EU Enlargement to the Western Balkans – A Strategic Necessity
The Western Balkans belongs to the long-standing foreign policy priorities of the Czech Republic. The region constitutes an integral part of Europe and we concur with those who believe that the European Union cannot be complete without incorporating the Western Balkans. Hence, similar to Italy, the Czech Republic is a traditional and staunch supporter of the integration of the countries of the Western Balkans into the EU as well as NATO if they wish to do so.
It is a proven fact that the entire EU integration process represents an efficient transition tool. It is therefore not “only” the membership as such that improves tangibly the lives of citizens in a strong democratic union of member states – even though this final endpoint has to be kept credible. It is the fundamental changes in the societies of candidate countries brought about gradually by deep transformation prior to joining the EU that benefit in real terms the functioning of democratic institutions, efficiency of judiciary systems, protection of human rights and economic conditions people live in.
As the required reforms entail large-scale efforts, the candidates need a credible membership prospect to focus on. The March decision of the EU Council to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania put the enlargement process back on track and restored the clarity that the candidate countries had sought for quite some time. The decision of the Council came just in time to maintain the important momentum in the enlargement process, which otherwise would have probably been lost, among other things due to the COVID pandemic.
The often discussed credibility of the EU enlargement is a two way process. On the one hand, the introduction of the new enhanced methodology injected oxygen into the enlargement process while making it more coherent and flexible. On the other hand, it envisaged a clear track record of reforms carried out by the candidate countries that would allow for further steps in the accession process to be decided by EU Member States in a smooth and timely manner. The new methodology contains several positive elements – it aspires to make the accession process more effective, to enhance communication of all its actors (the EU institutions, Members States and the candidate countries) and also allow for a more balanced expectation management on all sides. Certainly, the enhanced methodology has made the EU enlargement policy more visible again and highlighted it as a strategic political choice the EU and the Western Balkan countries continue to share.
Consequently, the Czech Republic believes there is now a well-designed procedural basis that will allow the enlargement process to move forward more decisively. We trust in the commitment of the European Commission to implement it fully through practical cooperation with the candidate countries and under the political oversight of EU Member States. Following the approval of negotiating frameworks, we look forward to the first intergovernmental conferences with North Macedonia and Albania that in our view should be held before the end of this year.
The Western Balkans region has had a complicated history. The terrible wars of the 1990s were only the most recent tragedy that caused incredible suffering to the ordinary people in the region. A lot has been done in the past years to overcome the deep scars caused by these wars and to restore the cooperation and trust among the states. These efforts must not be wasted and the Czech Republic is fully committed to assisting the Western Balkan countries in their historic endeavour to become part of the EU family.
There are still challenges ahead; nobody underestimates the current complexities in the region itself as well as in its neighbourhood.
The normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo needs to proceed through both political dialogue and practical steps. The EU will continue to play an active role, including through the new EU Special Representative with extensive experience in the region, Miroslav Lajčák. Besides the need to reach a settlement between Serbia and Kosovo, we strongly hope the political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina will start changing in a positive direction. If the country is to integrate into the EU, it will have to fundamentally change and improve the functionality of its institutions. The challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and migration will certainly not make the situation any easier. Montenegro has been a front-runner in the integration process; the new government has therefore a good basis to demonstrate the commitment to reforms and the country’s EU path. Serbia is a country that has the capacity to progress in accession negotiations more decisively but much more has to be done in addressing the weaknesses in areas such as the rule of law or media freedom. The governments of North Macedonia and Albania have been working hard in order to reach the desired goal of launching accession talks with the EU. The actual start of negotiations at the first intergovernmental conference is now in sight and the sacrifices made in the past have proven worthwhile. Kosovo is only at the start of the EU integration process and a lot of work regarding reforms has yet to be done. Reaching an agreement on the normalization of relations with Serbia is needed in order to boost Kosovo’s EU membership aspirations.
The Western Balkan countries are increasingly and in some areas already extensively participating in EU policies. They also benefit from various programmes that the EU has developed in the form of pre-accession assistance to the candidate countries. Coupled with the investments by individual member states into various economic sectors in the region, it makes the EU by far the largest investor overall. The EU’s solidarity has been tangible in the region not only when managing the recent migration crisis, in which the Czech Republic played an extensive bilateral role especially in North Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, but also in the current COVID-19 pandemic.
In spite of the work still left to be done and challenges ahead, the strategic choice the Western Balkan countries have made must be supported and respected and it is up to the EU to make this support and respect pronounced through its own strategic communication with all partners.