EU still a pull factor, but candidate countries becoming impatient

The EU remains a pull factor for the Western Balkan countries, but it risks losing its attraction if it leaves the candidate countries in the waiting room for too long, heard the closing panel of the Bled Strategic Forum, entitled Western Balkans: Is the EU Still a Pull Factor heard.

Speakers mostly agreed that the accession process needs to be sped up, a point raised by H. E. Mr Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary, as well as foreign ministers from the region. Mr Szijjártó stressed that integration should be sped up “very rapidly”, Kosovo should get visa-free travel immediately, the accession of Bosnia-Herzegovina should be proposed very soon, while Serbia should become a member by 2020.

Dr Dejan Jović, Professor of International Relations and Head of the Department of International Relations at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb, added that past experience also showed fast accession would be better. Letting countries wait for 30 or 40 years is not a recipe for change, he said in reference to Turkey. In the Western Balkans, the risk of leaving countries out outweighs the risk of letting them in, he stressed.

Mr Hoyt Yee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the US Department of State, similarly said that one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate. However, he also suggested membership per se should not be a goal, reforms should. Accordingly, the candidates need to be helped to reform, whether inside or outside the EU, whether they undergo the process of integration or stabilization. He said integration itself would not be able to solve the challenges, additional mechanisms are needed to prevent crises in the Balkans instead of reacting to them.

Mr Štefan Fule, Special Envoy for the Western Balkans at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, on the other hand disagreed with the need to accelerate accession, recalling the experience of Romania and Bulgaria. “Are we forgetting the lessons learned,” he wondered, adding that the two countries’ reform processes were not completed yet. Theoretically, it would be possible to institute some sort of semi-membership status, but merely transposing EU laws will not help these countries to work in the EU.

Ms Tanja Fajon, a Slovenian Member of the European Parliament, similarly said that accession was not about negotiating chapters, it was about creating a safe environment for people. This requires responsible politicians and Balkan governments need to change their rhetoric, she said.

Ministers from the region meanwhile stressed the need to speed up the accession process if it is to remain a pull factor.

H. E. Mr Enver Hoxhaj, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kosovo, said the accession process was a very good basis for Kosovo to modernize politics, economy and society. However, the EU needs to be mindful about the time factor, a point also raised by H. E. Mr Igor Crnadak, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mr Crnadak said it was crucial for enlargement to speed up, but on the other hand, he said his country was not keen on overnight entry, as it needed to build up its institutions. “We do not need shortcuts,” he said, calling for a strict but fair approach.

Similarly, Ambassador Aleksandar Pejović, Secretary of State for European Integration at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Montenegro, said the process itself was a pull factor and very helpful for Montenegro, as it helped in the state-building process.

H. E. Mr Nikola Poposki, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Macedonia, said the long wait was making it very difficult to sustain the EU’s appeal, with time the critical factor for those who were on the outside.

H. E. Mr Ivica Dačić, First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, said the EU was not perfect, but “what other option do we have”? He also criticized Croatia in view of the prospect of it blocking Serbia’s accession, noting that if Croatia is the one setting the conditions, Serbia would not be interested in joining.