Western Balkans Panel: It’s High Time for Region Join EU

The traditional high-profile panel on the Western Balkans at the Bled Strategic Forum (BSF) heard the participants note that it was high time for the countries of the region to join the EU as they were making serious progress, and that the EU should not forget about the region while dealing with internal issues.

The opening address at the panel Europeisation, Democratisation, Shared Responsibility was delivered by H.E. Mr Pekka Haavisto, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland, who said that as the Western Balkans was ”in the heart of Europe, it is not expanding Europe but making Europe together.”

Young people in the applicant countries North Macedonia and Albania have expectations of European cooperation and integration and we “owe to this young people to cooperate better”, and the countries within the region should also cooperate better, he said.

The debate initially revolved around the appointment of Mr Matthew A. Palmer of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs of the US Department of State as special representative for the Western Balkans.

Mr Palmer told the panel that what the US had done was to “demonstrate responsiveness to the demands by partners and allies who have told us that we are not sufficiently engaged with the Western Balkans.”

According to him, the US supports the goals of helping North Macedonia and Albania open negotiations, facilitate dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, and support deep reforms in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the benefit of all its people.

H.E. Mr Ivica Dačić, First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia, first half-jokingly said he “expected nothing” from Palmer, but then added that the appointment was a sign that the US wanted to have a clearer presence in the region.

“It is certain that he will have a lot of work and his term should last until the relationship between Belgrade and Prishtina gets resolved,” Mr Dačić said, adding that Serbia would try to be efficient and constructive in the talks with Kosovo.According to him, Serbia supports visa liberalisation for Kosovo and opening of the EU accession negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania. He admitted that the leaders in the region should express more solidarity among each others.

This was a good point of reference for H.E. Mr Behgjet Pacolli, First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo, who admitted that the responsibility was on the shoulders of the region and that constructive relations with the neighbours should be established.

But he also voiced Kosovo’s long-held grievance, lamenting the fact that Kosovo “remains the only place deprived of the opportunity for its people to travel into Schengen area without time-consuming, expensive and degrading procedures.”

Mr Pacolli also stressed the importance of peace, saying that “Serbia and Kosovo need peace immediately “, while adding that “we need someone who knows to talk a little be loud to us” in reference to Palmer.

From the perspective of a country that has made the biggest progress, H.E. Prof. Dr Srđan Darmanović, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Montenegro, said that “we are clearly frontrunners in the process” but that the region would be a “success story only when all of us get in there”.

He hopes that North Macedonia and Albania should be given a chance in October and the EU accession talks should start as they have worked hard towards this goal. “We also expect from the EU to know what to do in the Western Balkans.”According to Mr Darmanović, it is high time for this as the negotiations had stalled. “We can understand that some serious issues in the EU, including Brexit and the rise of populist parties,” but the EU should not forget about the Western Balkans.

H.E. Mr Nikola Dimitrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia, expressed the frustration for his country “losing almost a generation” while being frozen in the status of a candidate country, while making a huge progress and recently striking a name deal with Greece.

“We have achieved a compromise, something very European, and something that is very rare in the region”, he said, adding that it was thus high time to start the accession talks instead of discussing historical disputes as the young people are leaving the country.

“If Europe fails on us this year, then I’m afraid there is no European perspective anymore,” Mr Dimitrov added, arguing that the message from the people would be that “we should not bother resolving difficult issues”.

Speaking on behalf of Albania as a former minister and MP, Majlinda Bregu, Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), Bosnia and Herzegovina, said in reference to the Western Balkan’s progress in the EU accession that “I feel that we are mired in gloom every time we try to make a step forward.”

She believes that “EU will not be enlarged with the Western Balkans, but be completed with the Western Balkans”, and that “nobody has the luxury to lose time any more”, as people are leaving the region.

The point that the region was approaching a critical moment was also stressed by H.E. Mr Igor Crnadak, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who said that the EU needed to “understand that this process needs to be completed; it is so natural, so normal.”

“It is high time that we understand that we are at some kind of a turning point,” he said, while expressing the frustration that his country has not been able to form a government ten months after the election, with “things not looking well.”

But Mr Crnadak nevertheless noted that there was one positive thing, with the European idea being very much alive among the people, who believe that the rule of law as well as security would be enhanced with the EU accession.

Providing some perspective from outside the region, H.E. Mr Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary, noted that while his country was pro-enlargement, “this position is in minority in the EU, as there is a lot of hypocrisy about the support.”

“My colleagues have admitted that there is no legal obstacle, that there is a political obstacle. They do not want the EU to be enlarged,” he spoke openly, while arguing that the number of EU member states should be increased now that the UK is leaving the Union.