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The European future of the Western Balkans: Thessaloniki@10 (2003-2013) (eng)

Ομιλία στην εκδήλωση που συνδιοργάνωσαν το E.U. Institute for Security Studies και European Policy Center με τίτλο «The European future of the Western Balkans: Thessaloniki@10 (2003-2013)»

Ten years after the landmark European Council of Thessaloniki it is a happy coincidence that we are celebrating the Croatian accession. This is a wonderful achievement that comes at a very appropriate moment and gives the message that the enlargement policy is alive, despite the economic crisis.

Looking at the broader picture, I think we should be satisfied that most of the Western Balkan countries have made progress and are now closer to the European Union, even though (as argued in the publication of the European Union Institute for Security Studies) full integration in the EU is still out of sight. I welcome this useful book and thank the organisers of this meeting for the opportunity to present you my views about the European future of the Western Balkans.

I was asked to speak as a Member of the European Parliament, rapporteur on Enlargement, but also as a Greek politician in view of the forthcoming Greek presidency of the Council of the European Union. I am afraid that my task will be easier with my first capacity rather than with the second but I will do my best to give you the picture as clearly as possible.

Let me start by saying that there should not be any doubt about the position of the European Parliament. This institution has been a staunch supporter of enlargement from the very beginning and the adoption of my report, last November, proves that it remains still firmly committed to it. The big majority of MEPs believe, like me, that the future of the Western Balkans lies in Europe. However, as shown also in the book that we are discussing today, the countries of the region face – more or less known – structural problems and are confronted with bilateral issues that delay progress and, I would add, offer a good excuse to those that are against enlargement after all.

The question we are all most probably asking ourselves today is if there is or not an «enlargement fatigue»? I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, because the economic crisis has impacted heavily on the mood of people on both sides. In the EU there is currently more introversion and less appetite for enlargement. Debating enlargement at the present conditions, indeed, seems rather awkward to the average citizen of the Union and, with Euro zone unemployment at its record high and euroscepticism on the rise, people of the Western Balkans are also starting questioning that Europe can give solutions to their problems. We can, however, say also no, there is no «enlargement fatigue», because the process continues: Montenegro is already negotiating with the EU and Serbia has just got a positive reply for the opening of accession negotiations. So I think we have to realise that we are, indeed, going though difficult times but still things are moving forward, even if slowly.

Based on this realisation my report, adopted last November by the plenary of the European Parliament, underlined the importance of enlargement as the most important foreign policy of the EU and called for consistency, fairness and credibility of the process leading to accession. Fairness means that every country should be objectively judged for its own progress in fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria and that no additional conditions should be added up in the process. Consistency and credibility of the process implies that the EU should honour its commitments to the candidate countries and accept them as full members once the accession criteria have been fulfilled.

The report stressed, furthermore, the need to improve the communication of the benefit of enlargement for the actual citizens of the EU and for those of the candidate countries. The first, indeed, need to realise that enlargement is not only benefiting the new comers: it is a win-win process and the benefits are real in terms of peace and stability in Europe, as well as economic for both partied. The second, the citizens and the political elites of the Western Balkans, have to understand that the reforms on the way to Europe are first of all to their own interest and not imposed from abroad.
Finally, touching upon the most controversial issue, the bilateral issues, the report underlines the need for them to be resolved as early as possible in the accession process and preferably before the opening of the negotiations. This approach has proved already its usefulness in the case of Serbia with the historic agreement between Belgrade and Pristina and it is our hope that it will bear fruits in other cases.

Now coming to the position of Greece in view of its rotating EU presidency, I think that it is broadly influenced by the events in Europe, the overall mood about enlargement, and the actual timing of this presidency.

My country, as you know, has always been a promoter and a supporter of the accession of all Western Balkans in the EU. Greece organised, indeed, the 2003 Thessaloniki summit that gave the promise of European integration to the Western Balkans and since then it tried to keep it high on the agenda. Back in 2009, George Papandreou called for a new roadmap for the accession of all the countries of the region, proposing to have a second Summit between the EU and Western Balkan countries during the Greek presidency in 2014 with the view to set a target date for this accession. The symbolic year 2018, a hundred years after the end of the First Word War, was identified. However, if at the time this date was considered realistic, now it is probably not. As a result of the economic crisis and the situation that I have just described, I regret to say it but my country had to abandon this idea.

After the accession of Croatia, the EU enters a phase of reflection or if you prefer consolidation making new accessions unlikely in the running decade. So the timing is not the most appropriate for bold moves.

Greece, in line with the Trio programme undersigned with Ireland and Lithuania, will make its best to ensure continued momentum of the enlargement agenda. What this will mean in practise is still not clear. Most probably Athens will try to be inventive and organise some other initiatives. Realistically speaking, however, Greece can only hope to be the one to start the accession negotiation with Serbia, to organise the intergovernmental Conference and open chapters 23 and 24 during its presidency. In the meantime, indeed, there is a good probability that Albania will be granted candidate status in December and under Lithuanian presidency, due to the overall good conduct of the recent elections and fulfilment of key priorities identified back in December 2012, again without a precise date for the opening of the negotiation. For the rest, no major developments are expected and Greece will have to administer the ongoing business of enlargement.

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