Commissioner Hahn: The Bulgarian EU presidency has made an excellent contribution to strengthening the momentum for the EU’s enhanced engagement with the Western Balkans8 June 2018 | 11:09 | Focus News Agency
Commissioner Hahn, how do you evaluate the work of the Bulgarian Presidency until now? Do you see a difference between it and the other presidencies, and if so – what is it?
From my perspective as Commissioner in charge of the enlargement process, the Bulgarian Presidency has made an excellent contribution to strengthening the momentum for the EU's enhanced engagement with the Western Balkans. The summit in Sofia organised by the Presidency – the first one since 2003 bringing together all EU and Western Balkans leaders – was a truly historic event. I think Bulgaria's proximity to the Western Balkans, your expertise and a certain 'feeling' and understanding of the region and its challenges has certainly helped to make this summit a success. I am glad that also my home-country Austria, which will take over the Presidency on 1 July lists the EU perspective of the Western Balkans as a priority. So, there is continuity regarding this important process.
As Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement, do you think that at the end of the Bulgarian Presidency, the Western Balkans are closer to their accession to the EU?
I think we are now better equipped to make this a reality – including in terms of detailed action plans on how to bridge the many existing gaps and challenges. The Sofia declaration, agreed by the EU leaders and with which the Western Balkans partners aligned themselves, reaffirmed the EU's unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans and the fact that the EU will strengthen support to the region's political, economic, and social transformation.
But let me be clear: there are no shortcuts. The ball is in the court of the countries that wish to join – they need to vigorously implement the necessary reforms: not for ''Brussels'', but for their citizens in the first place.
Our country has done a lot to open a discussion on the problems of the Western Balkans, but what are the risks for this process to end with the declarations?
Much work lies ahead for the countries to be in a position to meet the conditions and criteria for EU membership. It is key the leaders in the region assume responsibility for making this historic opportunity a reality, we need to see strong political will, the delivery of real and sustained reforms, and definitive solutions to disputes with neighbours. It is also important to involve all national actors, like civil society, stakeholders, businesses. But of course, the European Union has also to prepare for Enlargement. Not only in institutional and financial terms, but also by acknowledging tangible progress as in the case of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania with whom the European Commission recommends to open negotiations.
The EU-Western Balkans summit is undoubtedly historic and symbolic. But after that, what is the road map for this region?
The summit stressed the importance of the Western Balkans' continued commitment to the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organised crime, good governance, as well as respect for human rights and rights of persons belonging to minorities. The effective implementation of reforms in these areas as well as strengthening democratic institutions, public administration reform, progress on socio-economic reforms and finding solutions for bilateral disputes are key for the region's further progress along the European path.
The leaders also discussed how to improve connectivity and links with and within the Western Balkans region, as spelled out in the Sofia priority agenda. New measures have been agreed for enhanced cooperation in the areas of transport, energy security, digital economy, business climate, opportunities for youth.
The European Commission remains committed to helping the region in all these efforts. Our recent Strategy for the Western Balkans sets out an Action Plan with six flagship initiatives targeting specific areas of common interest, with as many as 57 concrete actions to be implemented by 2020.
How will the European Commission and the European institutions help for overcoming the problems stemming from the Balkans’ grim historical legacy? How can they, the institutions, get involved in the integration of this region into the EU?
The European Union itself is based on a desire to overcome a terrible legacy of the past. Having been involved in the bloodiest war of human history, they decided to cooperate. It is by learning to work together that you can build a foundation for reconciliation. I hope that the countries of the Western Balkans, which want to join the EU, can be inspired by that lesson from the past.
Nationalistic and violent rhetoric is never helpful and should be avoided. This is not how you can build bridges between countries and societies. And it is not in the spirit of the European Union, which is based on sharing common values, while protecting the richness of its diversity. All countries must work even harder on reconciliation and ensure good neighbourly relations. As President Juncker said: no country will be able to join the Union with open border or any kind of other neighbourly conflict.
The EU will continue to support this process with all means at its disposal.
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