The series of IFAT-events organised as part of the Hungarian Cultural Season in the Western Balkans continued in Skopje on 13th June 2019. The Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Hungarian Embassy in Skopje organized together a conference entitled ‘Future of EU enlargement policy in the light of EP elections’. The event covered a topic of high interest as the upcoming European Council might take issues related to EU enlargement on its agenda. The conference was held the EU Info Centre.
On behalf of IFAT, Sándor Gyula Nagy, Deputy Director for Research welcomed the guests of the event. Both he and László Dux, Hungarian Ambassador to North Macedonia underlined the importance of the region from the Hungarian foreign policy perspective which is the reason behind the coherent and strong Hungarian support for the Euro-Atlantic integration process of Western Balkan countries. The Ambassador also highlighted the variety of Member States’ positions on the EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans and the changing nature of the accession process. Regarding the impact of the EP elections’ results he emphasized that it was not necessarily the party affiliation that determines MEPs standing point towards enlargement, and consequently it is hard to predict how the new set-up will affect the Western Balkans’ accession process. Finally, he expressed his careful optimism regarding the outcome of the European Council meeting in June.
In the first panel, Lilla Makkay, the Head of Department of EU Affairs of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Dragan Tilev, State Counsellor for EU Affairs from the Secretariat for European Affairs of the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia shared their views and ideas about the present and the future of EU enlargement policy. The Head of Department pointed out the differences among Member States expectations that determines their attitude towards enlargement. She evaluated positively that the European Commission started to represent a more ambitious standpoint and use a more positive language. She also hoped that the Council will change its position in positive direction but that requires the consensus of all Member States. Dragan Tilev considered it a wrong strategy to challenge and question a Member State position and concern. At the same time he believes that a successful EU enlargement needs “right decisions in the right time”. In North Macedonia there is a great opportunity now to achieve good results and therefore it is essential that Member States provide the European Commission with proper mandate until the end of the year. This is inevitable to sustain credibility and trust.
The second panel analysed the EP elections and how their results might affect enlargement policy. Firstly, Elena Gacheva, Deputy General Secretary of the European Movement in North Macedonia evaluated the EP elections. She pointed out the high turnout which is a consequence of general higher interest in European policy issues. In her opinion Eurosceptic forces performed weaker than it was expected. According to the assessment of Simonida Kacarska, the Director of the European Policy Institute from Skopje, this EP election has lured the greatest attention in the Western Balkan countries so far that is a consequence of the state of accession process in some candidate countries. Concerning Member States opposing enlargement, she found that the domestic political discourses of those countries influence the general public perception about Albania and North Macedonia negatively. Kacarska thought that those discourses were not honest as starting negotiations did not mean immediate membership but rather support for successful transformation in the candidate countries. She also raised concerns regarding fast accession as unprepared candidates can be seriously harmed by membership.
Tamás Levente Molnár, Research fellow of IFAT also began with assessment of EP elections. He believed that high turnout could be the consequence of three factors: in many Member States EP elections had been held before general elections so it was a test for parties; the occurrence of pan-European issues (environmental protection, migration, etc.) that mobilized voters; plus increasing expectations towards the European Union. He agreed with other panellists that the EP would become more fragmented and that would make coalition-building and decision-making process more complicated. Afterwards he evaluated the EP election in Germany and Austria and the domestic political situation in these two countries and how it would change their attitude towards EU enlargement policy. It can be hardly expected that Germany would urge the start of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia – it is likely that it might happen earliest in October. Meanwhile in Austria, there might be a side-switch after the elections in September, depending on the composition of the new coalition. Finally, Anna Orosz, Research fellow of IFAT complemented the argumentation with that the new EP might have more competing priorities to put on agenda and there might be a shift in the weight of different issues. The strengthened presence of Liberals and Greens can have an impact on the accession talks by putting more emphasis on some chapters that were given less attention before. Beyond that she drew attention to tendencies that some Member States forms parallel framework for EU-Western Balkan relations that are not linked to the EU accession process that can harm the enlargement process.
The speakers of the conference hoped that – though maybe not in June – progress would be achieved until the end of the year regarding the start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.