What is the EU’s position on enlargement? “We want to complete what is obvious”, said EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn during the 13th Conference of European Regions and Cities organized by the Institute of European Regions (IRE) in Salzburg on Sunday, 24th of September 2017. The six countries of the Western Balkans Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania should, according to Hahn, become members as soon as possible. The speech by President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, on the State of the Union in September has provided “positive excitement” in this regard. Juncker has stated in his speech, that in 2025 the EU would have more members than today. It is of great importance to use the dynamics in the momentum, says Hahn towards the accession aspirants of the countries to make the states ready for the EU. 2025 is a “moving target”, but there are no speed restrictions.
Commissioner Hahn, who held the keynote speech on the first panel discussion on the topic “The Next Generation of EU Member States”, considers important challenges in the lack of economic cooperation among the countries of the region and the high unemployment rate. The latter leads to the fact that the well-qualified are going abroad and the less qualified are left frustrated. However, increased trade between countries and the reduction of regulatory hurdles could be used not only with a view to economic prosperity but also as a test run for the later extended EU single market: “The daily work would be, in fact, a real preparation”, says Hahn, who also strengthens the rule of law. Foreign investors, as well as domestic companies must be able to rely on an “independent judiciary that works correctly and without corruption”. Corresponding positive developments regarding the rule of law should now be “consolidated”. Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetterpointed out, that in the fight against the corruption of aws alone are not enough, and however, this can only be implemented by independent courts as well as well-trained judges and prosecutors. Herewith the Western Balkan countries can pick-up support from the EU.
It sometimes fails at political will, Igor Crnadak, Minister of Foreign Affairs in Bosnia and Herzegovina comments. On the one hand, when it comes to combating corruption, on the other hand, if EU enlargement is to be defined as a national and cross-party objective which is not sold for short-term political small pocket money. Jadranka Joksimović, Serbian Minister for European Integration, sees the pillars of European integration in economic development and the strengthening of the rule of law. However, “Euro-realism” has replaced “Eurofanaticism” in the Serbian population. Nevertheless, she considers an accession in 2025 realistic for her country.
Despite the fact, one should not forget the mood in the old EU, declared Montenegro’s Minister of European Affairs Aleksandar Andrija Pejović. The majority of Austrians, for example, do not want any new EU members, although Austria has benefited economically from the EU enlargement. The Brexit has also shaken the EU into its foundations, namely the idea of bringing the entire continent together. The EU is no longer the only option on the Western Balkans. “There are dangerous alternatives”, says Pejović, referring to the growing influence of Turkey and Russia in the region. The Western Balkans became a “geopolitical chess game” due to these increasingly popular foreign forces, including Islamic fundamentalist associations, the Vicepremierminister of Kosovo, Enver Hoxhaj, agreed. The refugee crisis – in 2015 most refugees came across the so-called Balkan route – had changed the situation.
The panelists agree that Juncker’s speech sent an important message to the Western Balkans, especially that the expansion process continues. In Albania, which has been politically transformed into a reform of the judiciary, this momentum has been “triggered by the EU perspective”, says Odeta Barbullushi, Albanian Deputy Minister for European and Foreign Affairs.
For Albania as well as the rest of the Western Balkans, it would have to be the goal and the motivation, added Hahn, “to be perceived by the other EU members as an asset and not a burden at the time of accession”.