On the eve of the Western Balkans summit in Trieste, European Western Balkans speak with Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner responsible for European Neighborhood Policy and enlargement negotiations. We talked about the situation in each of the Western Balkan countries, as well as their expectations for this year’s Western Balkans Summit.
This interview is also available in Serbian.
European Western Balkans: The Commission’s report on Chapters 23 and 24 in the case of Serbia indicates that as Serbia moves forward, the focus will gradually shift to a process of legislative reform that is effective in practice, as well as on the capacities of the institutions responsible for the rule of law. Does this mean that the Serbian government is not doing enough in this area? How do you assess the current state of the rule of law and media freedom in Serbia?
Johannes Hahn: Our overall assessment is that Serbia is still at a relatively early stage when it comes to the rule of law. Serbia’s action plans on chapters 23 and 24 were adopted about a year ago, allowing the opening of negotiations on these chapters. Since then, Serbia has started to implement the measures it committed to under its action plans. It is not just about passing relevant laws, but also about effective implementation, including an initial track record of results on the ground.
Rule of law issues will determine the overall pace of EU accession negotiations. This is why they must become a priority for Serbia in the coming months. Whatever the challenges, on freedom of expression and of the media, the independence, impartiality and effectiveness of the judiciary, the fight against corruption, the non-discriminatory treatment of national minorities, the treatment of crimes of war or cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Serbia still needs to make substantial progress to maintain the pace of negotiations. Making real changes in these areas is also essential for Serbian citizens and the business community.
ISF: How do you see the fact that the Serbian government has the Ministry of European Integration? Will this help Serbia be more effective in the negotiation process?
JH: I welcome the creation of the new Ministry of European Integration as I believe it reflects the government’s intention to prioritize Serbia’s strategic objective of joining the EU. I hope this will result in prioritizing work on European negotiations in the ministries and bodies responsible for European issues. The European Commission is ready to provide the Serbian government with the necessary assistance and support to achieve this goal.
ISF: Edi Rama won the majority of votes in the recent elections in Albania. What are the main expectations of the new government? What should the opposition do?
JH: We now expect a government firmly committed to moving the country forward on the path to European integration through coherent reform efforts. The new government should particularly focus on implementing justice reform and the oversight process, which are key to combating organized crime and corruption. In this regard, the new government must also focus more effectively on the fight against drug trafficking and cultivation. It is clear that only with a functioning rule of law can the country make overall progress as a democratic society and viable economy and become a member of the EU.
A mature opposition ready to engage in constructive dialogue is also essential to the country’s democratic process..
ISF: You announced that you would send a special mission on the rule of law to Macedonia led by Mr. Priebe. What are the key tasks of the mission? On the other hand, the dispute over the name with Greece remains current. Do you think this problem will soon be resolved in order to unlock the country’s Euro-Atlantic future?
JH: As I have already announced, I am indeed sending high-level rule of law experts to Skopje to follow up on their 2015 recommendations and advise the new government on how to resolve systemic problems related to Right wing state. A first scoping mission by team leader Reinhard Priebe already took place on June 27. This work will be followed by the entire team of experts from July 17 to 21.
We appreciate the efforts of the Prime Minister and his government to reach out to their Greek and Bulgarian counterparts. It is important to find an agreed solution on the name issue and find a way to move forward. The EU stands ready to assist the UN process and facilitate contacts if requested.
Now the new government, together with the opposition, must focus on implementing urgent reform priorities and the Przino Agreement, in order to return the country to the Euro-Atlantic path.
ISF: It seems that Kosovo is stuck after the elections. This will make the continuation of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue uncertain. How do you see the future of dialogue?
JH: The EU-facilitated dialogue for the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina continues with the aim of promoting cooperation between the two sides, helping them progress on the EU path and improving the lives of citizens .
This commitment was reiterated on July 3, when EU High Representative and Vice-President Federica Mogherini welcomed Presidents Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaçi. The parties agreed to work towards the opening of a new phase of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina for the normalization of relations and stressed the importance of implementing without delay the agreements already reached in the dialogue.
ISF: Montenegrin officials are not very satisfied with the idea of a common market in the Balkans, which you have welcomed on several occasions. Why do you think this is good for the countries and citizens of the region?
JH: Indeed, in the past, Montenegro has sent signals against the idea of a customs union, which is however not on the agenda. Let us be very clear: we are not promoting the establishment of a customs union or the creation of new structures for the region. However, we are responding to calls from the region itself to develop proposals for greater economic integration, which would help increase growth and create jobs. I am fully prepared to provide the political, technical and financial support of the European Commission for this objective, but it will be up to the countries themselves to take the necessary measures to accelerate regional economic integration. So, once again, we are not talking about a customs union but about a concept of “regional economic space”, which is based on the existing commitment of the countries of the region.
I am convinced that greater economic integration will make the region more attractive and competitive. A regional economic area therefore constitutes a promising path to creating stronger and more sustainable economic opportunities for the region and its inhabitants, an objective that everyone supports. In this regard, Montenegro played a constructive and active role and committed to working with its regional partners in the development of the road map. Prime Minister Markovic expressed his full support for the initiative which builds on the ambitions already agreed during the Montenegrin Chairmanship of CEFTA in 2016. Let me also emphasize that the gradual deepening of economic integration in the region should be based on EU rules and principles. In this way, this initiative will constitute an important step on the path to EU membership and not – as some misinterpret it – an alternative to it.
ISF: Is there any news on the European future of Bosnia and Herzegovina? What should be done to speed up the process?
JH: We are fully committed to helping Bosnia and Herzegovina move forward on the country’s path to EU membership, as demonstrated by the intensive contacts that HR/VP Mogherini and I have established with leaders and institutions of the country in recent months. This will continue in the coming months and our message will remain that the speed of the process depends on Bosnia and Herzegovina and only Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In this regard, I strongly encourage Bosnia and Herzegovina to refocus its reform agenda on socio-economic, rule of law and public administration issues, as well as on providing the necessary responses to prepare for the Commission’s opinion on the merits. of the country’s application for membership in the EU. Likewise, the adoption of new strategies at national level in areas such as agriculture, energy or employment will allow Bosnia and Herzegovina to use significant financial assistance from the EU to improve the life of its citizens. Political distractions and fabricated crises divert time and energy from the reforms expected by citizens, in line with the commitments made by all political leaders and institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After a positive 2016, 2017 should not be wasted. We will continue to support Bosnia and Herzegovina with policy advice, technical assistance and financial support to meet its EU membership ambitions.
ISF: The Trieste summit is approaching. What do you see as the main outcomes of this year’s meeting? How do you see the future of the Berlin process and what can countries in the region expect from the so-called “Berlin Plus”?
JH: One of the main outcomes will be the announcement of the annual “connectivity package” of transport and energy infrastructure projects. We also hope that leaders will sign the Transport Community Treaty and adopt an action plan to create a regional economic space. Since its launch three years ago, the Berlin Process has brought new dynamics to development and regional cooperation in the Western Balkans, with concrete results. This is why I welcome new and constructive ideas, such as those recently launched by the German Foreign Minister, on how to make the process even more dynamic and acquire even more financing to meet the investment needs of the region.
The publication of this article was supported by the Konrad Adenuer Foundation