We need more and not less engagement with the Western Balkans during these unprecedented times. And we will continue our strong political and financial support to all partners in the Western Balkan region, including Serbia, on their path to EU membership. The EU counts on Serbia as a sincere partner that stands in support of our shared values, security and prosperity ~ Olivér Várhelyi
Speaking before the European Parliament on the eve of the recent adoption of the Resolution on the new EU enlargement strategy, also known as Picula’s report, European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi emphasised the importance of the part of the document that confirms that enlargement “remains a strategic investment in stability and prosperity on the European continent”.
Adopting the Resolution has caused concern in Serbia over assertions that link the imposing of sanctions against Russia not only to the country’s further progress on integration but also to Serbia’s access to European funds intended for candidate countries. Speaking in this interview for CorD Magazine, Várhelyi says that Serbia is considered as having made a strategic choice when applying for EU membership. And that decision implies the alignment of Belgrade’s foreign policy with that of the EU.
Commissioner Várhelyi, considering the latest annual EC report on Serbia, which assessments do you consider as being the most important and how will the report impact on the pace of Serbia’s further EU integration path?
Serbia made important advances on its EU accession path over the last year.
By now, 22 of the 35 chapters have been opened in the accession negotiations. With the opening of negotiations under Cluster 4, covering the Green agenda and sustainable connectivity, in December last year, following reform progress, including the constitutional reform in the area of the judiciary, Serbia really leapt forward.
In our latest report, we have also confirmed our assessment that Serbia has fulfilled the benchmarks to open Cluster 3 (Competitiveness and inclusive growth).
In addition to these developments, it is important to underline that Serbia’s progress on the rule of law is essential and will continue to determine the overall pace of accession negotiations. We are therefore looking forward to working with the new government to speed up these reforms.
In the current geopolitical context, it is also clear that Serbia needs to step up its efforts to align with EU positions on foreign policy, including declarations and sanctions, in line with the negotiating framework.
Finally, it is also necessary to make progress in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.
It was recently suggested, during discussions regarding the European Parliament’s Resolution on the new EU enlargement strategy, that Serbia’s further integration process should depend on the readiness of Belgrade to impose sanctions against Russia. How do you, in your capacity as enlargement commissioner, view this?
We need more and not less engagement with the Western Balkans during these unprecedented times. And we will continue our strong political and financial support to all partners in the Western Balkan region, including Serbia, on their path to EU membership.
When applying for EU membership, Serbia made a strategic choice to be part of our politically and economically integrated bloc. Serbia’s decision implies aligning its foreign policy with that of the EU.
The EU recognises that challenges need to be tackled in this context and we are helping Serbia to address certain challenges, but we also need Serbia to help us overcome the biggest European peace and security challenge since World War II
The EU recognises that challenges need to be tackled in this context, and we are helping Serbia to address certain challenges. Still, we also need Serbia to help us overcome the biggest European peace and security challenge since World War II. The EU is counting on Serbia as a sincere partner that stands in support of our shared values, security and prosperity.
Alongside the obligatory imposing of sanctions, as a new condition for the European integration process to continue, there is also increasingly vocal mentioning of the old condition: recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Considering evaluations from the new report on Serbia’s progress, which relate to the dialogue with Pristina, to what extent do current relations between Belgrade and Pristina serve to slow down Serbia’s EU integration process?
There are no ‘new conditions’. The negotiating framework with Serbia speaks very precisely about the achieving of the comprehensive normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo in the form of a legally binding agreement by the end of Serbia’s accession negotiations, with the prospect of both sides being able to fully exercise their rights and fulfil their responsibilities.
The normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, through the EU-facilitated dialogue, is essential for future peace and stability in the region. Progress on this dialogue also determines, together with the rule of law, the overall pace of EU accession negotiations with Serbia.
We expect both sides to engage more constructively in negotiations on the legally binding normalisation agreement in the coming period and that they both show a readiness to compromise to make rapid and tangible progress.
Early October saw the Czech Republic host the first meeting of the European Political Community (EPC), which brought together the leaders of the 27 EU member states and approximately 20 other states seen as potential EPC partners – from Iceland and the UK, via Ukraine and Moldova, to the Western Balkans. How should the EPC concept be properly understood?
The aim of the European political community is to offer a platform for high level political discussions between EU countries and neighbouring partners.
It was high time to have a platform that offers the opportunity for such a dialogue, where we can address the most burning issues of common interest to strengthen the European continent’s security, stability and prosperity.
It is feared in the Western Balkans that the EPC represents a kind of substitute for EU enlargement due to there currently being a lack of interest in enlargement within the EU, as evidenced by the many years of delays in advancing the status of North Macedonia and Albania, as well as the slow progress of Montenegro and Serbia. Do you think the EPC will influence the pace of accession negotiations with candidate countries?
As I mentioned, the European political community aims to offer a platform for high-level political discussions between European countries and partners and is not about replacing existing EU policies and instruments, including enlargement. I think this format provides a good opportunity to have a seat at the table to discuss issues of common interest to the whole continent.
There are no ‘new conditions’. The negotiating framework with Serbia speaks very precisely about the achieving of the comprehensive normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, in the form of a legally binding agreement by the end of Serbia’s accession negotiations, with the prospect of both sides being able to fully exercise their rights and fulfil their responsibilities
Moreover, besides being a good place to meet and discuss issues of common interest, it can also offer the opportunity to build trust and mutual understanding on specific issues between our Western Balkan Partners and EU Member States.
There is an impression in the region that the EPC has now prioritised the strengthening of ties between the EU and Ukraine, and perhaps Moldova, as opposed to the countries of the Western Balkans, which have been following stringent and complicated EU accession procedures for decades.
This is not the case.
In the last year, major developments have taken place on the EU Western Balkans enlargement agenda. For the first time since the revised enlargement methodology was applied, we opened a cluster of four chapters in one go with Serbia last December. July’s first intergovernmental conferences on accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia were a major breakthrough. This opened a new chapter in the EU’s enlargement policy. And in our last Enlargement Package, we recommended granting candidate status to Bosnia-Herzegovina on the understanding that a number of steps are taken.
There are no shortcuts to enlargement. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are subject to the same expectations in the accession process.
Joining the Union that’s been built on freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and the protection of fundamental rights remains a powerful vision for many citizens on our continent. We provide all our support to the countries to live up to these criteria. Our enlargement policy – based on strict but fair conditionality and the principle of one’s own merits – applies to anyone.
Even though the citizens of Western Balkan countries have been represented at the Conference on the Future of Europe, opinion polls conducted in these countries show a decline in the number of people who see the EU as their future home. For example, a survey conducted among the Serbian youth revealed that only 39% of young people support the country joining the EU, with 33% opposed and 28% undecided. How do you see these figures?
These surveys are perhaps important to some extent, but they do not ask the real questions: would you want the same living standards in Serbia as in the EU; would you want to use the opportunity existing within the EU? These questions might prompt completely different answers.
The surveys are perhaps important to some extent, but they do not ask the real questions: would you want the same living standards in Serbia as in the EU; would you want to use the opportunity existing within the EU? These questions might prompt completely different answers
The Serbian leadership has repeatedly confirmed the strategic objective of Serbia to join the EU. I welcome this decision and agree with it. This is the best option for Serbia to secure long-term peace and stability, including through the creation of a prosperous and successful economy and society. This is what we are working on. We need to show tangible benefits that are convincing for people. Reforms may be difficult, but they are in the interests of both Serbia and Serbian citizens. The EU is and will remain Serbia’s main political and economic partner and the country’s biggest donor.
According to the latest analysis of Carnegie Europe, the EU accession of Western Balkan countries has stalled due to both issues within the Union and within the region itself. It suggests that renewed commitment is required on both sides to break the current impasse. However, given the ongoing political and economic challenges caused by the war in Ukraine, is it realistic to expect such a commitment?
There is already such a commitment. Earlier this summer, EU leaders reconfirmed their full and unequivocal commitment to the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans. The European Council called for an acceleration of the accession process and for the further advancement of gradual integration between the European Union and the Western Balkans. A lot is being done to give effect to this call to accelerate the integration of the Western Balkans. For instance, through participation in EU programmes and agencies, through the implementation of Stabilisation and Association Agreements, the Economic and Investment Plan and inclusive regional cooperation frameworks, but also through the fostering of regional economic integration that can help establish bridges with the EU Single Market.
I look forward to making further breakthroughs in the Common Regional Market. We continue to show solidarity with our partners in the region and are providing support for their economic recovery, energy and food security, and for their society. For instance, in addition to our already extensive support on energy transition in the Economic and Investment Plan, we are now putting forward an Energy Support package for our Western Balkan partners worth one billion euros in order to provide support in the context of the current energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine.
The normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, through the EUfacilitated dialogue, is essential for future peace and stability in the region
The aim of the EPC is to offer a platform for high level political discussions between European countries and partners, and is not about replacing existing EU policies and instruments, including enlargement
Our enlargement policy – based on strict, but fair conditionality and the principle of one’s own merits – applies to anyone