It is good to remember that the European Union is expanding. Accession negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia are underway. Northern Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina have applied for membership. Kosovo is on the road to the EU. Turkey is still a candidate country, although the accession negotiations are not progressing now.
Enlargement will, therefore, be towards the Western Balkans. The European Union, after the wars in Yugoslavia, offered every country in the region a prospect of EU membership. The policy is consistent: the Western Balkans is not an EU neighbourhood but at the heart of Europe. The EU must keep its commitment, as the region is also interested in Russia and China.
The countries of the Western Balkans want to become members of the EU, and in many countries, the aspirations of membership combine the otherwise divided political field. However, EU membership requires strict conditions and their fulfilment is closely monitored.
The road to membership is long, and the negotiations take years. Each country’s progress is monitored separately. Enlargement must be implemented in a way that strengthens the whole of the Union.
Joining the EU requires a lot of work, but the work will benefit the citizens of the applicant countries even before they join. Compliance with membership conditions improves societies, whether it is raising environmental legislation to EU standards or creating a functioning market economy. Enlargement policy gives the EU a unique leverage effect, and enlargement will strengthen the EU as a global actor.
In the future, the candidate countries must pay more attention to the rule of law. Every Western Balkan country has much to improve. Stepping up the fight against corruption and organised crime and improving freedom of expression are at the top of the list. The responsibility lies primarily with the political leaders of the applicant countries. The EU rightly emphasises the reforms of the rule of law sector in meeting the conditions for membership. For the sake of credibility, the EU must also take care of the rule of law within the Union.
Western Balkans has a rich and long history, which often leads the agenda. The focus must be turned into the future. Here, young people are the key. When I travelled by train in the Western Balkans last summer, I met a lot of young people with a strong European identity and a desire to participate in the development of the European Union. Also, in view of the future of these young people, the role of the EU in the Western Balkans would be strengthened, and the outlook for EU membership would remain. At the same time, there is a need to invest in student exchanges and links between civil societies.
Exit also involves reconciliation. Even though the burden of history weighs, difficult disputes can be solved. The agreement reached between Greece and northern Macedonia on the naming struggle between countries is an indication of this. Next, the eyes will turn to Serbia and Kosovo, which should finally normalise their relations.
Turkey’s accession negotiations have been in deep trouble in recent years. The country’s rule of law and the reforms related to the EU’s convergence have not progressed. Some areas have worryingly progressed backwards. It will not be possible to continue the accession negotiations with Turkey unless a new approach is seen in the reform policy.
Finland has experience in developing relations between the EU and Turkey. The EU must continue its dialogue and cooperation with Turkey. There will also be challenging and sensitive topics involved in the discussion. Migration cooperation with Turkey is essential, but the EU and Turkey also need a new and broader strategic approach in their collaboration.
Next week the Finnish EU Presidency will also employ issues related to enlargement. Montenegro’s and Serbia’s accession negotiations continue. EU member states decide whether to open accession negotiations with northern Macedonia and Albania. Finland supports these steps.
The work needed for the integration of the Western Balkans will continue, and it suits us. In recent decades, Finns have been active in promoting the peace and stability in the Western Balkans – as mediators of peace, peacekeepers and numerous international missions. A stable and prosperous Western Balkans is an asset for Finland.
translated by CorD
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