The Western Balkans Summit will take place today in Brno, Slovenia. Although the focus of the topics with an unclear stance of the European Union member states about the opening of the Union’s doors to the six Western Balkan countries, the skepticism of some Union countries about enlargement to the Western Balkans has led some countries in the region to be skeptical of the EU as well, giving way to Russia and China’s appetite for greater political and economic influence in the region.
To talk about the stances and expected statements of EU leaders in this Summit, KosovaPress interviewed the former Rapporteur for Kosovo in the European Parliament and currently MEP in the EP Mrs. Tanja Fajon.
Interviewed: Fadil Miftari
KosovaPress: On Wednesday, Slovenia will host the Brdo Brione Summit, which will bring together the leaders of the six Western Balkan countries and leaders of the European Union in a strong effort to reach an agreement between the countries of the Balkan region in a bid to boost co-operation between them. What do you expect from this meeting?
Fajon: As written in the Brdo Summit program, this meeting is indeed a clear sign to acknowledge that the European Union is the main political, economic, and trading partner of the Western Balkans. The anticipated investments through the economic and investment plan are supposed to promote long-term economic recovery, accelerate the green and digital transition, support regional cooperation, and above all to promote the accession process. However, the most important question that we need to ask ourselves is what are the WB countries’ expectations from the Summit, since we are witnessing a continuous spread of Euroscepticism among citizens and the leaders in the region. I believe that their perspective, regional challenges and realistic expectations must be set. The European Union’s job is to support, assist, help and guide. The latter is also one of my main priorities I have as a Member of European Parliament and a drive throughout my more than a decade long career. The leaders participating in the Summit must put aside their differences and focus on finding common ground to accelerate the path for a European integration of the WB countries. Common challenges are clear and concern mostly the fields of rule of law, freedom and pluralism of media and respecting human rights.
KosovaPress: The countries that make up the 6WB group have so far been lured by the accelerating momentum for EU membership, but this summit is being held at a time when enlargement is being considered a very sensitive issue for the EU, which is divided. on the need and speed with which countries should be admitted to the bloc. What message do you expect EU leaders will give at this Summit?
Fajon: Enlargement might be a sensitive subject to some Member states of the EU, but I think that we are all aware that the current status-quo in the region is very unfortunate and not acceptable for both the Union and the whole region. The blockades from certain Member States are simply not fair, as they lead to deterioration of trust and mutual respect. I strongly believe that our first steps for a stronger and more stable common future are in opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. Blocking these two countries, which let me highlight it again, met all the necessary conditions, is undermining the EU’s credibility and runs counter to the strategic interest of the Union, which is ensuring and promoting stability of the Western Balkans. The same goes for the unfulfilled commitment of the EU on the Kosovo’s visa liberalization. Having said that, the message I expect from the leaders is their strong and sincere commitment to work on these concrete issues in the light of further cooperation, to show their support to the region and acknowledge the progress that has already been made. First and foremost for the benefit of the citizens.
KosovaPress: Meanwhile, some Western Balkan countries appear to have put pressure on the EU to continue accession talks with Balkan countries that are giving indications of interest in strengthening closer ties with China and Russia. Do you see these as serious efforts?
Fajon: China’s and Russia’s appetite for the region are not surprising, but are rather consequential due to Europe’s internal enlargement struggle on one hand and due to serious of external problematic factors affecting the region on the other. All of which contribute to enlarged sphere of influence deep into Europe’s backyard and in direct competition for its strategic interest. Although Europe continues to be the biggest economic partner and donor in the Western Balkans, Europe’s shies away when it comes to walking the walk. The lack of solidarity in vaccination role out again proved the sceptics right and left the playground to its rivals.
KosovaPress: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, visited the Western Balkans ahead of the summit, reiterating her support for countries including Serbia to join the union. But politicians in the region view the topic with disappointment, as it has been repeated for years. Can there be any concrete steps during this Summit that stimulate the appetite of the Western Balkan countries for serious reforms required by the EU membership criteria that may divert their interest in cooperating with China and Russia?
Fajon: I have always been a vocal advocate for enlargement to the countries of the Western Balkans. I am convinced that the Europe will not be complete without Western Balkans integrated in it. However, it is understandable that Balkan countries turn elsewhere should the Union let them down. This summit is a good opportunity to strengthen our cooperation and ties. Slovenia especially has an important role in this process because of strong connections we have with our neighbourhood – historically and economically speaking. We must also be aware that since 2004, in terms of population, Slovenia may have become even more connected with the WB region, as many people from the countries of the former Yugoslavia have moved to our country. Since then, we have also experienced two crises, economic and migration crises, while at the moment still experiencing a devastating health crisis. Through we have learned that Slovenia can be a strong ally and facilitator between the EU and the Western Balkans, and that in the long run it makes sense to invest in things that unite us and resolve historical disagreements through dialogues.
We need to build strong communication to achieve positive results, as we have done in the past when we enabled visa-free travel to the Schengen area, for citizens of the Republic of Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia since December 2009, and to the citizens of Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina in November 2010. Positive practices are the result of dialogue, work, and effort, on both sides.
KosovaPress: Has the non-recognition of Kosovo as a state by the five EU member states further complicated the EU’s attitude towards the region and the challenge of its integration into the bloc?
Fajon: The differences between the member states complicate EU’s attitude towards the region in general, but it is important to keep working on finding compromises and common grounds for the good of our citizens. Impartial interest from any side should be resolved in order to make progress.
KosovaPress: Disputes between Kosovo and Serbia always get the most attention in such meetings than anything else. Do you expect the same thing to happen this time, given the recent tensions in northern Kosovo?
Fajon: The recent tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have most certainly gained a lot of attention from the European Union and the international community. I am glad that after two days of negotiations, all sides have reached an agreement to end the latest tensions. The most recent abandonment of tensions shows that the good and safety of the citizens is the most important after all. I think that we are all aware of the painful past the Western Balkan region has witnessed; people are tired of conflicts and wars. Working group composed of representatives of the EU, Belgrade and Pristina, chaired by the EU, is a good step forward in finding a permanent solution based on the EU standards and practice. The first meeting of this working group will be held in Brussels on 21 October and within six months the working group should present its findings for a permanent solution at the high-format dialogue meeting.