Fifteen (Un)Fruitful Years from Thessaloniki to Sofia    

Objavljeno : 17.05.2018. Štampa El. pošta bookmark

The EU's partners in the Western Balkans, as the region's six are defined in a draft declaration to be adopted by the European leaders in Sofia, will be given a new incentive on the road to the EU, again in the form of membership prospects, but not what the six would like the most - a date of accession. Time will tell whether that kind of message is enough to push forward the reforms and transformation of the economies and societies of the region, whose citizens are growing impatient in the EU "waiting room."


In the meantime, Croatia was the only one to have utilized the EU's clear message to the Western Balkans at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, while the others remain at different stages on the path to the EU, and now, when the region has found its way back to the top of the EU agenda, they should not let the opportunity slip by.


The EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia on May 17 is to infuse new energy into the relations between the EU and the region. This will be the second event in that format in 15 years, which will not focus on enlargement but rather on connectivity, with the aim of improving the EU's ties to the region and ties within the region, in infrastructure, the digital sphere and between people.


The summit in Sofia, according to the EU's official announcement, is to affirm the EU's commitment to its partners in the Western Balkans, to affirm that the region belongs to the European family and that closer cooperation is needed in facing shared challenges, such as security, migration, geopolitical development and good neighborly relations.


Fifteen years after Thessaloniki, the two states closest to EU membership are Serbia and Montenegro, which the February strategy for enlargement highlighted as the leaders in the Western Balkans.


These two countries, provided that they meet all the requirements, may join the Union in 2025.


Serbia officially launched the negotiating process in 2014 and has opened 12 and temporarily closed two negotiating chapters since then, while Montenegro launched the process in 2012 and has so far opened 30 and closed three chapters.


Macedonia has been an EU candidate country since 2005, while Albania became one in 2014, and in its recent progress reports the European Commission recommended the opening of negotiations with the two countries.


The furthest from EU membership are Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Bosnia and Herzegovina came into force in 2015, and with Kosovo in 2016.


Croatia, however, became an EU member in 2013, after six years of negotiations.



European Movement in Serbia (EMinS) Secretary General Suzana Grubješić told EURACTIV Serbia that even though the summit in Thessaloniki had offered the Western Balkans a credible enlargement prospect, "no country in the region has joined the EU, on the contrary, new terms have constantly been added and the bar raised for the admission of new members."


In her words, the upcoming summit in Sofia was supposed to be Thessaloniki 2, however, a look at the agenda reveals that it does not contain the subject of enlargement.


"Instead of enlargement there is talk of connectivity, a new word in the European integration vocabulary. We've gotten used to the introduction of new terms which cloud the point, and the point is that apparently the EU is not yet ready to again give a credible promise to the Western Balkans that they will join anytime soon," Grubješić pointed out.


She also said that the absence of that credible prospect of membership in the near future diminishes the "appetite" for reforms and the candidate countries' transformation into modern European societies.


Analyzing the 15 years that have passed between Thessaloniki and Sofia, European Policy Center Program Director Milena Lazarević recalled that in the early 2000s Serbia entered into the process of association with the EU from a very low position, with a devastated economy and administration and a very negative international image.


"Fifteen years later, it would not be fair to say that big progress has not been made in the building of a modern state, but the objective assessement is that the progress could have been faster and bigger, especially regarding the completion of transition processes and construction of institutions," Lazarević told EURACTIV.


According to her, Serbia's young democracy has yet to demonstrate its capability of overcoming the challenges posed by authoritarian tendencies and the "captured state," which the European Commission described in its new strategy for the Western Balkans.


Lazarević highlighted the necessity of strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law, but also warned that Serbia today was deemed to have less capacity to lead the accession process than in previous years, which showed that an urgent investment was needed in the human resources that would take that process to its completion.


The goal, as the European Policy Center program director put it, is for Serbia to become a respectable and successful member of the EU which will fully utilize the advantages of membership - from participation in the creation of European policies to the realization of multimillion projects from European structural funds.


"I expect the summit in Sofia to become the beginning of a series of regular summits devoted to the Western Balkans, which will practically demonstrate that Europe is serious and honest when it says that the region's place is in the EU," said Lazarević.


Judging by one of the versions of the declaration EURACTIV had access to, 15 years will not pass until the next EU-Western Balkans summit, because Croatia plans to host a meeting in that format during its chairmanship of the EU in the first half of 2020.



Photo: Beta/AP


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