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European Western Balkans
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[EWB Interview] Buggenhout: EU enlargement is politically agreed and no one will stop it

Cathy Buggenhout; Photo: EU Delegation to Montenegro

At the end of June, Belgium concludes its six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union. Among the priorities of the Belgian presidency were promotion of the rule of law and democracy, while enlargement was high on the agenda of EU leaders. In the past six months, EU adopted the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, and some countries, as Montenegro, achieved concrete results on their path to the EU.

About the enlargement on the Western Balkans, importance of the rule of law in the accession process, and the further enlargement process of Serbia and Montenegro, we spoke with Cathy Buggenhout, Ambassador of Belgium to Serbia and Montenegro.

European Western Balkans: How do you assess the results of the European elections? What future we can expect? 

Cathy Buggenhout:  Well, I think that the elections have proven two things. The first thing is that there is no change in our fundamental values. The European Union will continue to work on the same basis as it was founded. The European Union is a community of values and all member states stand for stability, values, and prosperity. Some of the voters are disappointed with some of the things that happen in their own lives. This is how I interpret the results of the Belgian voters, because at the same day of the European elections, we also had federal elections and regional elections. For example, people in Belgium worry about purchasing power, social protection,  migration. So that means that we need more European Union now, not less. That would be my first conclusion that I draw from these elections.

The second conclusion that I draw from these elections is that a lot of center parties, those which policies cannot be qualified as extreme right or left, remained strong, which is basically meaning that a lot of people believe in their governments and are happy with what these governments are doing.

But now we should pay attention to the people that voted for the extreme right, like in France, for example. Also, in my own country the extreme right-wing party in Flanders had good election results, and also the extreme left gained seats. It is important to hear the voice of the people, and to see how we can deal with their concerns. This is our duty as citizens.

EWB: When it comes to the Western Balkans, do you think that the enlargement momentum will continue with the new EU administration? During the past two years and during the Belgian Presidency, enlargement was high on the agenda?

 CB: The enlargement of the European Union is politically agreed and there will be no one who will stop the enlargement process. That cannot happen anymore.

Over the past two years, since the Russian aggression in Ukraine started, we have realized that all these candidate countries that expressed a clear will to belong to the European Union still want to belong the EU. The Russian aggression in Ukraine was a huge geopolitical shock and it came after a very difficult time for all of us because of COVID. So, it was a sequence of shocks to which we do have an answer : we enlarge and continue with what we started. So, I do not see any hurdles.

However, we cannot just enlarge without strings attached. When we started the  enlargement process with ten countries after the Berlin wall fell, those countries worked hard to be fit for EU membership for over ten years in a row,  until 2004.  It was a lengthy process. When I speak to the Serbian authorities, I often hear the remark, ‘Yes, but we have been negotiating now for 12 years and you do not want us’. No, our commitment has not changed. Our commitment is that this next enlargement will take place and every European Council for the past two years has repeated it.

But we are attaching, first and foremost, great importance to fundamental values; we have to share the same values. We cannot lower our standards just to take up countries if these countries do not respect the same values and standards. If you want to join the club, you have to respect the rules of the club.

So, to conclude, there is no coming back on any of the commitments we have undertaken to have the Western Balkan countries join the European Union, and now also Moldova and Ukraine.

EWB: In the past period, especially from some political leaders in the Western Balkans, we have heard the narrative that Ukraine will become a member of the EU before the Western Balkans, and that enlargement is not about criteria but geopolitics. Can the EU guarantee that the rule of law and respecting of fundamentals values will remain the main criteria for joining the EU?

 CB: Yes, it is, and rule of law and fundamental values will remain the criteria for Ukraine as well. Ukraine will have to fulfill all the steps that are necessary to join. Enlargement is a merit-based process. Ukraine, just like Moldova or any country from the Western Balkans, will be judged the same. There will be no different treatment for any country which would like to join the EU, it will remain the same process.

EWB: During the Belgian Presidency, the EU adopted the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans. What does this plan offer to the countries of the region?

 CB: The Belgian Presidency was under a lot of pressure to get this plan approved. We only had a couple of months until the European Parliament went into recess. The Growth Plan demonstrates our commitment to make the Western Balkan countries move forward on the EU path.

The Growth Plan is also very innovative. The GDP pro capita in the Western Balkan countries is on average 50 percent lower than in European Union countries. Now we have a tool in our hands that will raise the economic growth in the Western Balkan countries.

It will also allow the WB6 countries to integrate easier in one of the fundamental features of the European Union – the Internal market. And the growth plan should also improve the quality of the national administrations. But money for the Western Balkans is not going to be given for free. It’s an enormous budget. It’s six billion euro, of which two billion euro in grants, which means not repayable, and it is four billion euro in loans at a favorable interest rate. Now, we are eager to receive the Reform Agendas and the concrete proposals.

Another important point is the regional integration. The tools are there – the Berlin Process and CEFTA. If this regional integration is up and running, then it acts as a kind of learning school to start benefiting from some elements of the Internal market.

I’m convinced that if the Western Balkan countries continue to work together, like they are doing since the end of last year with productive meetings, there will be a better regional integration, which will be beneficial to make another step forward towards the European Union membership.

Cathy Buggenhout; Photo: EU Delegation to Montenegro

EWB: You stated that there will be no money for free. Is there a possibility that some countries, such as Serbia, due to numerous problems in the area of the rule of law, might not be able to draw the allocated funds offered by the Growth Plan?

CB: We expect from all the candidate countries to move towards our values and to fullfill the benchmarks. Every country needs to do what is expected to become an EU member. Because otherwise, why did you become a candidate in the first place? It is the own choice of the country, isn’t it ? Candidate status implies that every candidate will do its utmost to achieve the benchmarks to join the European Union.

You cannot just get the money and not do anything. That is a valid principle that applies to all the candidate countries, Serbia included.  And as said, there are benchmarks, not only in chapters 23 and 24, but in every negotiating chapter.

The reform agendas have not been presented yet. So, I cannot speak out on that, and I am not an expert. But I can say that we expect the reform agendas to be precise in what the candidate country aims to reform. Then the budget will be allocated for the elements that are in the reform plan.

EWB: In July this year, for the first time European Commission will publish rule of law reports for Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro as for EU member states. Do you expect that these reports to more clearly highlight issues these countries face in key negotiation areas?

CB:  Let me start by commending the four countries which have voluntarily accepted to make a rule of law report.  We are very much looking forward to receiving this self-assessment.  It is useful for the countries themselves because it’s a kind of checklist of what the country has done, what is in line with EU acquis,  and what can maybe done better.

This being said, rule of law in the  negotiation process is one track, and the voluntary report is a complementary track. One does not substitute the other. The voluntary track is to make an internal exercise of the candidate country, with what was done, what was already achieved, what still needs to be done.

EU member states are also subject to the checking of the state of the rule of law in the country. Because the rule of law is fundamental in the functioning of the European Union.  It is  an obligation that a Member State undertakes forever. That makes it so valuable. It’s not a one off.

EWB: In December you stated in an interview that there is a chance that Serbia could open a new negotiation cluster during the Belgian Presidency. This is obviously not going to happen. Why?

CB: In the European Commission progress report on Serbia, published in November 2023, it is written that there are no open benchmarks left in Cluster 3. The Commission recommended opening Cluster 3. We are aware of the wish of the Serbian government to open Cluster 3, it was for example stated recently at a meeting in Brussels with my Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But you know that there were elections in Serbia on the 17th of December and the Serbian government became a government in current affairs. The new government was put in place on the 2nd of May. That means that basically no legislative work was done during the first four months of 2024, during which Belgium holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU. At this moment, there’s still no consensus in the Council, because we have not seen any change. 

We would assume that it will be fast forward now with a new government, which has committed itself to making progress on its EU accession track. We expect that anytime soon there will be this new vigor to make sure that Cluster 3 can be opened. But at this moment, we have not seen any change compared to November last year.

EWB: How do you assess Montenegro’s progress over the past six months. Do you expect that the country can start soon with closing negotiation chapters? 

CB: Montenegrin authorities say that Belgian EU Presidencies are their lucky charm, because during our previous presidency in 2010 Montenegro received candidate status. In January 2024 we held an Intergovernmental Conference. The aim of the government in Podgorica now is to have another Intergovernmental Conference under Belgian Presidency on the 24th of June.

The political will of this new Montenegrin government, which came to power last year, to become a Member of the EU is incredible. I must honestly say that each time that I travel to Podgorica and I speak to the authorities, I feel this  commitment.  And over 80 percent of the people of Montenegro support EU membership. This is a great driver, because becoming a member of the European Union is not easy. To become a member, one has to bring about changes, and these are not always easy changes. Moreover, it requires a long time effort.

I see a lot of vigor and goodwill and everybody’s working a lot on getting the next step – closure of the Interim Benchmarks for Chapter 23 and 24. We are waiting for the European Commission’s assessment, expected for the middle of the month of June. If that all goes well,  then there will be the IGC on the 24th of June.

Montenegro has a number of other assets in the enlargement process that they committed to, for example, Montenegro has 100% alignment with the Common Foreign and Security Policy, including sanctions against Russia. They are sincere in their political will to become the next European Union member state.

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