Interview : Delano (Duncan Roberts)
Delano: During the Luxembourg EU presidency in 2005 you were already stressing the importance of giving the people in the Balkans a European perspective. Are you disappointed that progress on the accession of countries from the western Balkans has not been faster?
Jean Asselborn: The European perspective of the western Balkan countries had already been confirmed at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, and it has been reconfirmed at the Sofia Summit this year on 17 May. The EU enlargement policy aims at exporting stability. The EU should own up to its responsibility to continue to foster the stabilisation of the region and not leave this to other external actors. The European perspective of the region has helped the countries to achieve overall political and economic reforms with improved democratic processes. At the same time, it is clear that no candidate country is currently ready to join the European Union, as all the conditions ("Copenhagen criteria") are not yet met.
Accession candidates must give the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights utmost priority in the negotiations. I remain convinced of the importance of integrating the region in the European Union based on a clear, merit-based process.
It is crucial for the stability of our continent that we endeavour to make it more democratic, more peaceful and more stable. The European perspective is a key driver of transformation in the region and thus enhances our collective integration, security, prosperity and social wellbeing. It remains essential for fostering reconciliation and stability. One must also not forget that the reforms that are required in order to prepare the western Balkan countries for their accession require patience and perseverance. Ownership of these reforms by both the governments and the citizens is essential, and quality goes before speed.
Delano: The latest commission budget proposal foresees an increase in EU support for the western Balkans.
How important is this in practical terms and as a message of encouragement to the governments of those countries?
Jean Asselborn: The instrument for pre-accession aid (IPA) foresees a performance reward for the beneficiary countries that advance well with the implementation of the programmed reforms.
So, this increase in funding is indeed an encouragement to continue on the reform path. At the Sofia Summit, an agenda of actions in the area of connectivity in all its dimensions (human, economic, digital and infrastructure) has been adopted. The aim is also to help the regions to move towards a future-oriented digital economy. We are speaking about improving connections with and within the western Balkans region.
The package of measures, the so-called Sofia priority agenda, adds new initiatives to our current cooperation. IPA funds will be mobilised to support these concrete and visible actions, which aim to benefit citizens directly and show the advantages of both continuing on the European path and fostering good neighbourly relations. Constructing a dense web of connections and opportunities within the region and with the EU is vital for bringing our citizens and economies closer together, and for enhancing political stability, economic prosperity, cultural and social development.
Delano: Accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia have been given the green light. how optimistic are you that they will achieve the reform goals required and what impact will their membership eventually have on the EU?
Jean Asselborn: The commission has proposed to open accession negotiations with these two candidate countries to recognise the progress achieved to date in the area of essential reforms, such as the rule of law, good governance and the judicial system.
However, the commission's report also indicates that much remains to be done in all of these areas as well as other reform priorities. While the commission issues the recommendation on the opening of formal accession negotiations, it is the prerogative of the member states to decide, by unanimity, on the whether and when negotiations will be initiated. The EU foreign ministers will decide on this proposal at their June meeting in Luxembourg.
As I mentioned earlier, the reforms in the framework of the accession process require commitment and patience, tangible results are crucial. I have visited those two countries recently and I could see that the governments in Tirana and Skopje work very hard to achieve these goals. I think it is important that this current momentum be maintained in order to fulfil the criteria required for an accession to the EU. We should also take into account the fresh impulse in the discussions between Athens and Skopje. Should important progress be achieved in this regard, then we will need to follow up on this accomplishment.
While accession of a new member to the EU requires some institutional rearrangements and a number of measures in order to ensure a smooth transition, the integration of new members into the European Union will allow us to work together more closely in order to tackle common challenges.