The enlargement of the European Union (EU) has become a reality, and the candidate countries need to strengthen institutions and the rule of law to protect themselves from external malign influences, said EU Ambassador in Montenegro, Oana Cristina Popa, at the panel “Western Balkans, International actors and the Geopolitics of the new era?” during the conference organised by the Centre for Civic Education (CCE), the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) and the Regional Academy for Democratic Development (ADD) titles “Time to Move On – 20 years of Thessaloniki Summit”.
She said that the enlargement package today includes not only the six countries of the Western Balkans, but also Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. “For the first time, an expansion package will be presented including all these countries. In the last three decades there have been many ups and downs. The current flywheel that made the war in Ukraine gives a new perspective for the region”, said Popa.
She mentioned that the enlargement package now encompasses not only the six Western Balkan countries but also Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia. “For the first time, the enlargement package will be presented including all of these countries. In the last three decades, there have been many ups and downs. The current momentum created by the war in Ukraine provides a new perspective for the region,” Popa said.
She stressed that the priority of the EU remains enlargement. “There is still a tangible issue of foreign policy, it is no longer just a goal that is there without clear horizon. However, the challenges have also grown”, added Popa.
Popa noted that Serbia and Montenegro have progressed the most, opened the most chapters, while North Macedonia and Albania have just started negotiations, Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) received candidate status, and that Kosovo has been offered visa liberalization. “These are ongoing processes, and we know that the rhythm is not to the liking of the candidate countries. And the Union would like to move it faster,” added Popa.
Popa said that the EU is often talked about as a supernatural body, and not a Union of 27 members. “It is often difficult to reach a consensus, the decision-making process is complicated. There are discussions on how to internally reform the EU. But it can be said that the enlargement has now become a reality,” said Popa.
According to her, another important issue is that there is conflict and conflicting influences in the region. “The malign influence of Russia is a reality, the war in Ukraine has caused even more problems, and the candidate countries should take this into account when implementing reforms – to protect themselves from malignant influences,” said Popa.
Speaking about the steps that the EU will implement, primarily about the economic-investment plan, she said that it must see that the candidate countries implement reforms. “It’s a partnership, a two-way street, you can’t have an advantage in relation to other candidates,” said Popa.
Popa emphasized that, along with the rule of law, candidate states must also have strong institutions to defend themselves against malign influences. “That’s why alignment with the Union’s foreign and security policy has become essential. Europe is now more concern with security than it has been in the past. Until now, it has been focused more on economic matters,” she explained.
The former director of the Brussels Office of the Stiftung Wissenschaft politik from Germany, Dušan Reljić, pointed out that the EU is significant for the entire region, due to the fact that in the past 20 years, the EU has not only expanded into the region but has also, in socio-economic terms, absorbed it into the EU.
He mentioned that the EU and NATO being present in the region has its own consequences.
“The region contributes significantly more to the EU than it receives from development aid. Over the past ten years, the trade deficit of the region with the EU has been 100 billion EUR. IPA III foresees nine billion in assistance for the region,” explained Reljić.
He said that the biggest problem is the emigration of people, with someone leaving the region approximately every 90 seconds. “Most of these people go to the EU, and the region sends its human capital and hard-earned money, and unlike EU members in the region, it does not receive solidarity aid from the Union,” Reljić pointed out.
According to him, “ordinary people have two choices – to emigrate or to accept reality, and the biggest reality in the region is dependence on authorities”.
The project manager at Sbunker from Kosovo, Visar Xhambazi, stated that the EU is a peace project and that it is now moving towards a war project.
He noted that the focus is no longer solely on the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, but on existential questions with implications for the region and the world. “The question is whether these countries are part of the EU’s future or whether they are a buffer zone between Russia and the EU,” added Xhambazi.
He raised the issue of the extent to which the shift towards security affects the enlargement, bearing in mind immigration, the need for raw materials, energy, and other matters for which the EU cannot rely on being self-sufficient. This, he added, pushed the Union to seek more sovereignty and autonomy.
Dina Bajramspahic, a political analyst, commented on the negotiations process, stating that lethargy has prevailed, and that enthusiasm and energy have been lost, which is necessary to renew.
“It is important to remember that we entered the EU integration process voluntarily. When faced with a recommendation or a task, our public officials become defenders of sovereignty, and among them are those who were not in favour of the independence of the state,” said Bajramspahić.
She mentioned the difference is in tools that various malign influences use. Bajramspahić stated that there is a significant number of citizens in Montenegro who do not believe in Russian influence, stating that among them is a part of pro-Montenegro-oriented citizens, and explaining that this issue and its associated dangers are underestimated, and not enough is done to deconstruct disinformation narratives. She also pointed out the concerning state of the media scene.
The conference was closed by Daliborka Uljarević, Executive Director of CCE, Balša Božović, Executive Director of ADD and Director of the FES Regional Office for Serbia and Montenegro, Kirsten Schönefeld.
Schönefeld reminded that the conference addressed a wide range of aspects of the European integration in the Western Balkans. “We discussed different integration models, phased accession, revised methodology, the Berlin process… All these aspects are very important. We should ask ourselves how to overcome the lethargy that has appeared over the years, and how to return to political missions and issues of EU enlargement”, stated Schoenefeld.
She concluded that European integration does not refer only to the integration of the Western Balkans, but also to the return of that region home and the fulfillment of the EU’s promise to make it a peace project.