in particular in the economic part but also elsewhere. I expect the reports will be very down to earth, measuring the progress achieved in a factual way, be it when it comes to the democratic and economic criteria or the EU law.

We are in a very close contact with all our Western Balkans partners when it comes to Coronavirus crisis to help as much as we can. Our partners have taken the measures they deemed necessary to address the crisis, being aware of the need to be effective but proportionate. We have seen some measures that were taken readjusted, as this crisis has no script. It is clear we can only defeat it together, and this is what we are focused on.

EWB: You have been very active in ensuring EU’s assistance to the Western Balkans during this crisis. What do you think about the harsh criticism of EU solidarity expressed by the President of Serbia recently?

OV: I think that we have been very quick in reacting once we have been able to start to fight the crisis within the EU, the epicentre of the pandemic in those days. We immediately came out with help for the entire region, overall worth already more than €700 million.

We have ensured €38 million in support of immediate needs, such as financing of medical equipment or transport of purchased medical equipment. We have prepared bilateral packages by redirecting funds that would otherwise be left unspent, totalling over €374 million. And this will be supplemented with additional regional support of €290 million.

We are also associating the Western Balkans to a number of EU initiatives, for example the work of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and our joint procurement initiative or the proposal of Transport Community and CEFTA for the ‘green lines’ to ensure the flow of goods and medicines through the region. Countries in accession talks will also be eligible for the Solidarity Fund, which for example helped Serbia when it was hit by severe floods. We are also discussing possibilities to provide the region with Macro-economic Financial Assistance to their budgets.

I think all this is a very concrete expression of solidarity, recognised also in Serbia.

Oliver Varhelyi with President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić; Photo: Presidency of Serbia

EWB: Chinese assistance has received an extremely favourable reception in Serbia, compared to milder reception to EU’s assistance. Are you concerned about EU’s reputation in the region, particularly in Serbia?

OV: This is not a race or a popularity contest, this is about helping. We are doing everything we can to support the Western Balkans and I welcome the fact that China is also helping there. Europe has also previously supported China in fighting the Coronavirus. It is quite clear that this is a global crisis that needs a global response.

The facts are also clear: the Western Balkans are our immediate neighbours and our natural partners. We are by far the most present there: 75% of foreign investments come from the EU, 70% to 80% of trade is with the EU. While other countries are also present in the region and try to exert their influence, the Western Balkans made a clear choice of EU future. And that is where they belong.