EU Enlargement Perspective for the Western Balkans: Stressing the Importance of Meeting as Equal Partners

Austrian Parliament, 9 October 2018

Stability in the South East European region is inextricably linked to EU enlargement - Austria plays a central role

The future of the six Western Balkan candidate countries lies in the EU. They need an honest perspective for this shared future with the EU Member States. The EU must help ensure the stability of democracy in these countries. It is vital that the Member States of the EU meet the candidate countries as equal partners. The parliaments of both the EU Member States and the candidate countries play an important role in this entire process, emphasised both President of the Austrian National Council Wolfgang Sobotka and former President of the German Bundestag Norbert Lammert, as well as the representatives of the five parties represented in the Austrian National Council in their résumés of yesterday’s panel discussion "The Enlargement Perspective for the Western Balkans" held at the Austrian Parliament.

Wolfgang Sobotka: For prosperity, peace and sustainable development

“Parliament is a place where people come together, listen and exchange ideas”, said Wolfgang Sobotka. “In this morning’s panels we had a very rich exchange of views with representatives of the candidate countries.” But it is one thing to engage in discussion, and yet another to take action. Mr. Sobotka announced that Austria was planning to take the initiative by supporting scholarships for parliamentary staff from the accession countries. In addition, he stressed that stability in the accession countries must also be strengthened, as it is a prerequisite for democratic development, which in turn boosts stability. Instability leads to unemployment, in particular youth unemployment, to people moving abroad and ultimately to exhaustion in the process of striving for a perspective for the future.

“Europe is used to approaching difficult issues with optimism,” explained Mr. Sobotka. But we need patience and not always to adhere to a stringent programme. “We can also open up new perspectives on the basis of developments as they unfold,” stressed the President of the Austrian National Council, “Which does not mean that we want to leave things to chance.” It is about “giving people both here and there a future that will make prosperity, peace and sustainable development possible for all sides.”

Norbert Lammert in favour of lively parliamentary exchange on the question of Western Balkan enlargement

Norbert Lammert put forward two additional proposals: “The continued existence of parliaments depends on the parties represented in them and the MPs nominated for them.” In the last quarter century, political developments in Europe, both in Central and Eastern Europe and in South East Europe, have emerged that are marked by a mindset of rivalry and hostility that “stands in the way of establishing a resilient and sustainable parliamentary culture.” Achieving progress in this area falls within the remit not only of political foundations such as the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which Mr. Lammert presides over as Chairman of the Board of Directors, “but also of established parties within the European Union.” Majority parties are only entitled to conduct a country’s affairs” - and not “to change the conditions under which minorities can become majorities.” The temptation to do this is not only present in the accession countries, but also in EU Member States, he stated.

As a second proposal, Mr. Lammert called for a lively parliamentary exchange on the Western Balkan enlargement question. The day’s discussion should constitute more than an initial spark for an ongoing joint examination of the issue. An exchange of ideas should be take place regularly. “I do not see anyone but us dealing with the issues of parliamentary structures and political developments,” said Mr. Lammert. He saw the Austrian National Council as particularly suited to this task. Mr. Lammert also suggested that each of these discussions include one representative from each of the six accession countries, who would report on progress in his or her country.

Reinhold Lopatka (Austrian People’s Party, ÖVP) underscored Austria's special role. “More than 500,000 people living in Austria have roots in the Western Balkan region,” he stressed. Austria is living up to its responsibility; in terms of the economy alone, last year “Austria, even as a small country, was the largest investor in three of the six accession countries.”

Walter Rosenkranz: Approaching South East Europe in an advisory, not prescriptive, capacity

Walter Rosenkranz (Freedom Party of Austria, FPÖ) and Stephanie Krisper (The New Austria and Liberal Forum, NEOS) emphasised the importance of involving representatives of the candidate countries more closely in the discussions. “We must convey to the people in South East Europe: They belong to us, they belong to Europe,” stressed Mr. Rosenkranz. “When we talk about the Western Balkans, we often talk about it in a negative context, namely in connection with the Balkan route or with corruption.” We must not close our eyes to the negative, but “we should banish this mindset from our language and from our heads.” The point was not to see it as the “Western Balkans”, but the “South East European region”. Mr. Rosenkranz argued that the EU and its Member States should approach the countries of South East Europe by advising, not prescribing, a particular course of action.

Stephanie Krisper: Seeing opportunities, loyalty and good neighbourly relations - not the negative

According to Stephanie Krisper, there is an excessive focus on the negative when it comes to dealing with the countries of South East Europe. “We need to talk not about, but rather to our neighbours,” she said. “While ensuring security and combating crime is a central issue, we think far too little of the opportunities, of loyalty, of good neighbourly relations.” The key issue for the integration of the Western Balkan states and for growth is fighting unemployment, especially youth unemployment. Some 300,000 jobs have been created in the Western Balkans since 2010. “That is not enough,” Ms. Krisper stressed. In Bosnia-Herzegovina youth unemployment stands at 53 per cent, in Serbia at 40 per cent and in Kosovo at 57 per cent.

Reinhold Lopatka: South East Europe is a region in high demand

Leader of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) Parliamentary Group Reinhold Lopatka as well stressed the importance of economic factors. The World Bank estimates that even if the candidate countries achieved an economic growth of five per cent, it would take them sixty years to pull even with the EU average. Mr. Lopatka pointed out that South East Europe is as a sought-after region. But Europe is in a favourable position. “We should not be overly afraid of China,” said Mr. Lopatka, who is also the ÖVP spokesperson for European and foreign policy. Russia has also shown an interest in the Western Balkans region, and Turkey and the Gulf states are discovering it as well.

Andreas Schieder: EU accession as driver for reforms

For Andreas Schieder, Member of the Austrian National Council for the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), EU enlargement to include South East Europe is important for two interconnected reasons: “Firstly, it is a central element for ensuring political stability in the region,” Mr. Schieder explained. Secondly, it is the engine for reforms in the respective countries. Austria knows this from its own experience: “In the time from our famous letter to Brussels in 1989 and our EU accession in 1995, we had to enact, and did in fact enact, a whole host of reforms.” Moreover, Mr. Schieder underlined Austria's special “affinity with the Balkans and Eastern Europe in general.” Austria functions as a “keystone for the people in these regions - culturally, scientifically, in education and also economically.”

Alma Zadić: A shared interest in a shared future

Member of the Austrian National Council Alma Zadić (Peter Pilz List) also emphasized the ties between Austria and the South East European region. “Many Austrians have their roots there - like myself in Bosnia,” she said. According to Ms. Zadić, the European Union functions as a stabiliser. “The war in the region was only 27 years ago,” explained Ms. Zadić. “Everyone there has a family member who suffered from the war. It is easy for certain parties to exploit people’s pain to achieve their own electoral success,” said Ms. Zadić. An unemployment rate of over 50 per cent, emigration, corruption and voter turnout of 50 percent - most recently in Bosnia-Herzegovina - are detrimental to the shared interests of the people in the region. “The EU must show them how important this shared interest is for a shared future,” Ms. Zadić stressed. The mentality that “every ethnic group is entitled to its own state” is wrong, as it leads to war and ethnic cleansing.

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