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Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Croatia

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Tanja Fajon, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of Slovenia,
Alexander Schallenberg, Austrian Minister for European and International Affairs,
Gordan Grlic RadmanMinister of Foreign and European Affairs of Croatia

20 years of a European promise

This year marks twenty years since the historic summit in Thessaloniki, where the EU declared that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the EU – a promise that the President of the European Commission reiterated in her speech on the State of the Union of 2023. By this time, the devastating so-called Yugoslav Wars had ended and the borders had changed with the independence of Montenegro and later Kosovo. The enlargement of the EU to ten Central and Eastern European countries took place in 2004, Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007 and Croatia in 2013. The driving force behind this process was a powerful vision of reunify the European continent as well as strong political will. in the countries of Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe to become members of the European family. For similar reasons, the Western Balkan countries were equally motivated to join the EU.

Twenty years later, the Western Balkans have still not joined the European Union. It sometimes even seems that EU membership has become less attractive for the region than it was twenty years ago. As the world and the EU have gone through a number of crises during this period, the Union’s appetite for enlargement has diminished. At the same time, some Western Balkan countries have shown limited political will to implement much-needed European reforms, giving enlargement skeptics arguments against their integration. In summary, the enlargement process took place at a slower pace and with less visible and tangible results than expected, leading to disappointment and alienation from the EU. The Union and the Western Balkans have – intentionally or not – found an unsatisfactory solution. modus vivendi.

The window of opportunity for geostrategic enlargement

Since Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, EU membership has become an even more attractive goal for the Eastern Partnership countries – Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. At the same time, Western Balkan countries face unprecedented challenges to their stability as well as amplified foreign policy dilemmas. Awareness of a new window of opportunity for enlargement has increased, also raising high expectations from the EU.

We welcome the fact that the EU is now approaching enlargement from a more geostrategic and less bureaucratic perspective than before. Last year’s decision to grant candidate country status to Bosnia and Herzegovina was based on strategic considerations. The awareness that enlargement policy is the EU’s most powerful stabilization instrument continues to grow. That said, EU enlargement standards will not be lowered as a result of such a strategic approach. Full implementation of the reform remains essential.

The current situation constitutes an opportunity for the European Union and the Western Balkans to demonstrate more strategic foresight, to fully regain their credibility in terms of enlargement and to strengthen mutual trust, part of which has been lost over time. years. In fact, there are some concrete steps to take right away.

First, the European Union must open accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina by the end of this year. Second, Montenegro must continue its EU reform journey, which depends on the formation of a new government in the country. Third, negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia should progress. In North Macedonia, the next steps depend on the country’s ability to adopt the required constitutional changes. The latter case serves as a reminder that EU member states and Western Balkan countries must play a responsible role and refrain from introducing bilateral issues and disputes unrelated to the accession process.

For progressive and accelerated European integration of the Western Balkans

On the EU side, the debate on institutional and financial preparations to be able to integrate new members is gaining momentum. This must not become a pretext to delay the enlargement process for our Western Balkan partners. This is why we must start now to implement the already existing proposals to speed up the enlargement process.

In order to speed up the process, European institutions should show more imagination to adapt it to today’s needs. The process should be less complex and more results-oriented; we must find ways to make it more tangible for citizens and link reform progress to concrete benefits. We also need to collaborate more dynamically with the Western Balkan countries so that they can truly feel the heartbeat of Brussels. Since June 2022, the European Council has a clear mission to advance progressive integration from the enlargement process. In June 2023, as “Friends of the Western Balkans”, together with our colleagues from Czechia, Greece, Italy and Slovakia, we called on European institutions to present a clear program of gradual and accelerated integration with measures of concrete implementation until 2024 and beyond. , based on fair and rigorous conditionality and on the principle of own merit. We see many possibilities, from inviting our Western Balkan colleagues more frequently to the Foreign Affairs Council to gradually opening up additional policy areas such as education, science, transport or trade.

In conclusion, the EU must keep in mind the true value of EU enlargement, including its ability to transform countries into better places to live for its citizens and to create thriving environments for young people to realize their dreams. Our Western Balkans and Eastern partners deserve this opportunity, just as EU citizens deserve a wider space of stability and prosperity around the EU’s current borders. EU enlargement is not one political option among others; it is the geostrategic imperative of the moment.

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