European Western Balkans

What does the EU strategic agenda 2024-2029 mean for the candidate countries?

Press conference following the meeting of the European Council on 27 June 2024; Photo: European Union

The fact that the preparation for the further enlargement is one of the priorities set in the EU strategic agenda 2024-2029 is good news, our interlocutors say. Speaking about the document adopted last week by the European Council, the experts underline for the EWB that there was no mention of such an aim in the previous document of this kind. However, they view differently the use of the term “gradual integration” in the Strategic agenda.

The Strategic agenda is adopted by the European Council every five years and sets priorities for the institutions of the Union in the future. In addition to the Strategy, EU leaders gave the green light at last week’s summit for a “roadmap for future work on internal reforms” of the Union. It is noted that reforms should progress in parallel with the enlargement process, “as both the EU and future member states must be ready at the time of accession”.

The segment entitled “Preparing for a bigger and stronger Union” states that “there is a new dynamic in the enlargement process” and that “both the EU and the candidates now have a responsibility to make the most of this policy and communicate it clearly”.

It is stated that the progress in the accession of EU candidate states will be merit-based, and the EU will give “tangible incentives” to the aspiring countries.

“The European Union will support candidates in meeting the accession criteria through appropriate instruments and will use all opportunities to further advance gradual integration”, the Strategy underlines.

Jovana Marović: I am not happy with the term “gradual integration”

Jovana Marović, a member of the Balkans in Europe Advisory Group (BiEPAG) and former Minister of European Affairs of Montenegro, says for EWB that, on the one hand, it is good that enlargement is listed in the Strategy as “geostrategic investment in peace, security, stability and prosperity, and that a new chance to move closer to the Union is mentioned, which applies using the principle of merit-based progress and new instruments”.

“On the other hand, I am not happy with the term “gradual integration” because it does not imply the possibility that some of the candidate countries will be ready for the membership in the five-year period, and such gradual integration is not even prepared adequately.  The Growth Plan, as one of the instruments of the EU, for the first time includes conditioning the receipt of EU funds by meeting certain conditions, but the reform agendas which are being prepared, and the activities envisaged by these agendas do not guarantee that in the coming period the Western Balkan countries will be integrated into the European single market in any area”, Jovana Marović underlines.

Marović considers that the Growth Plan “must be linked to the conditionality that already exists within the integration process and clear road maps in the areas related to the rule of law, so that the candidate countries can move closer to the EU”.

The Council officially adopted the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans in early May. The initiative is aimed at supporting reforms related to the accession of the region to the European Union and improving of the economic growth in the WB countries.

Đorđe Dimitrov: The key question here will be how the EU can find the means to implement these policies 

In addition to enlargement, the EU strategic agenda for the next five years highlights the importance of strengthening the rule of law and competitiveness of the Union, improving the security and defence system, achieving reconciliation, resolving bilateral disputes, establishing good neighbourly relationsAnalyzing the content of the document, Đorđe Dimitrov, a researcher at the European Policy Centre (CEP), tells the European Western Balkans that the new Strategic agenda “reflects the current global situation and clearly gives a set of EU political priorities for the next five years”.

“In line with the current geopolitical situation, it is no surprise that security and defense, along with strengthening competitiveness, have a key role in the new EU agenda. The fact that the Agenda goes beyond the war in Ukraine and covers other security issues, such as migration and cyber security, clearly indicates that the top priority over the next five years will be to solve problems related to external and internal security threats and make Europe more secure,” Đorđe Dimitrov says.

Dimitrov stresses that strengthening competitiveness, including the green agenda, is “something that has been emphasized for a long time and something that every country that holds the EU presidency places in its most important priorities in the past few years, so it is no wonder that it is part of the new Agenda as well”.

“Strengthening competitiveness is crucial because in this way the EU will become more independent at the global level, primarily from China and the United States, which aims to enable the Union to better, and independently, cope with problems and crises in the future. The key question here will be how the EU can find the means to implement these policies. The fact that enlargement is clearly included in the agenda, which was not the case in 2019, clearly indicates that enlargement is once again one of the most important priorities of the Union due to the geopolitical situation and that it is one of the ways in which the EU wants to become more secure”, Dimitrov underlines.

He notes that some new EU measures, aimed at stimulating enlargement and accelerating the process, can be expected, “but it should be stressed that progress towards EU membership depends primarily on the candidate countries themselves and on the political will of the authorities in these countries to implement reforms”.

“The further EU enlargement will definitely take place in a gradual/phased way, and it will be up to the EU to define exactly what it will look like, along with internal reforms that the Union must implement in order to enable itself to accept new member states”, Đorđe Dimitrov concludes.

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