April 19. 2024. 9:41

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EU-Western Balkans partnership is more important than ever

Finland has a long-standing strong interest in the Western Balkans and supports its partners there in their European journey. But we also expect them to align fully with the EU’s foreign and security policy and uphold human rights and the rule of law, writes Pekka Haavisto.

Enlargement policy has returned to the forefront of the EU’s geopolitical toolbox. Since last year, we have had three new candidate countries, the membership negotiation process has been kick-started with Albania and North Macedonia, and in recent weeks Serbia and Kosovo have taken positive steps towards normalizing their relations.

EU shows its continued commitment to the Western Balkans in helping to build resilient and sustainable societies in the region that stands up for European core values. These values – human rights, democracy, and the rule of law – need also to be reflected in foreign policy and the reactions towards Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine.

Last year and these past months, we have witnessed many important decisions.

Firstly, our partners, Ukraine, Moldova and Bosnia and Herzegovina were granted the status of EU candidate country in 2022. We hope Georgia can take the agreed steps and follow soon.

Secondly, the membership negotiation process began with Albania and North Macedonia – a great relief and much overdue.

Kosovars, for their part, took a historic step in December by submitting their application for membership in the European Union. EU also reached an agreement to grant visa freedom to Kosovo, which comes into effect no later than January 2024.

In Lake Ohrid, on 18 March Serbia and Kosovo reached an accord on the implementation of their February 27 Agreement on the Path to Normalization of Relations, through European Union facilitation. This is a major step and its implementation will be tracked within the EU paths of both parties.

Montenegro, a frontrunner in the enlargement process, also held presidential elections, after some turmoil in recent months.

Finland welcomes these steps. Our minds are now on efforts to support Ukraine in every way we can. We have also not forgotten our partners in the Western Balkans – at the heart of Europe.

Finland has a long-standing strong interest in the region and its well-being. Many of Finland’s most well-known political leaders have played a significant role in the Balkans: Elisabeth Rehn, Harri Holkeri and Olli Rehn, and of course President Martti Ahtisaari.

I too could work in the Balkans from 1999-2005 for UNEP, investigating the environmental impacts of the conflicts.

These ties have helped Finland build a commitment to peace and stability in the Western Balkans. Our support for the Western Balkans in their European path remains strong. We have been helping them to meet the EU criteria in many ways, for example through twinning projects.

When the applicant countries have done their share to meet the criteria, there should be no excuses to delay the process from the EU side. Bilateral issues should not be made part of the EU enlargement process or negotiations.

It is clear that the cooperation and unity between the EU and the Western Balkans are beneficial and valued.

A significant demonstration of the EU’s commitment is the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, which aims to mobilize close to 30 billion euros for the region’s development.

Recently, the EU also put forward an Energy Support Package of 1 billion for the region, in an effort to reduce dependence on Russian energy sources, accelerate decarbonisation and improve energy security. The EU is investing billions in areas such as green and digital economies. This is the future – the EU brings the future.

With these efforts, the EU helps our partners build sustainable societies that are resilient against different kinds of hybrid threats.

Within the framework of the Berlin Process, new agreements were made last year towards a Common Regional Market facilitating travelling within Western Balkans and employment across borders. The region is already a roaming-free zone, and as of October 2023, data roaming prices between Western Balkans and the EU will be reduced significantly.

Today, standing up for our core values is more important than ever. Rule of law is the cornerstone of a stable and well-functioning democratic society.

I find it worrying that, as stated in the latest Enlargement Package of the European Commission, we have seen little progress in the core areas of rule of law and the fundamentals in several enlargement countries.

The European Union stands for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. These values apply to both candidate countries as well as member states.

Values are also reflected in our foreign policy. Several partners in the Western Balkans – Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo – have fully aligned themselves with EU’s sanctions against Russia, thereby increasing the price of Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine.

We expect both Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (specifically, Republika Srpska) to fully align their foreign and security policies with those of the EU. Not only is this an obligation of the EU candidate country but also a clear message in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and against an illegal and unacceptable war.

The EU does not have any hidden agenda. The benefits and responsibilities of EU membership are clear. Indeed, the EU and the Western Balkans are already strongly interlinked. The citizens of the six Western Balkan countries benefit in many ways from the same advantages as the EU members.

For example, out of the 25 key EU programs benefitting citizens, such as Erasmus + and Horizon Europe, 20 are already open to our Western Balkan partners.

In many Western Balkan countries, popular support towards EU membership remains robust. This support however should not be taken for granted. To reach the citizens of Western Balkan countries we need the governments and civil society in the region.

All our partners, and the union, must work against malign influences and narratives distorting the image of a unified Europe. To remain strong, we must present a unified front, together building a better future for all our citizens.