The Institute of Foreign Affairs and Trade hosted the conference entitled ‘How long can enthusiasm towards the EU be sustained? The Future of the EU-Western Balkans Relations’ on 6th of November discussing the political situation in the Western Balkans in relation to EU accession and the various socioeconomic challenges of that process. The conference was co-organized and supported by the Directorate-General for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations and the Representation of the European Commission in Hungary.
The conference began with the opening remarks of the Director of the Institute, Márton Ugrósdy outlining the main topic of discussion, namely the prospects of a credible enlargement and the impact of Western Balkans on the EU, pointing out the various economic and political advantages of the integration, as well as the potential risks in delaying such process.
The keynote speech was delivered by the Chairman for European Affairs Committee and member of the National Assembly Richárd Hörcsik focusing on the vast amount of challenges facing potential members of the EU, but also the important role Hungary had in speeding up the accession of Croatia to the Union, as well as the continuing support for the integration of the Western Balkan countries, and additionally the importance of filling the empty seat at the EU family table after the United Kingdom completes the exit procedure.
Following the speeches, the first panel focusing on the question of whether integration contradicts enlargement was convened. The Ambassador of Austria to Hungary, Elisabeth Ellison-Kramer representing also the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union pointed out the important role of her country in acting as a mediator between the Western Balkans and the EU, owing to its relative proximity and historical presence in the region. She emphasized that lot of progress was made in these countries, and the EU needs to recognise them. Fight against corruption must be reinforced. The Ambassador confirmed that Austria wanted dynamic negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro and accelerated preparation for the negotiations with Macedonia and Albania, following up on the Sofia Summit and engaging heavily with all the countries with a focus on the bilateral issues. András Klein, the Head of Department for Western Balkans of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade pointed out the geopolitical situation in the region in strategic terms, and the urgent importance of integrating it in order to prevent third actors from expanding their influence, as well as the detrimental effects of increasing migration from the region into the Western Europe. The Acting Head of the Western Balkans Division at the European External Action Service, Clive Rumbold lauded the important steps made by the candidate countries and the already existing level of cooperation in both economic and political fields. The speakers unanimously concluded that further enlargement is not contradictory to integration, and in fact it enhances integration as new partners would join in, providing further economic and political strength to the EU and therefore completing the process of European integration.
The second panel focused on the lack of political leadership in Western Balkans and the EU and the ramifications of that in terms of EU accession. Srđan Majstorović, the Chair of Governing Board of the European Policy Center in Belgrade brought up the main issues in the region of Western Balkans and Serbia specifically concerning the instability of the rule of law and the presence of corruption, credited as the main causes for inadequate political leadership. Additionally, he stressed the importance of maintaining the rule of law in the EU itself, as doing otherwise would eliminate its importance in the candidate states, as well as the need to change the image of the region from a war-torn into a more developed and open one. Kalinka Gaber, the State Secretary for European Affairs of the Cabinet of the Prime Minister of Macedonia described the steps undertaken recently by the government of Macedonia in an effort to accelerate the needed reforms such as the conclusion of the landmark deal with Greece regarding the issue of the name, and the problems the government faced and continues to face in the reform process. She emphasized the quality aspects of the reforms against a quick accession process, as it would be detrimental for both the new member state and the EU itself if the Western Balkan countries join unpreparedly.
The third panel that focused on the question whether the Western Balkans can economically catch up with the EU presented a gloomy picture. The two speakers were Enio Civici who serves as a Director at the Economic TV SCAN in Albania, and the Chief Economist of the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belma Čolaković. The participants were presenting facts and figures in order to demonstrate and explain the economic situation in their respective countries and the region in general, along with the probable causes and the consequences they have for the integration process. Enio Civici stressed the importance economy has in the region not only in terms of development, but in terms of politcal cooperation as well, as it is the main engine for regional cooperation. He elaborated also on the presence and extent of foreign investments in Albania, and concluded that Turkish and Russian investments compose the majority, and there is a need for further direct investments from the EU in order to expand its influence and thus promote further regional cooperation. The Chief Economist from the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina presented key statistics of the Bosnian economic development and the potential dangers it faces in the upcoming decades, with a focus on the increasing emigration of young population towards Western Europe; as well as the underdevelopment of infrastracture in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region in general as one of the key factors in driving off the potential investments.
The conference was a remarkable opportunity to share various insights from different countries of the Western Balkans, as well as getting the perspective from the EU and its member states. The issues discussed represent the fundamental challenges for regional development and the EU accession process of the Western Balkans. On the other hand, the participants also had an opportunity to explain many misconceptions not only about the Western Balkans, but the EU as well; and additionally share their opinions and potential solutions to current obstacles.