Turning corner on enlargement
The Commission said the door for Western Balkans is open, but “no shortcuts” on the European path
Maria Koleva, Brussels
9 February, 2018
Making a visible step to turn the corner on enlargement, the Commission tabled on 6 February its strategy named 'A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans'. Its message is that the EU door is open to further accessions, but only when the individual countries have met the criteria for it. At his State of the Union address last year, EC President Jean-Claude Juncker conceded that “if we want more stability in our neighbourhood, then we must maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans.”
Pushing for a renewed reform momentum in the region, and tackling specific challenges the Western Balkans face, are at the core of the document. The strategy comes together with six flagship initiatives, that in fact are a to-do list for the EU in the years to come, and that will prop up the transformation efforts of the Western Balkans. Strengthening the rule of law, reinforced cooperation on security and migration through joint investigating teams and the European border and coast guard, expanding the EU Energy Union to the Western Balkans, lowering roaming charges and rolling out broadband in the region, are precisely the tasks of the announced plans. The EU and the six countries in the region should roll up their sleeves to fulfil all 57 concrete actions under the initiatives.
On the financial side, the Commission suggested gradual increase of funding under the so-called Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance until 2020, as reallocations within the existing envelope allow. For this year alone, €1.07bn of pre-accession assistance for the Western Balkans are foreseen, on top of almost €9bn from the 2007-2017 scheme.
After adoption of the strategy at the College of Commissioners, High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini and Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn immediately presented its main priorities to MEPs at the European Parliament plenary in Strasbourg.
Federica Mogherini emphasised that there is a clear path indicated “for all our six partners in the Western Balkans” to finally join the European Union. While still a merit-based process, there is a clear political commitment on our side to make this perspective credible and finally come true, the EU foreign policy chief stressed.
The document highlights the steps which Montenegro and Serbia have to undertake as to complete the accession process in a 2025 perspective. Not to be misinterpreted as a fixed final date, Mogherini explained that they are setting not a target or deadline. Mentioning that the process depends on the pace and the success of negotiations and reforms, she said that the region will succeed together or fail together.
As it is clarified in the strategy, the Commission is ready to prepare recommendations to open accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia, on the basis of fulfilled conditions, as they are making significant progress on their European path. The executive will start preparing an Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina's membership application following receipt of comprehensive and complete answers to its questionnaire. The document said that with sustained effort and engagement, the country could become a candidate for accession. Kosovo has an opportunity for sustainable progress through implementation of the SAA, and to advance on its European path once objective circumstances allow.
We are facing a reality that the Western Balkans are European, and they want to clearly invest in the future membership of their countries to the EU, Mogherini also said. In her speech, she asserted that, over the last three years, incredible results have been achieved already. She mentioned the increased investments in the region, reinforced economic ties and growing of trade volumes of 75%, and underscored that Montenegro and Albania are 100% aligned with the common foreign and security policy positions.
Commissioner Hahn told MEPs that with this move the EU opens an important window of opportunity, but “a great lot remains to be done” and there are “no shortcuts on the European path.” He noted, however, that there must not be left “a vacuum at our doorstep, for others to step in.” The commissioner made clear that a credible enlargement perspective is not a free lunch, but requires a tough transformation. Our partners must now 'walk the talk' and deliver, he urged and put in plain words that criteria will not change, and are not technical, but are essentially about European values.