Accession and the promise of joining the European club is transforming the region for the better while providing further evidence to critics as to why the EU was a justified recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – claim Štefan Füle and Linas Linkevičius
A few months ago, the European Union grew again. Croatia became the 28th member state. This latest enlargement showed once again that the EU project does not stop, nor slow down. It also underlined the credibility of the enlargement policy under which the countries are admitted after they have delivered on the necessary criteria. The agenda of the Lithuanian Presidency in this semester is proof of the determination to keep this policy going.
Despite different dynamics in the enlargement countries, we can see positive developments. The historic agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is of crucial importance since it contributes to the overall stability of the region and ensures that both can proceed on their respective European paths. It is also probably the most striking recent example of the transformative power of the EU accession process and a clear signal that even the most difficult decisions can be made, if there is strong motivation and political will.
After a groundbreaking agreement on normalisation of relations, both parties now meet regularly under the aegis of the EU to solve outstanding practical issues – much to the benefit of citizens on both sides. And the union has started the screening process of first two important chapters with Serbia in September. It is also getting ready to launch negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo on October 28. However, a recent attack on the EU Rule of Law Mission staff in Kosovo – the perpetrators of which we expect to be swiftly brought to justice – also shows how much the EU engagement is needed.
The negotiation process with Montenegro gained new momentum and two important negotiating chapters in the accession process may be opened in the upcoming months. We are also making efforts to get the accession negotiations with Turkey back on track. Albania has ensured much-improved democratic conduct at the recent elections and a peaceful transition of power, advancing its chances to get the candidate status. To sustain momentum for reforms, we have continued the high-level dialogue with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Of course, EU accession is not taking place in a vacuum. In the current economic climate, citizens of both member states and aspirant countries are increasingly concerned about the impact of the ongoing enlargement. And the management of the enlargement process itself reflects these concerns. For, the negotiation process is based on strict conditionality where each step forward is dependent on tangible progress achieved on the ground. It is not about ticking boxes in checklists but about creating a solid track record in areas such as fundamental rights and freedoms, rule of law, good governance and democracy. Strengthening of the rule of law, improving the capacity to tackle organised crime and corruption, progress in the application of human rights and democratic standards and freedoms brings direct benefits to the citizens across Europe.
Enlargement is a success story of the EU, reflected also in the recent Nobel Peace Prize. But if we want to be both serious and realistic, we should not be tempted to paint a one-sided rosy picture. The examples mentioned demonstrate that progress is possible where there is a political will to focus on reforms and where EU agenda is considered to be a national priority. We are well aware of the fact that not everywhere in the region – and not in all areas – do the reforms move ahead at the desired speed. Much more needs to be done but this should not discourage us from the EU enlargement process, which has huge transformative leverage. The threat here is not enlargement as such but rather the reform fatigue.
The opportunities to move decisively forward on the path to European integration are clearly visible and they are open to all aspiring countries. It is up to these countries to make these opportunities a reality, to the benefit of their citizens, as Croatia did. We remain fully committed to support them along the way, knowing that this is as much about our joint success as it is about the credibility of enlargement as one of the key policy platforms of the EU.
Štefan Füle is European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy and Linas Linkevičius is Lithuania’s Foreign Minister – the country currently holds the six-month rotating EU presidency