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Western Balkans in the EU: the doors are open but the Commission sets the conditions

The next “common home” enlargement is not scheduled to take place before 2025, yet the reforms requested of the Western Balkan region should start immediately. They involve six countries - Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia-FYROM, Kosovo and Bosnia- Herzegovina – each with their own specificities, problems and needs. But the executive led by Jean-Claude Juncker, with the coordination of Federica Mogherini, has no doubts: “the future of the Balkans is in the EU.” It requires reforms, true democracy, pacification and stability, economic and social development, fights on corruption

Strasburgo, 6 febbraio: Johannes Hahn e Federica Mogherini illustrano la "strategia" sui Balcani occidentali (foto SIR/PE)

(from Strasbourg) “The best, most efficient – and only – way to guarantee security and stability to the Western Balkans is to solidly anchor them to a credible EU integration perspective.” Federica Mogherini can be described as the best “advocate” of the European cause of the region. Thus, in presenting the new guidelines in view of the possible adhesion of these six Countries – in the middle/long term – the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security reiterated that the Balkans’ place is in the EU. Although, she pointed out, a stretch of this path – not void of obstacles – includes reforms, stability, pacification, conflict resolution, fight on corruption rule of law, fundamental rights, economic and social development. A remarkable challenge…

Mutual advantages. “Investing in the stability and prosperity of the Western Balkans means investing in the security and future of our Union”, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker echoed Mogherini’s words in his remarks on the strategy. “A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans”, presented on Tuesday, February 6 in the EU Parliament seat in Strasbourg. Juncker underlined: “Although there will be no further enlargements under this mandate, today the European Commission is charting the European path ahead for the Western Balkans. With strong political will, real and sustained reforms, and definitive solutions to disputes with neighbours, the Western Balkans can move forward on their respective European paths. Whether this is achieved will depend on their objective merits. The European Commission will be rigorous but it will also be fair. I will travel to each of the countries of the Western Balkans at the end of this month with a clear message: keep reforming and we will keep supporting your European future.”

The summit in Sofia. The Commission’s strategy was illustrated on the same day and in the same venue where Croatian Premier Andrej Plenković was called as panel speaker in a debate with MEPs on the “Future of Europe”, constituting a remarkable recognition to the head of the government of the last Country that joined the “common home” in 2013. Croatia – the Premier said – entered the European Union to build and develop the European project with our partners, to build a future based on equality of States, citizens and opportunities.” The “Balkan” pride is sustained also by the current six-month presidency of the EU Council of Ministers, held by Bulgaria:

Sofia’s government tabled an extraordinary summit for May 17th

To be held in the Bulgarian capital, specifically dedicated to the Balkans.

A glance at Turkey. “The Western Balkans are part of Europe: we share the same history as the members of the European Union, the same cultural heritage, the same challenges, the same interests, the same opportunities”, went on the High Representative. “We have a common interest in working more and more closely together to guarantee to our people economic and social development, and security.” The “head of EU diplomacy” did not deny the difficulties of the Balkan Countries’ adhesion, but said she views such perspective as an “opportunity” for the six involved Countries and for the EU as a whole. Also with respect to the increasingly problematic relations with Turkey, in addition to security and migration issues. The next months, she said, “will be not only intense but also crucial to make sure that this historic and unique opportunity is seized.”

Geostrategic investment. The “strategy” adopted by the Commission reaffirms the “European future of the region as a geostrategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe based on common values.” It highlights the priorities and areas of joint reinforced cooperation, “addressing the specific challenges the Western Balkans face, in particular the need for fundamental reforms and good neighbourly relations.” For the EU Commission, a “credible enlargement perspective” requires sustained efforts and irreversible reforms.” The Commission announced six “flagship initiatives”, “specific actions that the EU will take over the next years to support the transformation efforts of the Western Balkans in areas of mutual interest”, serving as benchmarks to measure the progress of the reforms. Said initiatives are directed at “strengthening the rule of the law, reinforcing engagement on security and migration, expanding the EU Energy Union to the Western Balkans, lowering roaming costs and supporting the deployment of broadband in the region.” Moreover, the strategy underlines that “EU itself needs to be ready for new members, once they have met the condition.”

“Working for citizens.” Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn, declared: “We confirm that the door of our Union is open for the Western Balkans which is already an enclave surrounded by the EU” – an unusual expression – “and that our offer is sincere. With the new approach, underpinned by concrete measures, we are strengthening the enlargement process which requires credible efforts and reforms in return in particular to strengthen the rule of law. We have to work for the benefit of the citizens.” The reforms requested by the EU involve: the rule of law, fundamental rights and governance, judicial reforms, the fight against corruption and organised crime, and public administration reforms. Economic reforms must be pursued to ensure widespread development of these Countries, with positive impacts on employment, income and quality of life. Each of these Country’s situation at national level is different, and it is undeniable that in some cases backwardness and poverty are still a daily part of society. Moreover, various problems concern the relations between States, notably Serbia-Kosovo pacification,  along with the tense relations between Macedonia-FYROM and Greece. In the meantime the EU will provide funding to support economic development, infrastructures and services. Political cooperation encompasses concrete help and generous funding.

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