Linas Linkevičius and Štefan Füle: Western Balkans and Turkey: new opportunities for EU enlargement

04 November 2013, Last updated at, 14:57 EEST
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Few months ago the European Union grew again. Croatia became the 28th member state. This new enlargement showed once again that the EU project does not stop, nor slows down. It also underlined the credibility of the enlargement policy under which the countries are admitted after they delivered on the necessary criteria. The agenda of the Lithuanian Presidency in this semester is a good proof of the determination to keep this policy going.

Despite different dynamics in the enlargement countries we could register very 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, Serbia and Kosovo, 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 ground-breaking agreement on normalisation of relations, both parties now meet regularly under the aegis of the EU to solve outstanding practical issues to the benefit of citizens on both sides. And the EU has started the screening process of first two very important chapters with Serbia in September and launched negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo on 28 October. However a recent attack on the EULEX staff in Kosovo, whose perpetrators we expect to be swiftly brought to justice, also shows how much the EU engagement is needed.

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 a much improved democratic conduct of 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 dialogues with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Of course, the 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 on-going enlargement. And the management of enlargement process itself reflects these concerns. 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 check lists 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.

The enlargement is a success story of the EU, reflected also in the recent Nobel Peace Prize. However, if we want to be both serious and realistic we should not be tempted to paint an unrealistically rosy picture. The examples mentioned earlier 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, the reforms move ahead at the desired speed. Much more needs to be done, but this should not discourage the EU enlargement process, which has a huge transformative leverage. The threat here is not the 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 equally 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 the enlargement as one of the key policies of the EU.

Linas Antanas Linkevičius is the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs. Štefan Füle is EU Commissioner for Enlargement

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