BELGRADE – The final panel at this year’s Belgrade Security Conference was dedicated to the process of European integration. Panel entitled “Greater and Better EU: 20 years from Thessaloniki Summit” brought together experts from Serbia, Ukraine, Montenegro and the head of the EU delegation to Serbia. Panel was moderated by Milica Delević, Director for Competitiveness, Governance and Political Affairs at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Milica Delević started panel by saying that the process of European integration of this region lasted for a very long time and, before the war in Ukraine, it appeared that both Western Balkans countries and EU lost enthusiasm to continue. But in new circumstances „enlargement gained new urgency, meaning and purpose“ pointed out Delević.
Panelists discussed what this will mean for the European Union, for the Western Balkans, and for new candidate countries, such as Ukraine. Talking about the Ukrainian path to the EU, Tetyana Kovtun, Executive director of the Reforms Delivery Office of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, said that it is an existential question for her country.
„Support for EU membership is 91% in Ukraine, across all regions, which is unprecedented, “ said Kovtun, adding that Ukraine is extremely interested in seeing the EU as a geopolitical answer to the current war of aggression. Although Ukraine is in the very beginning, she reminded it has received 7 basic conditions – on issues such as rule of law, governance, judiciary, media, anti-corruption, and legislation on national minorities – for the opening of negotiations with EU even before the war started, and today is expecting first EU enlargement report, hoping to start negotiations this December.
Emanuele Giaufret, Ambassador and Head of the Delegation of European Union to the Republic of Serbia, stressed that since the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, the enlargement question has never been more important, as a result of circumstances in Ukraine.
„Enlargement is a strategic decision to make the European Union stronger, but it is a merit-based process“ he added. „Two issues need to go in parallel – the quicker candidate countries show determination in making reforms, the quicker internal (EU) reform pace will pick up and vice versa.“
However, Giaufret suggested enlargement is also about people and that it is needed in Western Balkans to regenerate the support that has previously existed for this process. „We will achieve this if the citizens and decision-makers understand the specific moment in which we live,” said Head of the EU delegation to Serbia.
Asked about a new momentum in European integration process, when enlargement is on the table, Jovana Marović, BiEPAG member and former Minister of European Affairs, stated that for and in Western Balkans this momentum currently means business as usual. She hasn’t seen yet the will within political elites for seizing a new window of opportunity.
However, Marović suggested that processes of strengthening and widening of the EU could and should go together, with the Western Balkans first in the line to be a case study for EU to test new democratic tools and improve democracy. „Change can’t happen through economy, fundamentals are first and we must start with it“ stressed Marović.
She also reflected on another discussion in context of enlargement process, which is ongoing for at least ten years, about a date of accession, stating that it is not possible to have a deadline, but it is possible to have year 2030 as a target date for states to have clear road map. „For example, Montenegro can be ready for membership by 2030,“ concluded Jovana Marović.
Answering a question on relations between old and new candidate countries, she stated that there is one enlargement process, adding countries in the same process should help one another, including the newest candidate countries, such as Ukraine.
Vladimir Međak, Vice President of the European Movement in Serbia, on the contrary, thinks the shift in the EU is evident and that things are getting serious.
„For the first time somebody mentioned date as a target date, without which we can’t have road maps; for the first time we have an analysis of the budgetary impact of future enlargement,“ said Međak. However, he added, „the way enlargement was conducted in the previous round don’t work now and we have to think something new.“
Vladimir Međak also noticed that citizens in Serbia don’t really see changes in EU approach, because of the informations in media controlled by the regime. He stated that reduction of support towards EU accession in Serbia is propagated by Serbia’s political elites.
„Serbia could have been ready for the membership in EU by now, in terms of political, economic criteria and approximation of legislation, but it is not because of the lack of political will and responsibility is on our side, “ said Međak. He pointed on Article 2 of TEU, which stipulates values EU is based on, concluding that Serbia now has problems in every single aspect, that are result of government’s choices.
Panelists also discussed what should countries in the region do to use momentum and make this enlargement perspective happen, mentioning key obstacles and allies for the process.
Jovana Marović stated that support for EU is really high in Montenegro and EU integration is part of all political parties’ programs. However, „we need to see from European Union concrete steps, concrete benefits and concrete integration of the Western Balkans in some policies – to make connection between incentives and benefits“ said Marović.
„Road maps, timeframe and pushing benefits forward is something that can change things,“ agreed Vladimir Međak, but also added that countries like Serbia must do their part of the job. But in this specific situation, in Međak’s opinion, Serbia’s only ally for the future of EU integration is geopolitics, because in all other aspects Serbia marked backsliding. He highlighted issues like the rule of law, alignment with joint EU foreign policy, and conflict resolution as prerequisites for Serbia, noticing that Serbia’s position in these categories has been worsening for the past several years.