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Skopje, North Macedonia—Entering the European Union was on the minds of the Western Balkan leaders as the 2023 Balkan Leadership Conference opened.

The one-day international conference, “Western Balkans Integration into the EU – Challenges and Perspectives,” took place on October 14, 2023, at the DoubleTree by Hilton Skopje hotel.

It was organized by the Europe-Middle East branch of UPF in partnership with the Podgorica Club, an organization founded in 2019 by former presidents of Southeast Europe.

Mr. Jacques Marion, Co-chair, UPF Europe & Middle East, FranceThe moderator for both the Opening Ceremony and Session One was Jacques Marion, the UPF co-chair for Europe and the Middle East.

Opening Ceremony

Mr. Marion welcomed the current and former presidents and prime ministers, the members of the Podgorica Club, the other panelists, and all participants.

Reiterating the theme of the conference, he emphasized the importance of the Balkans as a crucial center for peacebuilding in Europe, and he expressed his appreciation for the collaboration of UPF and the Podgorica Club.

He stated that this conference would provide the opportunity to assess the future of the Western Balkans in relation with the European Union.


H.E. Filip Vujanović, president of Montenegro (2003-2018) and the founder of the Podgorica ClubH.E. Filip Vujanović, president of Montenegro (2003-2018)H.E. Filip Vujanović, the former president of Montenegro (2003-2018) and the current president of the Podgorica Club, the conference’s co-sponsor, greeted the participants. He then introduced H.E. Stevo Pendarovski, the president of North Macedonia.


 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Stevo Pendarovski, President, Republic of North Macedonia Dr. Stevo Pendarovski, President, Republic of North MacedoniaH.E. Stevo Pendarovski thanked the members of the Podgorica Club, who had dedicated themselves to European integration. He then reminded the audience that this year was the 20th anniversary of the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki, Greece, whose goal was to speed up the integration of the Balkan countries in the EU. Apart from Croatia, however, that goal hasn’t been realized—for two main reasons:

  • The Balkan countries did not do their homework well enough to receive the green light for membership, particularly in fighting organized crime and corruption.
  • The EU itself became tired after the three integrations between 2004 and 2013 and the round of the financial and credit crises.

The Ukraine war has put integration back on the EU agenda, but in an unexpected way, President Pendarovski said. The European Council in its June summit decided to give candidate status to Ukraine and Moldavia, in a period when the process for other countries is at a standstill.

He asked, “If the EU wants to speed up the integration of the Western Balkans only because of the war, what will happen when the hostilities stop?” He also said that the new French-German proposal for internal reformation of the EU before further expansion was not helpful.

The Treaty of Prespa, in which Macedonia changed its name to North Macedonia, was supposed to open the way to both NATO and EU membership, President Pendarovski said. Macedonian citizens are tired of staying in the waiting room of the EU, and the decline of euro-enthusiasm in the other countries in the region is, to some degree, because of the Macedonian case.

In conclusion, he expressed his hope that at the upcoming December summit, the European Council would decide on faster integration for the Western Balkan countries.

Session One: Perspectives on the Western Balkans’ Integration into the EU

H.E. Branko Crvenkovski, President of North Macedonia (2004 – 2008) H.E. Branko Crvenkovski, President of North Macedonia (2004 – 2008) H.E. Branko Crvenkovski, the president of North Macedonia (2004-2009), described the region’s integration process into the EU as being unconscionably slow and even at a standstill.

Three years ago, the EU members accepted a new methodology for negotiations, but still there has been no progress. The Republic of Macedonia received candidate status 18 years ago, but negotiations have not started yet. The blockage with Greece was resolved by changing the constitutional name of the country, and North Macedonia became a member of NATO, but negotiations with the EU still did not start. A new bilateral argument appeared now with Bulgaria and again about issues related to the Copenhagen criteria.

Some of the issues blocking EU accession are the high level of corruption, organized crime, and a corrupt judicial system, President Crvenkovski said. However, the main issue is that the EU itself is not ready for such integration, particularly with its current structure, having 27 members requiring full consensus for decisions. At the same time, the EU is concerned about increasing Russian and Chinese influence in the Western Balkan region.

Faced with this situation, President Crvenkovski offered two propositions that the Balkan nations could make to the EU:

  • A process of gradual integration before full membership, thereby assuring the EU of its influence in the Western Balkan region.
  • The new members would not have the right of veto, thereby assuring that the decision-making process in the EU would not be further complicated.

There is no guarantee that all the Balkan governments would accept such an approach or, even if they agreed, that this initiative would be accepted by Brussels, but we would have nothing to lose by trying, President Crvenkovski said.

H.E. Alfred Moisiu, President of Albania (2002 – 2007)H.E. Alfred Moisiu, President of Albania (2002 – 2007)H.E. Alfred Moisiu, the president of Albania (2002-2007) and the Balkans chair of UPF’s International Summit Council for Peace (ISCP), said that the Balkans need to become safer before integration into the European Union can be discussed.

Politicians in the Balkans must unite if they wish to see the end of the tunnel, the former president said. Having good relations with neighboring countries is a prerequisite to apply for EU membership.

Serbia never condemned the September 24, 2023, attack by Serb militants on Kosovo police in the village of Banjska, and it still refuses to recognize Kosovo as an independent state, the president said. Five remaining EU member states haven’t done so either. President Moisiu said he cannot imagine that Serbia would be accepted for EU membership if it does not improve its relationship with Kosovo.

So far, there have been too few bilateral and multi-party talks, President Moisiu said. The United States should not hesitate to bring all parties concerned to the negotiating table, given the existing threats in the region.

 


H.E. Mikuláš Dzurinda, President, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, Prime Minister of Slovakia (1998-2006)H.E. Mikuláš Dzurinda, President, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, Prime Minister of Slovakia (1998-2006)H.E. Mikulas Dzurinda, prime minister of Slovakia (1998-2006) and the president of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, said that EU enlargement is apparently in a vicious circle. Considering the Ukrainian war and the recent attack on Israel by Hamas, the EU should grow bigger and stronger to be able to take more responsibility on its shoulders, he said. The United States also takes this view, especially as a new axis of cooperation between Hamas, Iran, Russia and China is becoming more and more manifest.

The Balkan candidate states need political and economic reforms to meet increasingly stringent criteria, the former Slovakian leader said. The EU should reform its voting system in the foreign policy and defense areas.

Prime Minister Dzurinda encouraged all political leaders in the region to accelerate the integration process. He suggested that they ask East European EU member states to help.

He said he expects the upcoming EU Summit in December to consider both the accession of Ukraine on the EU's eastern flank and the accession of countries from the Western Balkans.


 

H.E. Stjepan Mesić, President of Croatia (2000 - 2010) H.E. Stjepan Mesić, President of Croatia (2000 - 2010) H.E. Stjepan Mesić, the president of Croatia (2000-2010), said that peace in the Balkans region once again faces significant challenges in the fields of geopolitics, immigration and inflation.

No country in Southeast Europe or the Balkans is interested in participating in a new Cold War, nor in a possible “hot war” between the superpowers, President Mesić said. However, due to the war in Ukraine, the countries in the region are being asked to take sides, which causes divisions and instability. Despite these trends, not a single country in the region has given up its major foreign policy goal of EU membership.

However, that membership sometimes seems to be moving away from the countries of the Western Balkans, regardless of all the support and promises from Brussels about speeding up the negotiations.

Today’s European Union has more influential members who do not advocate the enlargement of the union, although others do support enlargement. President Mesić fears that the Western Balkan countries, instead of becoming full EU members, may end up with a kind of surrogate membership at the edge of Europe.

The former president’s major concern is the war in Ukraine. Brussels’ turn in the direction of geopolitics may weaken the role of the EU in European and global peacebuilding policy by contradicting the principles of free trade and markets. The economy of the EU today is used for geopolitical purposes. These are not policies that guarantee peace and economic prosperity. The EU must return to its founding principles and those of the European citizens, so that it may remain respected in Europe and globally.


H. E. Fatmir Sejdiu, President of Kosovo (2006 – 2010)H. E. Fatmir Sejdiu, President of Kosovo (2006 – 2010)H.E. Fatmir Sejdiu, the president of Kosovo (2006-2010), said the problems in the Balkan region, the war in Ukraine and the conflict between Israel and Palestine are due to a lack of a reconciliation processes between citizens and countries. Some of the Western Balkan countries, such as Serbia and Kosovo, have had a painful experience of war and disruption, and we are still trying to heal the wounds.

President Sejdiu pointed out the importance of peace and stability in the Balkan region, particularly focusing on the experiences of Kosovo, Serbia, and neighboring countries. He highlighted the historical context of conflicts and their devastating consequences for the region's people and emphasized the role of international intervention in ending aggression and promoting peaceful negotiations.

The speech underscored the progress made by countries like Croatia in their integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions and the challenges faced by others, like Bosnia-Herzegovina, in achieving stability. President Sejdiu acknowledged Kosovo's journey to independence and its efforts to overcome post-conflict challenges.

He also condemned recent attempts by armed groups to destabilize Kosovo and accused Serbia of supporting such activities. He called for Serbia to take several steps to contribute to regional peace, including signing and implementing agreements and stopping all activities that undermine Kosovo’s constitution.

He also condemned recent attempts by armed groups to destabilize Kosovo and accused Serbia of supporting such activities. He called for Serbia to take several steps to contribute to regional peace, including acknowledging past crimes, signing and implementing agreements, and stopping all activities that undermine Kosovo’s constitution.


H.E. Mladen Ivanić, president of Bosnia & Herzegovina (2014-2015, 2016-2017)H.E. Mladen Ivanić, president of Bosnia & Herzegovina (2014-2015, 2016-2017)H.E. Mladen Ivanic, president of Bosnia-Herzegovina (2015-2017), said it is questionable whether the Western Balkans are ready for reforms. Free media and independent justice are under pressure, and crime and corruption still must be rooted out.

Better mutual understanding and cooperation are needed among the Western Balkan countries, he said.

In 2005, Europe was not ready to admit new Western Balkan states, fearing their participation in the EU decision-making process. Today opinions are divided among EU member states regarding new members from the Western Balkans. More recently, one can hardly justify that Ukraine would get membership and not the Western Balkan countries.

President Ivanic suggested that the EU be asked for inexpensive and uncomplicated measures, such as the accreditation of universities, the elimination of roaming charges, or for a status similar to that of Switzerland in its relationship with the EU.


H.E. Igor Lukšić, Prime Minister of Montenegro (2010 – 2012)H.E. Igor Lukšić, Prime Minister of Montenegro (2010 – 2012)H.E. Igor Lukšić, prime minister of Montenegro (2010-2012), said the war in Ukraine has put EU enlargement on the agenda again. The EU originally planned to admit new member states only in the 2030s. The enlargement policy stagnated after the accession of Croatia in 2013. However, both the EU and the Balkan countries have much to gain from accession.

Prime Minister Lukšić referred to the South-East European Cooperation Process, initiated in 1996 to enhance neighborly relations and promote dialogue and political, security and economic cooperation, especially in these challenging times of the Russia-Ukraine war.

The integration progress of new countries into the EU has slowed despite a new regional agreement signed at the end of 2022, Prime Minister Lukšić said. The EU has restructured its membership policy and included a new category of associated member states. This will allow the EU time to implement further internal reforms without slowing the enlargement process.

The associated member states can align themselves with, among others, the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, have free movement of people, goods, services and capital, and access to EU development funds to overcome economic obstacles.

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