By BiEPAG - 16 December , 2014

Public discussion in Paris – “European Integration of the Balkans – What Now?”

Public discussion in Paris – “European Integration of the Balkans – What Now?”

The event started with a presentation of the latest policy paper by theBalkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BIEPAG), a joint initiative of the European Fund for the Balkans and theCentre for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz. The discussion was moderated by Jacques Rupnik, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for International Studies and Research (CERI).

Issues discussed:

  • Does the EU have to develop a new tool kit to facilitate its enlargement in the Western Balkans?
  • What effects would the possibility of immediate (or rapid) accession of the remaining Western Balkan countries have on their respective reform processes?
  • How can the “regatta principle” within the enlargement process enhance positive competition among the Western Balkans without leaving out “slower” participants?
  • What are the interim steps in the enlargement process that can infuse elites and the people of the Western Balkans with stronger support for EU accession?
  • How can civil society push the governments in the Western Balkans towards a greater reform effort?
  • How can the downbeat perception of EU enlargement be changed in key EU member states?

Jacques Rupnik, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for International Studies and Research (CERI), welcomed the European Fund for the Balkans and the authors of the report who spoke about their research, as well as Pierre Mirel from the European Commission and Fatmir Besimi, the Deputy Prime Minister of Macedonia.

Igor Bandović, Senior Programme Manager, European Fund for the Balkans, thanked the organisers of the event and said that this was his first time presenting a report in Paris. He concluded the opening address by noting that the BIEPAG initiative supports regional media cooperation as a joint project of the EFB and the Centre for the Southeastern European Studies of the University of Graz (CSEES), which was started one year ago when there was a need to discuss gaps, opportunities and challenges in the region based on scenarios which were pointed out in BIEPAG report.

Marko Kmezić, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz, and Assistant Coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BIEPAG), gave his views about the scenarios in the report which include Business as Usual, Following Turkey’s Path: Alienation from the EU, Abandoning Enlargement and New Unpredictability in the Western Balkans, and The Balkans Big Bang. He spoke about the EU changing its approach, as the EU is facing its own internal crisis, which creates a significant obstacle.

Prof. Florian Bieber, Director, Centre for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz, and Coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BIEPAG), discussed the four scenarios presented in the report and possibilities of how to get the process moving with new commitment to it. A fundamental observation they had during research was that in recent years, EU member states pretended they wanted enlargement, and many countries of the Western Balkans pretended that they were working for enlargement, they did reforms, and both sides were happy with pretending their part of it rather than doing their part of it. Due to the mixed signals, the title of the second report is“Dancing the European Kolo?”. He concluded that it doesn’t just require political commitment, but a process that would be more engaging for the countries in reform process.

Gerald Knaus, Chairman of the European Stability Initiative, commented on the situation in accession countries and used the opportunity to ask whether Turkey is becoming more democratic because of its being in the process the longest. He asked if Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro are really catching up politically, socially and economically, and whether they are really less corrupt. He concluded that if the answer is not a clear yes, then there is room for being skeptical. He suggested a fifth scenario: “There is a need to put countries in a position where they can compete and compare with each other, where citizens see are they moving ahead, but competition can’t be on how many chapters you have opened, it has to be how close you are in fulfilling the benchmarks in each area that you have to fulfil to join to EU.”

Pierre Mirel, Honorary Director-General of the European Commission, mentioned that he did not believe in scenario three, which is abandoning enlargement; he said that enlargement is slow but it is progressing. “Emphasis on the rule of law, on economy governance, on public administration reform when no one else has a new approach was first of all the lessons learned from the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, saying we should put more emphasis on this issues right from the start. The second lesson from Croatia accession was not to wait until the middle of negotiations to open chapters,” said Mr. Mirel. He concluded: “Although the EU is facing the deep crisis, I don’t think that the region has another alternative.”

Alain Salles, a journalist for Le Monde, expressed that there is a need to find arguments about the things that Balkan countries could give to the EU. “When we spoke about Russia’s link to the Balkan countries, I think that there is no need to choose between Russia and the EU when we talk about the region.”

Fatmir Besimi, Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs of the Republic of Macedonia, said: “The basic assumption is that there is no better prospect than for the region to follow the path of EU enlargement, and support from politicians will always be there.” He pointed out the importance of moving ahead with the process of enlargement, with the assumptions, expectations, and political support that we need for the process, and new mechanisms that will keep the enlargement moving forward.

Natasha Wunsch, Associate Fellow of the German Council of Foreign Relations, Berlin, Germany, gave her opinion about the importance of engaging citizens and focusing on civil society organisations, both from the EU and from the member states, that could be used as an intermediate level that could be linked to the citizens. She also stated the importance of opening Chapters 23 and 24 in the region, as has happened in Montenegro and Serbia.