Reforms in Balkan countries bring important improvements to the region’s governments and economies, whether or not they result in rapid EU membership, the EU enlargement commissioner said on 7 December.
“I prefer not to talk about enlargement negotiations but about a process,” said Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood policy and Enlargement Negotiations. “They are not only taking over the acquis, but they are implementing the spirit of the acquis. This is definitely something which takes time.”
Hahn was talking at a Friends of Europe Policy Summit on the Balkans and their integration into the EU. While integration has long been a goal, both for the western Balkan states and the EU, the past few years have seen a number of setbacks. The refugee crisis that started in 2015 led to public fears of too many outsiders entering the EU, and was accompanied by talk that some of the migrants might have links to terrorist groups. In April 2016, Dutch voters rejected the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine in an advisory referendum. And in June, a small majority of British voters chose to leave the EU.
All of these events have damped EU citizens’ enthusiasm for enlargement, said Goran Svilanović, Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC). “Business as usual is the only policy that surely will not work,” he said. “The Dutch ‘No’ to Ukraine is a huge bell ringing in my head. It completely reveals what might be coming.”
Still, the prospect of eventual EU membership should be used to motivate Balkan countries into improving their government, infrastructure and economic systems.
“We need to find a middle ground between providing the countries with hope, which cannot be linked to a concrete day, and at the same time having a process and progress on the basis of the merit in each and every country,” said Stefan Füle, Special Envoy for the OSCE and Western Balkans at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a former European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy. “That’s why we focus on the track record. We want to see the institutions delivering on citizens’ expectations.”
One way to foster better connections between the Balkans and the EU – and between the Balkan nations themselves – is through better connectivity. The EU has set aside up to €1 billion for connectivity investment projects and technical assistance for the 2014-2020 period, with special attention given to transport networks, energy efficiency and green growth.
Connectivity should contribute to job creation, which is particularly important as more than half of young people are jobless in some Balkan countries. The region needs to attract private investors to develop industry, and it needs to train its young people with the skills required for the new jobs.
All of this is premised on better government, Hahn said – notably the rule of law and the fight against corruption. “Economic development is extremely important to stabilise the region and the countries,” he said. “And investors will not risk their money if they cannot rely on the independence of the judiciary.”
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