VIENNA – Regional cooperation between Western Balkan countries is crucial for their European integration process, participants at the closing event of the project “Europeanization Meets Democracy from Below: The Western Balkans in Search” agreed. of a new European and democratic momentum” (WB2EU). , which was held in Vienna on October 9.
The event brought together leaders, academics and experts from Western Balkan countries and across Europe and served as a platform to discuss the critical role of regional cooperation among Western Balkan countries in their journey towards European integration.
Secretary General of the Austrian Society for European Policy and Project Manager of the WB2EU project Paul Schmidt led the way in highlighting the importance of the three-year project and the collaboration between 17 policy and academic institutes from 16 different countries.
Schmidt said European enlargement had moved from a technical approach to a political exercise. He also focused on three fundamental subjects: the rule of law, the social dimension of integration and democratization from below. Schmidt highlighted the common European values shared by the region and the need to act quickly, given the limited window of opportunity.
“We don’t have a common language. We have many different languages. We do not have one common religion, but many different religions, but we have common European values,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt stressed that enlargement was not only about engaging with political elites, but also about engaging with citizens, their dreams and their daily lives. He concluded by highlighting the importance of ownership and political will in EU capitals, crucial for the success of this ambitious project.
“There is a window of opportunity, but it will not open for many years. So we must use this time and seize this opportunity now to make progress. There are political winds of change that could shift the political landscape in a direction that would make it more difficult to make progress in terms of membership and negotiating with new and future members,” Schmidt explained.
Austrian Minister of Justice Alma Zadic reflected on what it means to be European – a commitment to peace, solidarity, the rule of law and democracy.
She recognized that European integration had returned to the agenda after years of stagnation and stressed that it was not just a question of geopolitics but the very essence of a united Europe .
“The road is long, we know that, but the future of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union. And we need to open these roads to quickly achieve visible results in integration, because people in the Western Balkans need to see that progress is there and change is possible,” Zadić said.
Zadić acknowledged the challenges of losing trust in the EU and national politics and called for keeping promises and ensuring political leaders in the Western Balkans do the same. She believes that youth and civil society can drive change and expresses her support for promoting the rule of law in the Western Balkan countries.
Former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of European Affairs of Montenegro Jovana Marovic called for a reconsideration of the EU’s approach to democracy in the Western Balkans. She questioned the effectiveness of various EU strategies and highlighted the importance of the rule of law in EU conditionality.
“Fundamentals really are fundamentals. The rule of law is the most important part of the European integration process and EU conditionality,” Marović said.
Marović believes that the success of the EU depends on strengthening democracy at all levels. She argued that the Western Balkans represented the last chance for the EU not to fail as a political project.
“The future of the European Union, and the answer to the question of why the European Union needs to be bigger, is actually that all the processes are really linked, and it’s really important to focus on all the questions and all countries where democracy is in difficulty,” explained Marović.
Program Director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia Sofija Todorović stressed the crucial role of peace in any progress. She criticized the lack of real support for the EU and expressed concerns about the economic cooperation model presented as a solution. Todorović stressed that peace should be a guiding principle and called on leaders to take this into account in their actions.
“We cannot talk about trade without peace. We cannot talk about democratic progress without peace. We cannot discuss any other issue that could improve the quality of people’s daily lives. Because when we are in conflict, people only want peace,” Todorović said.
Professor at the New Bulgarian University and representative of the WB2EU network Anna Krasteva discussed the role of nationalism and populism in today’s political landscape. She drew attention to the need for leadership in such times, emphasizing the importance of tackling deep-rooted problems in the region.
Furthermore, head of the representation of the European Commission in Austria Martin Selmayr underlined the lasting success of EU enlargement. He stressed that enthusiasm for this project remains, with 10 countries currently knocking on the EU’s door.
Selmayr also acknowledged moments of frustration and the need for a realistic approach. He highlighted the new momentum and positive implications for the EU and candidate countries, emphasizing that the EU’s main objective is to ensure peace and stability among its member states.
“We cannot enlarge the European Union just for the sake of enlargement. This must lead to a strengthening of the European Union,” concluded Selmayr.