ALPBACH – Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria Alexander Schallenberg emphasised the geopolitical need for EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, Ukraine and Moldova in an interview for Politico’s podcast “EU Confidential”. He proposed the abandonment of binary thinking about the enlargement and gradual inclusion of the candidate countries in specific policy areas and institutions.
The podcast was recorded during the annual European Forum Alpbach and released on Friday. During the interview, Schallenberg emphasised that the geopolitical litmus test of the European Union is its neighbourhood.
“Are we capable, as the European Union, to export stability, or do we want a risk of importing instability and insecurity? And I am not talking only about Ukraine and Moldova. Vienna is at the very centre of this continent, and our geopolitical seismograph kicks off not only because of the east. Five hundred kilometers south of Vienna we have the Western Balkans. The region that is not the backyard of Europe, it is the courtyard of Europe. And it is our prime task to secure this region as well”, the Minister said.
He said he believed it is now time to be bold and to change the EU’s approach to enlargement and get each of the six Western Balkan countries Ukraine and Moldova clearly into the EU family.
Schallenberg reminded that twenty years ago Western Balkans were promised in Thessaloniki that they would become full members of the EU.
“Twenty years later, nothing moved. And we need to acknowledge that Russia has the spoiler capacity, it can stir things up very easily. It is our task to pacify and stabilize this region and to put our money where are mouth is. We promised them full membership, but we have not acted accordingly”, he said.
What is now needed, Schallenberg stated is the understanding that the enlargement is not a bureaucratic or legislative endeavor, adding that he was happy to see many capitals understanding this.
“It is not about applying each comma and paragraph of the acquis communitaire. It is about exporting and safeguarding a certain model of life. Of free, open, and Western democracies”, Schallenberg said.
According to the Austrian Foreign Minister, the EU should also leave the binary thinking in the past – either you are not a member or you are fully a member.
“I believe we can have opt-ins. We can have countries being members without applying every part of the acquis communitaire. For example, after you sign your accession treaty, the tradition was that you become an observer in the Council. But it is not something that is written in the Treaties. It is something that we adopted and developed over the course of the last decades. Why not do that now really? Why not give in to the Political and Security Committee, where we draft our foreign policy, the possibility for certain member states to be there as observers?”, Schallenberg said.
He also proposed including them in such things as EU research policy, Horizon Europe and Trans-European networks, provided that they can apply the acquis communitaire and there is a minimal judicial oversight guarantee.
“Why do we always say: nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and until then you are not the member? We cannot wait. Because if we wait, we might lose this region. And this is a geostrategic thing. We need to get our act together”, Schallenberg said.
He reminded that, before the summer, he created the group called “Friends of the Western Balkans”.
“What I want to prevent is having Ukraine on the fast track and other countries on the service line. That would be, geostrategically, a disaster. We have to be very careful, as the European Union, not to create this impression in the Western Balkans”, the Minister said.