• From Finland to Croatia: Council presidencies in times of change – what’s at stake for the Western Balkans?

    19 December 2019 – The seventh traditional panel discussion organised by the European Policy Centre in cooperation with the EU Info Centre regarding the change of EU Council Presidency, was held today in Belgrade. Since 1 January 2020, the EU Council Presidency will be taken over by a Member State from the region, Croatia, the country that last acceded to the European Union. Croatia takes over the presidency from Finland, whose EU Council presidency came at a tumultuous time for the enlargement policy, especially after France’s “no” prevented the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. This move faced resentment from the expert public but also contributed to bringing the enlargement issue back to the EU leaders’ agenda, alongside another follow-up to the Brexit story, negotiation of a new financial framework and delaying the start of the newly formed European Commission. How has Finland managed to balance the interests of the Member States in all these matters, including the enlargement policy? What are the key achievements during the Finnish Presidency? What awaits the region and the EU during Croatia’s presidency? What can be expected from the Zagreb 2020 Summit?

    These issues were discussed by Sem Fabrizi, Ambassador and Head of the EU Delegation to Serbia, Kimo Lahdevirta, Ambassador of Finland to Serbia, Gordan Bakota, Ambassador of Croatia to Serbia, Natasa Vučković, Member of the National Assembly and Executive Director of the Center for Democracy and Srđan Majstorović, President of the CEP Governing Board. The panel was moderated by Milena Lazarević, Programme Director of CEP.

    “I want to convey a message of optimism but also of realism – joining the Union will not happen overnight; it is always a process that is ongoing and linked to reforms. Serbia has made progress in the last six months, with Chapter 4 recently opened concerning financial capital movements. There has been a shift in the field, but more could have been done,” Fabrizi has said.

    Ambassador Lahdevirta said he was pleased that the enlargement issue had been raised again during the Finnish Presidency and that Finland was pleased with the contribution of its Presidency, noting that major changes always take more than six months.

    The Croatian Presidency comes at a time when the EU is busy addressing a number of issues, such as Brexit and the new MFF, and this is a great challenge, but also an opportunity for Croatia, the country holding its first Presidency, Ambassador Bakota noted.“Croatia will strive to keep the issue of enlargement policy on the agenda of EU leaders,” Bakota said. Asked by Milena Lazarević about the role of civil society in the enlargement process, Bakota said that Croatia has a good understanding of how important civil society is to the negotiation process, given its experience. He particularly referred to the EU-Western Balkans summit which will be organized by his country in May 2020. “The EU-Western Balkans Leaders Summit we are organising in May 2020 will be held 20 years after the Zagreb Summit 2000, which directed the enlargement process for the countries of the region,” Bakota said.

    Croatia should focus on the rule of law, social rights and democratic challenges in the region, as well as continue to work on the reconciliation process and should not allow for the elections that are to be held in Serbia and Croatia next year to draw attention away from that, stressed Nataša Vučković.

    When asked by Milena Lazarević how he interpreted that Serbia opened only one chapter, Srdjan Majstorovic said that the answer to that was in the latest non-paper of the European Commission on the situation in chapters 23 and 24. “The rules of the European Union are clear: if there is not enough progress in the rule of law – and this has been recognised in the last non-paper – there will be no progress in other areas as well,” Majstorović said.

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