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Twenty years later, the Western Balkans: still the same problems?

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PARIS – Celebrating its 20th anniversary, French newspaper The Balkan Courier organized a conference in Paris entitled “EU-Western Balkans: 20 years of looking at each other”. The conference was organized in partnership with the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Paris, the European Fund for the Balkans and the House of Europe in Paris.

Over two days, four round tables took place, during which speakers attempted to assess the results of the last two decades in terms of European integration of the Western Balkans. The opening speech was delivered by Catherine Lalumière of the House of Europe in Paris, Igor Bandović of the European Fund for the Balkans, Jens Althoff of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Laurent Geslin from Courrier des Balkans.

The first roundtable addressed the theme of relations and misunderstandings between the region and the European Union, as well as the current state of the rule of law and justice. Panelists Florian Bieber from the University of Graz, Srđan Cvijić of the Open Society European Policy Institute, Simon Ilse of the Böll Foundation and Adnan Cerimagic of the European Stability Initiative agreed that there were positive developments in the region, such as the implementation of the Prespa Agreement, but that there were also negative movements.

“The picture is dark. Countries are less plural, we don’t talk about the past, they have less freedom,” Bieber said and added that, for example, the majority of Serbian citizens do not believe that they will ever join the EU. According to him, the process has gone astray. “You won’t see protesters in the Western Balkans carrying the EU flag, because citizens see the EU as being on the side of those who govern them. This is the problem and the EU needs to reinvent itself,” Bieber concluded.

The general conclusion was that the responsibility for the current situation lies with the political leaders of the Western Balkans, who in practice do not demonstrate their willingness to join the EU, and with the EU itself which, due to problems internal, slowed down the accession process of the candidate countries.

The second round table addressed the issue of European values ​​and the panelists were Igor Stiks from the University of Edinburgh, Zoran Nechev from BiEPAG, Ivica Mladenović of the diplomatic world and Milica Popović from Sciences-Po University of Paris. The speaker concluded that European values ​​are very important, but the problems lie in restoring citizens’ trust in Europe and its institutions, increasing the EU’s interest in the Balkan countries and implementing implements European values ​​in the candidate countries for membership of the European Union.

Milica Popović from Sciences-Po Paris pointed out that when Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were asked about the main value they lack from the Yugoslav period, the answer was solidarity. “This is also one of the fundamental European values,” Popović said.

“Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who has ruled with an iron fist since 2014, enjoys the support of Russia, the United States, the EU and China. This is a huge success for him as a politician,” says Ivica Popović and adds that he achieved this by making Serbia a country with cheap labor.

The next panel addressed the question of geopolitics in the Western Balkans. The panelists were Nikola Burazereditor-in-chief of the portal European Western Balkans, Tena Prelectresearcher at the London School of Economics, Marion Kraske of the Böll Foundation and Jean-Arnault Dérens from Courrier des Balkans.

Speaking about a possible border change between Serbia and Kosovo, Nikola Burazer said that this solution could only lead to long-term challenges. “We can be open to this solution, but only if certain conditions are met,” Burazer said.

The media often claim that the Balkans are the new hub of the Cold War, which is far from reality, Tena Prelec pointed out, adding that this narrative is attracting “new followers” ​​on social networks. “Russia does not want to divide Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the media needs drama reinforced by local political actors,” Prelec concludes.

Marion Kraske pointed out that when we talk about external actors and their negative impact on Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia and Turkey stand out, but we forget the closest Croatia.

Final roundtable convened Myriam Ferran from DG NEAR, Srđan Majstorović from BiEPAG, Jacques Mairedeputy for Hauts de Seine, Tobias Heider Greens in the European Parliament and Jean-Arnault Dérens Since The Balkan Courier. The speaker addressed the subject of the future of EU enlargement.

“There is no reason to leave enlargement aside in favor of EU reform. The two subjects are a parallel process: there is a consensus in the European Parliament on the need to integrate the Balkans into the European Union,” recalled Myriam Ferran, while emphasizing that there were many reforms to be implemented. .

On the other hand, Jacques Maire stressed that reforms of the European Union are still necessary and that the EU will not be able to welcome six new states until this has been done.

“Enlargement sometimes looks like an old married couple, without passion and where we take for granted everything someone else says,” stressed Srđan Majstorović and added that the Western Balkan Six are smaller and less populated than Romania and it is not a major enlargement. . “We must admit that we are not immune from criticism as a candidate,” he concluded.

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