Western Balkans back on the European agenda with conference in Sofia

Photo: BTA

“It is now up to the political elite in Skopje to wrap up the Prespa agreement,” said Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ekaterina Zaharieva at the opening of the conference “Transforming the Western Balkans region - A parliamentary perspective on the role and the future of EU accession process” held in Sofia. She expressed the hope that the painful, for our region, question of Macedonia’s name will find a solution after the referendum, described by some as a resounding success, and by others as a dismal failure.

The conference was attended by representatives of the national parliaments and NGOs from the 6 Western Balkan countries, MPs from the EU member countries, and MEPs.  The forum is dedicated to the leading priority of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union – the European perspective of the Western Balkans. The participants spoke of the key role played by Bulgaria for speeding up the events connected with the integration of the Western Balkans that led up to the adoption of important European Commission documents – the Strategy for the Western Balkans from February 2018 and the enlargement pact (April 2018). That this line will be continued was confirmed by Andreas Schieder, Chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Austrian parliament and Cristian-Sorin Dumitrescu,  President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the parliament of Romania, the two countries that will be taking over the next presidency of the Council of the EU.

“Today we can safely say we are seeing a completely different atmosphere of cooperation in the Balkans, built on trust, an active and constructive dialogue, and on an understanding of a shared European future,” said Bulgarian MP Dzhema Grozdanova at the conference. It was in just such an atmosphere that the discussions took place. Representatives of the national parliaments of the Western Balkan countries declared their commitment to the pursuit of reforms and making headway on key issues: the principles of the law governed state, security and migration, social and economic development, transport connectivity, the digital programme, reconciliation and good neighbourhood.

Some interesting views were expressed and suggestions made, like the proposal by Bulgarian MEP Georgi Pirisnki who said that the processes of integration of the Western Balkans would be speedier if the European Commission sets down the same timeline for meeting membership criteria for all 6 countries. This would boost the motivation and commitment of the countries to seek a solution to regional problems, together. One speech which made a deep impression was the speech by Lívia Járóka  , Vice-President of the European Parliament, who urged the 6 countries to take full advantage of the pre-accession programmes – of the subsides these programmes offer, as well as of the expert support in key problematic sectors. The EU was not spared criticism over double standards in decision-making, or lack of openness, clarity and guarantees. Such an opinion was expressed by Momčilo Radulović from the NGO sector in Podgorica, Montenegro.

In corroboration of how important the discussions in Sofia have been, EC President Jean-Claude Juncker said in Brussels: “If, in Europe’s highly complicated landscape, the impression arises that we’re not serious about offering the prospect of EU membership to the western Balkans, then we might see later — and probably even sooner — what we saw in Balkans in the 1990s.” But he then reiterated that the EU must “ensure it is understood that all border conflicts between the west Balkan states must be resolved before the membership can be attained,” so that there would be no instability coming into the EU from the Western Balkans.

English version: Milena Daynova

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