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Štefan Füle: Western Balkans Need Reforms, not a Political Process

Published on , , Warsaw

The Polish presidency of the Visegrad Four (V4) - the group that unites the four Central European countries - the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland - organised a ministerial meeting which was supposed to send a strong signal to the Western Balkan countries that they have solid supporters in the EU on their path toward European membership. The format of the meeting this time was broader, including not only the foreign ministers of the countries from the Western Balkans and V4 but also of Bulgaria and Romania. Regretfully, however, it is difficult to say that the event on October 25th in Warsaw was the most successful for Poland and in this sense it was a big disappointment against the backdrop of the indeed successful EU Presidency of Poland in the second semester of 2011.

The strongest signal for a failure was the participation level itself. Key countries from the Western Balkans were represented not by their foreign ministers. For instance, Bosnia and Herzegovina sent its deputy foreign minister Ana Trišić-Babić, Serbia - State Secretary Vera Mavrić, Greece - dreputy foreign minister Dimitris Kourkoulas (well known in Bulgaria as a chief of the European Commission delegation in Sofia several years agho), Kosovo - deputy foreign minister Petrit Seilimi. Montenegro, however, which this year received a long-awaited green light to start accession negotiations, was with a big delegation. In Warsaw were Foreign Minister Nebojša Kaluđerović and Chief Negotiator with the EU Alexander Pejovic. In the Polish capiutal were also the foreign ministers of Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia. Romania was represented by Leonard Orban, minister for EU affairs.

The second really bad signal was the organisation of the event itself. Until the very last possible moment there was not sufficient information for the foreign journalists about whether there will be such a meeting, if accreditation was needed, a preliminary agenda, etc. The efforts to secure such information surpassed in times the efforts the representatives of the Polish foreign ministry invested in providing it. Probably because of the lack of information and adequate promotion of the event, the number of the foreign journalists was trifling.

Nonetheless, the meeting was of significance because it showed something important - it illustrated clearly the problems the process of enlargement, specifically toward the Western Balkans, is facing. Moreover - it showed that there is no unified vision about what a compromise can be made with. And it was the lack of a unified vision how the process of enlargement to continue and with what exactly the V4 countries + Bulgaria and Romania can help that was most clearly seen in the joint statement that resembles more a press release rather than a declaration. The document says that the meeting reaffirmed the support of the Visegrad group for the process of enlargement, as a special focus was put on the rule of law, regional cooperation, economic development and security in the region - issues that have been promoted as major priorities in the revised enlargement strategy the European Commission presented on October 10, together with the progress reports of the countries from the enlargement process.

The participants in the meeting commit themselves to create a Western Balkans Expert Network on the Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights, where ideas to be exchanged, technical assistance to be provided and support for reforms. If the idea proves good and there is positive reposes to it, then a permanent pool of experts can be established to support the Western Balkan countries, including during the accession negotiations process. This is indeed a wonderful initiative because it provides for learning all the lessons from the enlargement so far, while the format of the meeting (with Bulgaria and Romania) is an even better idea because those are the two countries that injected a large dose of mistrust into the enlargement process, as show the reactions of some member states to Croatia's readiness for membership, planned for the 1st of July 2013.

One of the possible reasons why the meeting was not among the most successful ones in the history of Polish diplomacy is that it was tasked with too many objectives. On the one hand, the hyper active foreign minister of Poland, Radoslaw Sikorski, tried to reaffirm Poland's role as the motor of Central and Eastern Europe; on the other, there was an attempt for unification of the positions within the V4 on the negotiations on the next multiannual budget of the EU for the period 2014-2020, which are one of the main priorities of Poland; and thirdly, Poland made an attempt to turn to the region of the Western Balkans, where the country has no influence at all, unlike the rest of the V4 partners - the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. The multipolarity of the messages was quite evident during the joint news conference in which took part the four V4 foreign ministers and Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle.

The only thing everyone was unanimous about was that the meeting was extremely open but friendly. Most ministers from the group hailed Poland's efforts. Only Slovakia's top diplomat Miroslav Lajčák, who has the biggest experience in the Western Balkans, explained briefly and clearly that the meeting insisted on a strict conditionality. Mr Lajčák is a solid supporter of the European integration of the Western Balkans, but in the same time he is of the opinion that it should not happen at any cost. As he recently explained in an interview for euinside, unless European integration turns into a number one priority for the politicians in the region, the EU cannot offer more than it already has. A similar opinion expressed EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle in a short interview with this site (you can see it in the video file).

He called on the countries from the region to understand that enlargement needs a process of reforms, not a political process. He also used a term that often served Bulgarian governments in a row to boast "positive assessment" from Brussels - political will. In Mr Füle's words, the political will cannot replace the lack of vision and reforms. The EU Commissioner also said that he made a special appeal to the Western Balkan countries to solve the problem with the visa-free regime. The visa-free regime was introduced for some countries in the region in 2009, but quickly started creating problems because the number of asylum applications from citizens from the region started to rise significantly.

Last year, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström proposed a safeguard clause to allow a temporary reinstate of visas for third countries in special circumstances. Recently, several EU member states, among which Germany and the Netherlands, called the visa regime for the Western Balkan countries to be reinstated because of the many unfounded asylum applications. Commissioner Füle said that he had specifically asked the foreign ministers of the countries in the region to understand that the situation is indeed serious. He reminded them that together with the visa-free regime they got some responsibilities as well.

For Hungary's Foreign Minister János Martonyi the meeting in Warsaw on October 25th was very timely - right when dilemmas started to emerge in terms of enlargement. The Czech top diplomat, Karel Schwarzenberg, said for his part that this was the most efficient meeting he ever attended because of the open and friendly tone. For Štefan Füle, the meeting took place in a moment when the EU is not only in an economic, but in a financial crisis as well. He underlined that enlargement was important and the process had to be kept alive, in spite of the problems in the eurozone. From that perspective, it is good that an ever more influential group - the Visegrad Four - is affirming its support for the integration processes in the Western Balkans. In order their efforts to be successful though, the countries from the region would really need to fulfil all the recommendations, not only in words.

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