The European Union continues to be the best guarantee for peace, democracy, and prosperity on our continent. For over almost 70 years, it has helped us overcome our differences and increase the unity of our continent. However, we should not take its achievements for granted. The EU must keep responding to the challenges of our time to move forward on a path to a better future.
The EU enlargement is one of the elements that will build this future, based on a firm commitment and a shared vision. Guided by the Union’s values and subject to clear conditions, enlargement has proved to be one of the most successful tools in promoting peace and stability, as well as political, economic, and societal reforms. Enlargement policy has also been essential to reinforce the EU’s presence on the global stage, therefore ensuring our collective security. That is why we need to continue on this path.
After successfully enlarging to the south and to the east, the EU is in the process of integrating the Western Balkans, located at the very heart of our continent. This region was first offered the prospect of EU membership at the European Council held in Feira in June 2000, under the Portuguese EU Council Presidency, when Heads of State and Government acknowledged that Western Balkan countries participating in the Stabilisation and Association Process were potential candidates for EU membership. Since then, this principle, enshrined in the “Thessaloniki Agenda for the Western Balkans” and reconfirmed in Sofia in 2018 and in Zagreb in 2020, remained the cornerstone of the EU policy towards your region.
Currently, accession talks are under way with Montenegro and Serbia. In March 2020, the Council agreed on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. The Council also endorsed a new enlargement methodology that will reinvigorate the accession process, making it more predictable and subject to stronger political steering.
Under this enhanced methodology, we held the first political Intergovernmental Conferences with Montenegro and with Serbia during the Portuguese Presidency of the Council. Our goal is to focus the efforts of both countries throughout the accession process on the rule of law, fundamental rights, the functioning of democratic institutions and public administration reform, as well as economic criteria. In a nutshell: on better living conditions for the population and stronger resilience against third countries’ influence.
We are highly concerned that we have not yet been able to start accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, despite the fact that the Council decided to do so already in March 2020. Both countries have delivered on a number of reforms and North Macedonia has invested major political capital on Enlargement, even changing its own name. It is high time for the EU to deliver on its promises. The German and Portuguese Presidencies have worked hard on finding a compromise that would allow us to move on, and the Slovenian Presidency will continue these efforts and build on the work carried out thus far. We believe bilateral issues should not hinder progress on a step of such fundamental importance both for the EU and the Western Balkans.
It is exactly the enlargement process and the EU membership perspective that offer the best possible framework for overcoming divergent views among all Western Balkans partners. We will therefore continue to work hard and call for swiftly overcoming the current blockade, which is undermining the EU’s credibility and runs counter to the strategic interest we have in the stability of the Western Balkans, in order to achieve a further important milestone on the path towards lasting stability and the development of the Western Balkans as soon as possible.
At the same time, the authorities and all political parties in North Macedonia and Albania also need to continue reforms and sustain their efforts to strengthen democracy, fight against corruption, and to reinforce the rule of law, good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation, while improving the climate for media freedom and civil society.
We are aware that the enlargement process is particularly demanding and arduous. Portugal’s and Slovenia’s own journey towards the EU stand as testimonies. But the steps required to fulfil the EU membership criteria are meant to improve the candidates’ administrative capacities and social conditions and are first and foremost aimed at the benefit of their own citizens. In other words, enlargement is not only meant to result in a stronger Union, but in more democratic, fair and transparent institutions, offering people more opportunities and better living standards.
The EU is the first trading partner of the Western Balkans. EU companies are by far the leading investors in the region. But EU relations with the Western Balkans go far beyond trade. The EU has been providing financial and technical support to strengthen the functioning of democratic institutions and to improve connectivity in the region and will continue to do so under the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance. Travel to the EU has also become easier for most of the Western Balkans citizens. Kosovo remains the only country without visa liberalization in the region and we are committed to moving this process forward. Furthermore, citizens and companies from the region are already participating in EU programmes such as Erasmus+, which supports student exchanges, or Europe’s programme to improve the competitiveness of small and medium-sized enterprises (COSME), to name but two.
Finally, the EU is also a space of solidarity. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU responded to the World Health Organisation’s call for action and has helped raise almost 16 billion euros. Every third euro or dollar spent for the global vaccine platform, COVAX, ensuring access to vaccines for low and middle-income countries, comes from the EU and its member states. The EU has invested close to 3 billion euros to pre-finance the production of vaccines through its Advanced Purchase Agreements with pharmaceutical companies, which will benefit citizens across the world, including in the Western Balkans. First doses were already handed over, more are still to come. Moreover, the EU has supported the region since the very start of the crisis, mobilising a substantial package of 3.3 billion euros to address the immediate health crisis and mitigate its socio-economic effects, as well as an investment package amounting up to 9 billion euros for the mid-term recovery and development of the region.
The Western Balkans countries have also demonstrated important solidarity among themselves vis-à-vis the pandemic. Improved regional cooperation remains a key factor for tapping into the full economic potential of the region and for promoting good neighbourly relations and reconciliation. We hope that the Western Balkans countries take ambitious next steps at the Berlin Process Summit on July 5 towards making their historic project of a Common Regional Market a reality, which will bring the four freedoms to the region.
The EU, as a union of diverse Member States, each one with its own traditions and history, will not be able to succeed, if it does not uphold its common values. Take our three countries – Germany, Portugal and Slovenia, the current “Trio Presidency” of the EU. We have diverse histories and experiences. But we believe in what Jean Monnet, a founding father of the EU once said, “Make men work together; show them that beyond their differences and geographical boundaries, there lies a common interest”. That common interest is a peaceful, strong and prosperous Europe, able to uphold its interests and values in a more and more competitive world. To achieve this, the Western Balkans must become a part of the European Union.