EU commissioner: Western Balkan EU prospects unquestionable

The pace of negotiations depends on the progress countries make in implementing the necessary reforms. Quality goes before speed, but I always say that it is good to be ambitious. The Berlin Process serves to drive that reform program forward, always with a view to strengthening each country’s preparations to meet their European Integration ambitions – Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner for Regional Policy & Enlargement

Ljubica Gojgic Source: cordmagazine.com
(Beta/AP, file)
(Beta/AP, file)

During a week in which historic negotiations on Britain’s exit from the European Union began, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini announced that in the period ahead the Western Balkans will be one of the main topics of her activities, just behind issues of defense and security, stating that there will “certainly be the admission of new members to the European Union”. Arriving in Belgrade in late June with the same message was Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner for Regional Policy and Enlargement, who attended the reception commemorating the inauguration of the new Serbian president.

In this exclusive interview for CorD Magazine, Hahn says that as well as congratulating Aleksandar Vucic he also expressed the EU’s willingness to continue the joint work aimed at ensuring Serbia’s entry into the European Union. Hahn hopes that the ninth and tenth negotiating chapters, opened shortly before his visit, will not be the last chapters that Serbia and the EU will open this year. Noting that the path to membership entails complex reforms, our interlocutor stresses that the European Commission will continue to focus on the rule of law, including security, fundamental rights, democratic institutions and public administration reform, as well as on economic development and competitiveness. Responding to concerns that the Berlin Process regional initiative might be some kind of compensation to Western Balkan countries for uncertain EU membership, Johannes Hahn states unequivocally – the Berlin Process serves to drive that reform program forward, always with a view to strengthening each country’s preparations to meet their European integration ambitions.

You recently visited Belgrade. What kind of message did you convey to the President of Serbia with regard to the EU integration process?

– During our meeting I congratulated President Vučić on his election and told him that I’m looking forward to continuing working with him and the new government on Serbia’s strategic goal of EU membership. I further stressed that the EU’s commitment to Serbia’s EU path is firm and unquestionable. The EU is Serbia’s number one partner, including on assistance, with €2 billion in grants since 2007, way ahead of any other global partners, and EU accession has no alternative.

We work closely with Serbia, as partners and friends. Our efforts focus on reforms, cooperation and reconciliation. In this respect, I discussed with President Vučić the good prospects of the regional economic area as an immediate and important step forward towards further European integration. The Regional Economic Area will make the Western Balkans more attractive for investors, to the benefit of Serbian citizens.

Serbia has made good progress in the EU accession negotiations, with ten chapters opened now and two provisionally closed. With all energy focused now on reforms and the EU path, I am confident that the opening of further chapters is still possible this year. as Serbia’s leadership is determined to deliver on its commitment, including on the rule of law and the normalization process with Kosovo, as a driving force on peace, stability and prosperity for the region.

Do the upcoming EU reforms, as discussed in Mr. Juncker’s “White Paper on the future of the EU”, mean that the issue of enlargement will be postponed until after 2025 and, in that context, how is the Berlin Process to be understood?

– Let me be very clear – our commitment is as strong as ever. The process continues in the same spirit and intensity as before. The EU perspective of the Western Balkan region is firm and unquestionable. This is also what the EU leaders repeated at the European Council meeting earlier this year, where they reaffirmed their unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans.

Regarding the White Paper, it maps out the drivers of change in the next decade and presents a range of scenarios, starting from the present situation. It is not meant to make any political statements on enlargement.

As you know, there is no predetermined timeline associated with the enlargement process. The pace of negotiations depends on the progress the countries make in implementing the necessary reforms. Quality goes before speed, but I always say that it is good to be ambitious! Given the complex nature of these reforms, which aim at the transformation of the whole society, this is a long-term process. Enlargement policy continues to deliver results and reforms are moving forward in most countries, albeit at different speeds. A continued commitment to the principle of “fundamentals first” remains essential for the enlargement countries. The European Commission will continue to focus efforts on the rule of law, including security, fundamental rights, democratic institutions and public administration reform, as well as on economic development and competitiveness.

The Berlin Process serves to drive that reform program forward, always with a view to strengthening each country’s preparations to meet their European Integration ambitions.

When the Berlin Process was set up in the summer of 2014, the governments of the participating countries envisaged “four years of real progress” on precisely defined regional projects. Given that the Berlin Process was conceived as a regional initiative with a fixed-term of action until 2018, how would you assess its achievements today?

– The Berlin process has delivered real progress. Through the connectivity agenda, we are helping to build many sections of roads, railways, power lines or gas interconnectors, and we are also using this as a hook for the accompanying reforms that will not only add value to EU investments but also attract further investments. But connectivity is not only about linking physical infrastructure or energy / transport systems. At the EB6 summit in Paris last year, we opened a new chapter, on youth connectivity, with a number of programs to help the region capitalize on one of its most precious resources – its young people, by incorporating them in the EU’s Erasmus program, or by promoting young civil servants to spend some time in their neighbor’s administration. And in Trieste we will talk about economic connectivity, how to break down barriers for trade, but also investment and business. The concept of the Regional Economic Area will boost the economic development of the whole region and prepare the Western Balkan countries for the internal market.

The concrete results are already visible through developing regional cooperation. In addition, the Berlin Process contributes substantially to reconciliation and good neighborly relationships through regular meetings and joint work on common objectives.

How do you view the idea of German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to use the “Berlin plus” initiative to establish additional funding for infrastructure projects in the Western Balkans, and his call for Brussels to “engage and invest more in the region”?

– The EU initiates and supports various new regional cooperation initiatives, such as the connectivity agenda, to foster economic opportunities and growth that will only materialise if the region works together to attract international investment.

In financial terms, we have leverages of some €700 million in investments for priority investments, through EU grants of €350 million at the Vienna and Paris Summits. We are on target to deliver the €1 billion promised for the connectivity grants. The Commission intends to make a substantive financial contribution to the connectivity agenda in Trieste.

However, we need to keep in mind that investments are important, but will not have the desired effects without structural reforms. These reforms are part of the countries’ obligations on the road to the EU. They will add value to the EU investments in connectivity while also attracting further investments. In that respect, the leaders need to renew their political commitment as progress on implementing the Connectivity Reform Measures is not quite as fast as I would have wanted.

What do you expect from the fourth meeting of Western Balkan leaders within the framework of the Berlin Process, to take place this month in Trieste; how do you evaluate regional opportunities on the eve of this new round of leaders’ meetings?

– We recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome; the Trieste Summit – in the same spirit of constructing a common Europe – should be seen as a strong, positive signal on the relevance of the enlargement perspective of the Western Balkans.

The European Commission supports the success of the summit with substantial contributions in fostering regional cooperation among the Western Balkan countries to connect infrastructures, economies and people within the region and with the European Union. We will be announcing the annual ‘connectivity package’ of infrastructure projects to be funded. The Transport Community Treaty is ready to be signed after Kosovo’s initialling as last country. I am confident also that we will adopt an Action Plan to create a Regional Economic Area.

What is essential for the common platform of political and economic relations between the countries of the Western Balkans, which the EU will insist upon in the further accession process?

– It is important to stress that there are no new accession criteria, because the countries of the Western Balkans are sensitive to the suggestion that our regional co-operation projects could be a substitute for enlargement. But what we are proposing is exactly the opposite: to develop regional co-operation as a basis to reinforce each country’s path to their European Integration objective.

Good Neighborly Relations is already a criterion for assessing maturity to join the EU, and we are proposing ways to deliver on this. But all the other measures that we propose will help accession, whether it is to improve border crossing procedures, to develop a regional electricity market, or to open up rail markets. These are all measures that countries would have to carry out on their way to the EU sooner or later, and we are proposing that they do so sooner.

The Belgrade-Pristina dialogue is practically frozen, while the EU seems to lack the ambition to initiate new meetings?

– I look forward to a continuation of the dialogue at the soonest opportunity now that presidential elections in Serbia and parliamentary elections in Kosovo are over. The EU, as facilitator, expects both sides to have a constructive approach and commitment to the dialogue.

A constructive engagement in the normalization process is important for both Serbia and Kosovo to advance on their European paths. I expect both parties to look towards the future rather than to the past, in line with EU values. Ultimately, it is to the benefit of the people in Kosovo and Serbia and also essential to preserve peace and stability in the region. I am encouraged by President Vucic’s willingness to launch a domestic dialogue on Kosovo in this respect.

On the eve of your recent visit to Belgrade, Serbian media reported that the Berlin process is becoming a kind of substitute for EU membership or a “parking lot for the Western Balkans”, as the situation was described by one local diplomat. How would you respond to such an interpretation?

– I have heard these criticisms and I have already rejected them on several occasions. As I said before, regional co-operation or the Berlin Process is part of each country’s path to the EU. It is by no means a substitute for the enlargement process itself, which has to be based on the candidate country’s own merits and capacity to meet the criteria for joining the EU. Regional co-operation can also help improve that capacity. A good example of this is the Energy Community, through which countries have agreed to implement the EU’s energy rules in advance of Membership. As well as helping prepare to join the EU, the Energy Community has delivered many other benefits from applying EU rules to the Western Balkans as a whole. We want to do something similar for transport, and therefore looking forward to the signature of the Transport Community Treaty in Trieste.

Critics are also concerned about the fact that the Berlin Process involves only six EU member states. In this sense, to what extent can that Berlin Process be referred to as being part of the EU integration process?

– I’m not sure who those critics are. The Berlin Process has no institutions or rules; it is merely a framework within which Member States can support the countries of the Western Balkans to cooperate and work together to accomplish important things. It is not, and will never be, a substitute for the EU integration process, which is formal and institutionalized, and in which each candidate country needs to convince all of the EU Member States, chapter by chapter, that it is ready to join the EU. The Berlin Process is an initiative which supports substantially the accession process.

Does the Berlin Process’s introduction of the category “Western Balkans”, which you also use frequently, suggest that the EU enlargement process will possibly again be “bloc” based, which would mean that the individual progress of each state on initiatives would determine the progress of the Western Balkans as a whole?

– The accession process is built on strict but fair conditionality and the principle of own merits. The enlargement countries must each meet the well-established criteria in order to join the EU. This is crucial for the credibility of enlargement policy, for providing incentives to enlargement countries to pursue far-reaching reforms and for ensuring the support of EU citizens.

This interview was originally published on the CorD Magazine website

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