EU Enlargement in the Western Balkans Poses a Challenge to Parliaments

Austrian Parliament, 9 October 2018

Panel discussion on the Parliamentary Dimension of the EU Presidency

When it comes to bringing the countries of the Western Balkans closer to the European Union, it is incumbent on the national parliaments and the EU Parliament to contribute to the process. This was the tenor that emerged today during a panel discussion in the Austrian Parliament, in which Christian Danielsson, Director-General for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations at the European Commission; Liliana Tanguy, Member of the French National Assembly; Michael Gahler, Member of the European Parliament and Oliver Jens Schmitt, Professor of Southeast European History at the University of Vienna, discussed the role of parliaments in the enlargement process. There was agreement on the ongoing need for action in the region, but also on the obligation of the parliaments of the EU Member States to support the candidate countries in their accession bids.

Christian Danielsson sees historical window of opportunity

Christian Danielsson spoke of a historic window of opportunity that should now be seized, especially as there is now a new momentum for reform in the Western Balkans and the door to Europe is open. However, it is clear that a great deal remains to be done, especially with regard to the rule of law, economic reforms, good governance and reconciliation among the individual countries. Here, Mr. Danielsson also sees national parliaments playing a central role, but at the same time he pointed out that parliamentarianism in the Western Balkans still needed to progress considerably. For example, the political parties must attain both more maturity and the insight that reforms must be tackled by both the governing parties and the opposition. Mr. Danielsson said that is incumbent on the parliaments in the EU Member States to contribute their knowledge, experience and initiative.

Tanguy: Parliaments must support candidate countries on their path to Brussels

Liliana Tanguy, herself born in Macedonia, underlined the role of the national parliaments and said that as parliamentarians it was a matter of supporting the countries in their rapprochement to the EU. Ms. Tanguy emphasised the need for parliamentary democracy and informal contacts and exchanges in particular. The Western Balkan countries lack the tradition of democratic discourse, which is why local mentalities must evolve further toward peaceful coexistence, she said. Valuable input could also come from emigrants who live in EU states and are entitled to vote in their countries of origin. In France the government is not opposed to enlargement, Ms. Tanguy affirmed. The prerequisite, however, must be achieving progress and meeting the accession criteria, such as the rule of law or freedom of the press.

Gahler: Accession cannot be attained by running out the clock, but by meeting the criteria

MEP Michael Gahler asserted as an undisputable fact that the EU represents a great challenge to parliaments. He also said that the European Parliament should help shape the direction of the Western Balkans. In the region, however, a paradigm shift is needed, since most parties are not based on a set platform, but merely form around a party leader. This makes it more difficult for parliaments to control the government, he analysed, stating that the accession of the individual states should be linked to their fulfilment of the criteria and not to dates and timelines, as has happened in the past. MEP Gahler spoke with particular emphasis about Macedonia and stressed that the name dispute with Greece must not result in the Macedonian accession bid’s failure. Mr. Gahler called on the parliament in Skopje to accept the compromise and not to once again pass up this unique opportunity for a whole generation.

Schmitt dampens optimistic accession expectations

Oliver Jens Schmitt described the countries of the Western Balkans as “transterritorial societies”, especially since many voters live outside of national borders. A phenomenon that characterises the region is that civil society has not been transposed into party-political structures, so that elections mean that the movements on which the enlargement process should actually be based regularly fizzle out. The EU can exercise its leverage here, he said, as the aim is to draw on the experience of previous enlargement rounds to support the accession candidates. Mr. Schmitt warned against exaggerated optimism related to specific accession dates. Turbo-charged development cannot realistically be expected. Attaining the status of an associated member in ten years’ time would constitute a great success, he said.

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