13-14 March 2018 – A two-day conference „The EU and the Western Balkans: Towards greater credibility and engagement on both sides“, organised by the European Policy Centre (CEP), was held on Tuesday and Wednesday, 13 and 14 March, in Belgrade.
During the opening panel, as well as during the second day of the conference, the results of the regional BENCHER project, which CEP carried out with partners from the Think for Europe Network (TEN), were presented. More on the event to be found here.
In cooperation with the European Commission, the first day of the conference was dedicated to discussing the Strategy for the Western Balkans, in two panels that followed the introductory one.
In the panel discussion entitled The EU strategy for the Western Balkans: long-anticipated advance for the Region we were honoured to have Maciej Popowski, Deputy Director-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, European Commission. Mr. Popowski assessed the EU Enlargement strategy as „ambitious, but realistic“, and expressed his opinion that both Serbia and Montenegro have chances of becoming EU member states by the year 2025.
Maciej Popowski explained how Serbia, alongside other countries in the region, is welcome in the EU, that it will receive substantial help from the Union, but that the EU will not „impose any solutions“ and that the countries still await great amount of work, that the Commission will carefully oversee its steps and the reforms implemented. He estimated that Serbia needs to do the most in the area of judiciary and the rule of law.
Popowski clearly emphasised how WB countries will have to solve their bilateral issues long before joining the EU.
„We don’t want any legacy or bilateral issues to be imported in the EU. We have experience with this. Any dispute, whether border issue or anything else, we want to be sorted in a legally binding way ahead of integration“, warned Popowski.
Popowski also said that the EU is „slowly preparing itself for its future member states“.
Other panellists were Tanja Miščević, Professor at the University of Belgrade and Head of the Negotiating Team for the Accession of the Republic of Serbia to the EU, Ivan Vejvoda, Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen) in Vienna, Malinka Ristevska Jordanova, Member of the Managing Board, European Policy Institute (EPI), Skopje, Lejla Ramić-Mesihović, Executive Director at the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI BH), Sarajevo, and Srđan Majstorović, President of the Governing Board, European Policy Centre (CEP), Belgrade. The panel was moderated by Milena Lazarević, Programme Director of CEP.
Miščević said that the EU Strategy for the Western Balkans is extremely important, since it offers a framework and a roadmap for the EU aspirants, further stating that the Strategy represents a long-awaited document for the Wester Balkans. „The accession date is not as important as is the path leading to it“, Miščević stressed.
Miščević also emphasised that the EU will more closely than ever oversee the reform process in Serbia.
„The credibility of the reforms is extremely important. I spend considerable amount of time with the EU officials and this is something they always repeat: please, be credible in implementing the reforms and setting the timeframes for them.“
Without reform in areas of judiciary and the rule of law, we cannot make progress, Ivan Vejvoda pointed out. He commended the Strategy for the fact that it touches upon the issue of education. „I find it very important that the Strategy for the EU Enlargement speaks about education, because that is directly related to the rule of law.“
When the EU membership referendum were to take place tomorrow, all WB countries would answer positively, Vejvoda believes.
„Nothing is imposed on the Western Balkans – we want to go to the European Union“, he said, further stressing that all countries in the region have to put greater effort into strengthening democracy, because „without democracy there is no stability“.
When it comes to Macedonia, the Enlargement Strategy did not bring forth anything magnificent or surprising, apart from the general positive message, according to Malinka Ristevski Jordanova. She is of the opinion that the motives which lie behind the given document are primarily strategic; it is in the best EU interest to keep (the illusion of) stability in the region.
Lejla Ramić-Mesihović stressed that the document offers a certain perspective for the countries in the region; they themselves, however, chose whether they will, and if yes – how, make use of this. In her discussion, she focused on the importance of economical reforms and progress aligned with them.
According to Srđan Majstorović, Serbia still has a lot to do, especially when it comes to the fight against corruption and organised crime.
„In the following period, the EU will particularly measure the progress made in the reform of the judiciary, respect for human rights, freedom of speech and of media, and trias politica principle with the clear division into a legislature, an executive and a judiciary. These results will show the degree of Serbia’s progress towards the EU“, said Majstorović.
Key discussants within the second panel, „Implementation of the Strategy: expected challenges & opportunities“ were H.E. Radko Vlajkov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Bulgaria to the Republic of Serbia, Noora Häyrinen, Head of the Political Section, EU Delegation in Serbia, Fisnik Korenica, Director of the Group for Legal and Political Studies, Pristina, Milena Milošević, Programme Director at the Institute Alternative (IA), Podgorica and Dušan Reljić, Head of Brussels Office, German Institute for International and Security Affairs – SWP. Panel was moderated by Corina Stratulat, the Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels.
Vlajkov stated Serbia’s efforts to normalise its relations with neighbours are visible to all, and so are its efforts to leave the past issues behind and turn toward the future, according to him.
„As the country which currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, we are ready to help Serbia in these intentions“, Vlajkov said.
He reminded of their motto „United we stay strong!“ and that the EU enlargement represents one of the top priorities of the Bulgarian Presidency.
Serbia has to invest a lot into the fight against the corruption, freedom of media and the rule of law, Noora Häyrinen stressed.
She reminded that the Serbia’s behaviour during the migrant crisis was praiseworthy, and that it handled the situation better than some of the EU members states.
„What worked for Montenegro doesn’t have to work for Bosnia, and reverse – that’s why in Strategy we talk about “flagship” initiatives and framework – one formula cannot be fully applied in all countries with the same success“, Häyrinen further explained.
However, „the whole region has to work on good-neighbourly relations and on the reconciliation process“ she added.
Milena Milošević spoke about the problems that Montenegro faces. In her opinion, they are not formal in nature, the problems are rather informal practices that are hard to capture, and consequently hard to solve.
During the panel discussion the importance of economy was also stressed. Dušan Reljić emphasised that political economy most adequately explains problems in the region, bearing in mind that WB countries have to increase the economic growth to 6% if they want to strengthen their stand. Therefore, both the region and the EU still await heavy workload on their road(s) of conquering the economic challenges.
See the photographs from the event in our gallery.