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Western Balkans: The EU Remains Focused on the Enlargement Perspective

Austrian Parliament, 12 October 2018

The second day of discussions at the International Parliamentary Conference for Common Foreign and Security Policy

Vienna (PK) – Today, the Western Balkans was the final item on the agenda in the deliberations at the Interparliamentary Conference for the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union, held at Erste Campus in Vienna. All of the participants in the debate affirmed that it is of central and undisputed importance to integrate the candidate countries of South East Europe into the EU for the stability of the region and of Europe.

Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl and Thomas Mayr-Harting, Managing Director for Europe and Central Asia of the European External Action Service, spoke of a new momentum in the accession process that must now be seized. There is a new focus on the strategic importance of the enlargement perspective, underlined David McAllister, who chaired the conference as Chair of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs. Theresia Töglhofer, Associate Fellow at the Alfred von Oppenheim Centre for European Policy Studies, identified a new urgency to the accession process in light of the growing dissatisfaction and hopelessness of the people in the Region.

Karin Kneissl: The future of South East Europe must lie within the EU

The Western Balkans are part of Europe and should therefore be referred to as South East Europe, Karin Kneissl began. The Austrian Foreign Minister is convinced that the European Union cannot be complete without integrating the region. History also shows that the future of South East Europe must lie within the EU. As Ms. Kneissl pointed out, the accession process certainly poses significant challenges. The emigration of young people, for example, has resulted in full cemeteries, but empty villages today. Also, ethnic affiliation is still given priority over achievement. Consequently, the focus must primarily be on creating a meritocracy, establishing the principle of citizenship and fighting corruption, she said.

Ms. Kneissl was emphatic that the current momentum must be exploited, especially as EU enlargement to include South East Europe is in urgent need of a breakthrough. The key to achieving this lies in taking a political approach; decisions must be taken in the interplay between the people and their political leaders. However, Minister Kneissl also sees it as a challenge to the countries of South East Europe to accept Europe's outstretched hand, to achieve reconciliation on the regional level and to overcome the hurdles of the past.

Thomas Mayr-Harting sees new momentum in the accession process

It is in the European Union’s interest to extend the area of stability and peace to the Western Balkans, underlined Thomas Mayr-Harting, who also sees a renewed momentum in the enlargement process. For example, the agreement between Skopje and Athens is a key moment for Macedonia; the agreement must now be signed so that the country does not miss out on another such unique opportunity, which might be a long time coming. According to Mr. Mayr-Harting, the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina must focus on resolving all outstanding issues, whereby a future agreement must definitely lead to full recognition of Kosovo by Serbia. On the other hand, it is incumbent on Montenegro, despite undeniable progress, work even harder to enact reforms, said Mr. Mayr-Harting. As far as Bosnia-Herzegovina was concerned, he pointed out that the country has already produced some positive surprises in the past, and that now there was hope that the government will be formed very soon after the elections. In any case, there is still a lot of work to be done there. Mr. Mayr-Harting analysed that this assessment also applies to Kosovo, where success will first and foremost depend on all political camps participating in the dialogue with Belgrade. Against this backdrop, the accession of the Western Balkan states by 2025 is a very ambitious goal. For this to succeed, the countries in the region must make a significant effort. Combating corruption and expanding the rule of law are the highest priorities, said Mr. Mayr-Harting.

Theresia Töglhofer: The prospect of accession is more urgent than ever in light of the hopelessness on the ground

“The countries of the Western Balkans lie at the very heart of what constitutes Europe.” According to Theresia Töglhofer, the prospect of accession is just as relevant and topical for the region today as it was two decades ago, as the aim is to bolster political stability and economic transformation. Nevertheless, enlargement seems less within grasp at present than just a few years ago. The EU is now taking a closer look at reforms, and the requirements have become more stringent. On the other hand, scepticism of enlargement in the population has also grown, resulting in a slowdown in the process. Citizens are unable to see any positive changes in many central areas; 18 years of the promise of accession have not led to more prosperity, said Ms. Töglhofer, describing the explosive nature of the situation. Many people have already lost hope that something will change for the better in their country. The result has been a lack of perspectives and massive Emigration.

Against this backdrop, Ms. Töglhofer spoke of a new urgency in the accession process. It is now incumbent on Europe to tie progress in the accession process to fulfilment of the accession criteria. Placing stability and geopolitical considerations above political reforms is not acceptable. On the other hand, candidate countries that enact reforms should not be prevented from taking the next steps towards accession. Ms. Töglhofer also sees the European Union as being increasingly responsible for ensuring that “new life” is breathed into integration on the ground.

Predominant in the subsequent discussion was the basic tenor that the Western Balkans are part of Europe and that the favourable conditions at present should now be seized. “There can be no stability in Europe without stability in the Western Balkans,” as a participant from the candidate country of Montenegro put it concisely. (Final Interparliamentary Conference) hof

PLEASE NOTE: Photos of this event can be found at the website of the Austrian Parliament at www.parlament.gv.at/SERV/FOTO/ARCHIV.