Western Balkans Strategy of the European Union

Monday, June 11

Mr. Johannes Hahn, Commissioner, European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, European Commission

Mr. Harald Waiglein, Director General for Economic Policy and Financial Markets, Austrian Ministry of Finance


Mr. Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, delivered the JVI Annual Lecture this year. Speaking about developments in the Western Balkans he reaffirmed a European future for the region as a geostrategic investment in a stable, strong, and united Europe.

JVI Director Thomas Richardson welcomed the speakers and chaired the proceedings. Commissioner Hahn was introduced by Mr. Harald Waiglein, Director General for Economic Policy and Financial Markets in the Austrian Ministry of Finance, who spoke of the strong Austrian support for the EU accession of Western Balkan countries, including in the context of the upcoming Austrian Presidency of the Council of Europe.

Commissioner Hahn began by painting the global picture and outlining the role of the EU. Power in world politics is shifting, he said, with the U.S. growing increasingly protectionist and the emerging economies growing fast and taking an ever-larger share in world trade. In fact, by 2050 no G7 state will be European, he predicted. However, today the EU still produces 23 percent of world GDP and provides over 40 percent of social welfare. The EU countries as a whole are the largest trading partner for about 80 other countries, against, for example, 20 partners for the United States. That is why the EU remains a desirable partner for many, as seen in the recent EU trade agreement with Japan. Mr. Hahn noted that despite its economic magnitude, the EU has often downplayed its role; countries often think of their own economies rather than of the EU as a whole. However, given current global challenges, it is high time for the EU to take on a larger role in shaping the global policy agenda and move from being reactive to being proactive.

Commissioner Hahn stressed that in particular the EU should assume more responsibility in its “front yard,” the Western Balkans. Earlier this year the European Commission adopted a new Western Balkan Strategy. The strategy cements the EU’s unequivocal commitment to the European future of the region and is an impetus to bring EU enlargement back on the agenda, potentially as early as 2025. Some forces in the Western Balkans may flirt with alternatives to EU membership, the Commissioner remarked. Despite some misperceptions in the Western Balkans about support and the importance of external actors, such as Russia, China, and Turkey, the EU is still by far the biggest donor, trade partner, and investor in the region. Commissioner Hahn noted that a leitmotif of the EU is to “export stability in order to avoid importing instability.”

Though Commissioner Hahn emphasized that the door of the EU is open for the Western Balkans, he made it very clear that this does not imply a blank check and automatic accession in 2025. As their utmost priority, countries in the region need to tackle their weaknesses by, in particular, making observable progress in areas pertaining to the rule of law, fundamental rights, and the fight against corruption and organized crime. Only by getting these fundamentals right can countries in the region integrate successfully into the European Union—there are no shortcuts. Commissioner Hahn went on to touch upon developments in each of the six countries in the Western Balkans; the overarching message was the importance of the countries delivering on the reform agenda.

Elaborating on the importance of the reforms, Commissioner Hahn pointed out that accession negotiations are not an end in themselves but rather part of a wider process of modernization. Embracing this agenda is in the best interests of the citizens of the Western Balkan countries. Success in these reforms will also help to build the confidence of citizens of current member states in future EU enlargement. He also stressed the importance of connectivity in the areas of transport, energy (e.g., by supporting the Trans-Balkan Electricity Corridor) and digital services, which will bring countries in the Western Balkans closer to each other as well as to Europe.

Looking ahead, Commissioner Hahn concluded by emphasizing the importance of anchoring stability and security in countries that are direct neighbours of the EU and creating a “belt of prosperity” across the region.

The lecture was followed by a lively discussion with the audience, among whom were Members of Parliament from the Western Balkan countries. Addressing the question of how realistic the 2025 accession date is, the Commissioner expressed his optimism and conviction that having the clear date helped gain credibility and put positive pressure on both sides. Addressing the concerns of some EU member states that the date was too soon, Commissioner Hahn stressed that new member states should be viewed as a major asset rather than a financial burden. The EU has been debating how well-equipped it is to meet the challenges of a globalized world but it should be less inward-looking and in part turn its focus outward. The EU needs to better structure itself and put forward enlargement together. However, the Commissioner noted, the specified accession date is no guarantee and there will be no “free lunch.”

Asked about the misperceptions of citizens about the role of EU and other actors in the region, Commissioner Hahn said it was important to invest more in pro-European communication and improve public understanding of how the required reforms are going to benefit them and their countries. He brought up the example of Serbia, where opening the EU chapter negotiations immediately resulted in large foreign investment inflows—and not only from European companies. That sends a powerful signal of what EU accession means.

Asked about the role in the Western Balkans of other foreign powers, such as the U.S., China, and Russia, the Commissioner noted it had good relations with the U.S. State Department and there was a mutual understanding that the EU is in the lead in the region. With regard to the influence of China, he noted that this is a matter of ongoing internal discussion and competition is welcome as long as all sides play by the same rules; unfortunately, often unfair practices seen be observed here. Russia seems to have less interest in the region than in its eastern neighbors. The commissioner finished by emphasizing the mutual interests of the EU and the Western Balkans.

Maria Arakelyan, Senior Research Officer, JVI

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