In May 2021, the European Union launched the Conference on the Future of Europe – a new, bottom-up and pan-European initiative, which aims to give citizens, civil society and authorities a greater say in EU policy-making. The inclusion of the Western Balkans in the Conference has been brought up on multiple occasions in the past several months and this has started to materialise this month.
On 2 July, as part of the Prespa Forum Dialogue, panel discussion “What can the Western Balkans do for the EU?” was the first in a series of public and civic contributions from the region to the Conference on the Future of Europe.
We spoke with the Managing Director for Europe and Central Asia at the European External Action Service, Angelina Eichhorst about the expectations of the Conference, the importance of the Western Balkans’ participation, the state of the EU accession process of the region and Slovenia’s Presidency of the EU, on the margins of the Prespa Forum Dialogue.
EWB: The Conference on the Future of Europe is a citizen-led series of debates and discussions that will enable people from across Europe to share their ideas and help shape the common future, and it offers a new public forum for a debate with citizens around some key priorities and challenges. What are your expectations of the Conference, as it is now being carried out in the EU? Will it have a significant impact?
Angelina Eichhorst: First of all, let me say I am absolutely thrilled to be here in Prespa. It is very symbolic, a very strong event, with many people who truly believe in the European Union as one unified continent.
And that is why I think the Conference on the Future of Europe has a great timing. It is always too late, and it is important to have it started. I wanted to give a clear message earlier on the panel, saying – “let us use this to the maximum”. It is ground-breaking to have a new method where we want to make sure that we listen. You know, we talk a lot to others but we do not necessarily listen a lot to what different views are out there, and what the opinions are, but mostly – what ideas there are and what action can actually be attributed to that.
And that is why I look very much forward to this conference. I try to use some examples inside the Member States where CSOs are coming up with concrete requests for the government, for authorities, for institutions to do this or that. You do not need to wait until the end of the conference to already make a change.
It is very visionary. I do always prefer to go back to President Macron, and how he launched it because this is a vision for Europe, and I believe we should all subscribe to it. But the problem is that many people do not know, also inside the EU – it is not just here in South-East Europe, but everywhere. People are not sufficiently aware. They are taking the EU for granted, and they are not sufficiently aware of how life would be without the European Union. Just imagine, for one second, what we would go back to. I read a lot of history, and I always encourage people to read more history. You have lived in this part of Europe, you have lived history very recently, and a very painful one, but many people do not do that anymore, so I think that is why the Conference on the Future of Europe is very exciting.
EWB: Why is it important for the Western Balkans to participate, at least informally, in the Conference on the Future of Europe? In which ways can this be achieved?
AE: You know, what we heard today was very encouraging because the work has already started.
That is why I say, please, work on the assumption that you are truly part of it. You have a lot of friends in the EU institutions who will continue to refer to the input from the Western Balkan Six, together or separate or from different partners because there are so much here to give and to have. And in these physical discussions, I think we should always try to come up with three points of action. Those should be small points that we are going to put forward. You do not need to have a long manifest of twenty thousand actions.
I could not mention it this morning, but I feel like a lot of our work is about deviation, that you get distracted on a course you are, like today. I think there is some distraction going on within the EU when it comes to the whole issue of unification, integration, enlargement.
We get distracted, and we have to keep the course, and this is for one reason – you know there is no alternative. There is only one way of doing it.
EWB: Some experts are pointing out that the current EU accession process of the countries of the Western Balkans is not producing results that will democratize their societies and increase socio-economic convergence between the region and the EU. The instruments needed to enhance the accession of these countries with a view to membership are there. However, they are emphasising that the countries need a clear tailor-made accession partnership roadmap for each of the Western Balkans countries. Do you agree with this?
AE: Well, you know, in some way, it exists already. The reports are coming out regularly. It used to be every year, then there was a little bit of a gap, and now they are coming out again in October, November, around that time, October probably. That is a very good tool to work with. And very often, the language there is factual, Commission is as factual as it is, and the report is really good.
It is not always a nice message to hear. I belong more to those who say, look, yes, the number of issues has not yet been solved, but I cannot say it is not going well, it is.
Both Albania and North Macedonia fulfil all the criteria to start accession negotiations. You know, we have to stop for a moment and to realize what that really means. Does it mean that Albania is not ready to start negotiating? No, Albania is ready. North Macedonia is ready.
What we insist on – the rule of law, all freedoms, the judiciary, is tough, and you know why the message is tougher today than before – because we see what is happening inside the European Union.
That is how it came that we put much more emphasis on rule of law than we had ever before. It was always there in the enlargement process. What I am trying to say, the road maps are under the Stabilisation and Association Council. Now, you have this work under the new methodology. Yes, it could be a way to work, why not? Although I must say, a lot of this is out there.
So you see, it comes back to my point on deviation – let us try not to get off course, because we are trying to re-invent some of the issues, but we should all say to all governments and representatives of the citizens, and authorities and members of Parliament – continue to work, work for you. It is a lot of work. Get laws adopted in Parliament, get the governments to propose legislation, get citizens also involved in this legislative process.
EWB: We have heard today on several occasions that the EU enlargement is in a bad state and that enthusiasm hit an all-time low due to the delay in starting accession talks with Skopje and Tirana. On the other hand, we have Montenegro and Serbia who are not advancing on their EU path due to the issues regarding the rule of law and the state of democracy. Kosovo is still waiting for visa liberalisation. Some believe that this vacuum could create serious repercussions and fertile ground in the region for other actors. Do you think that this could happen if something does not change?
AE: I always come to these kinds of statements, not because I am naive and optimistic, but I see we have an obligation to make it work. Indeed, there has been a slowing down, and that was not good. A slowing down at the level of the Council, at the level of Member States when it comes to Albania and North Macedonia, and also in regards to visa liberalisation for Kosovo.
With Serbia and Montenegro, we are getting again on a good track because the clusters will kick in, and this will all happen. Montenegro could also close chapters if they continue on the same path. Bosnia and Herzegovina is still a big challenge, but it is a challenge. That means that we have to make it work.
We cannot afford to say – it does not work, is not good, we are not in a good shape, we are fragile, we are going to fall apart. It does not help us at all, to the contrary. Because this is how you attract third partners.
If you are assertive and affirmative on the course of action, third parties have no interest to come, because it is very little for them to play with.
The European Union came back very strongly in 2018 with the Credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans. I am sure you remember we spoke about that thing also before. That was a very strong message which said – we are here. Then, unfortunately, in the Council, things did not move in the way they should. I am optimistic it can go back again. This is not a lost cause at all, for one reason – there is no alternative. That is why I am saying to everybody – act as if we are all one already.
EWB: Although a subtle increase in support for the EU membership is visible across the region, with 62% endorsing accession, according to the latest Balkan Barometer Public Opinion Poll, we could hear today, and we can notice some disappointment in the Western Balkans, especially coming from the leaders. They are often emphasising that they did everything they could, but they are not moving forward. How to restart this process, how to move onward and to create a momentum that existed in 2018, with the Strategy? We had this situation when everyone was feeling hopeful and feeling like things are actually moving forward, and then, things started slowing down, and if I might say – stopping.
AE: Not stopping. Indeed, the past energy has not been there. As I mentioned before, I think for both Serbia and Montenegro we could be in a good place at the end of the year, and this was also the message to the Prime Minister when she came to Brussels for the intergovernmental conference. This was also the message to the Prime Minister of Montenegro.
But this is really up to the governments to make work that they have promised to their citizens. If there are any doubts on any issues, citizens always have access to all the Commission reports on what is the real state of play. That is why we have these reports, that is for sure.
Now, what I do think is perhaps more needed is that the citizens in the European Union start more debating and discussing, and that is why we are going back to the Conference on the Future of Europe – debating and discussing why it is so important that we are all one family and how can we benefit from that. I know many young people from Brussels that travelled to the Balkans, and they loved being in the Balkans, and vice versa. That is one example, but there are so many exchanges you can work on.
So, you need the re-energize this again, you cannot allow for the negativity to take hold of all of this. We need to fight back, and that is what we are doing institutionally. That is certainly what High Representative Joseph Borell does very clearly. He has very clear messages on how he sees these questions, but we also need the Member States to wake up.
EWB: From July to December 2021, Slovenia holds the Presidency of the EU Council. In their programme, they announced that the Western Balkans is going to be a top priority. What are your expectations?
AE: There is no doubt that Slovenia will put as a top priority the Western Balkans, there is no doubt. There is a very important point in the calendar, which is the Summit in October. You know this is how the institutions work, they work towards good results at the Summit and I see already for a lot of leaders here that their mental map goes toward the Summit – let’s try and get results before and to make this Summit successful. Sofia was a very successful summit, I was there in Zagreb, as well. We were under COVID conditions. However, we still had a good summit and good results. I believe Slovenia will be very successful. We helped the presidency, and we support the presidency to come to a good outcome.