On the 28th February 2019, the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung held their 3rd Western Balkans Conference. The event focused on economic cooperation and its role in European integration, and how other actors like Germany and Hungary could support the process. The conference entitled “Through Business to Integration” provided a great opportunity for experts, decision-makers and representatives of the business community to share their ideas and concerns related to this topic in the framework of both closed and public panel discussions.

The public segment of the conference took place at IFAT, where the director of the institute, Márton Ugrósdy, welcomed the guests. Mr. Ugrósdy began by underlining the need to form more ambitious, but also realistic goals, in terms of the integration of new EU member states. He expressed his hope that the new European Parliament would promote enlargement and consider it beneficial for the community. In his welcome speech, the resident representative of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Hungary, Frank Spengler, emphasised that an enlargement based on common values and interests would develop both the economic relations and the security level of the region as well as the European Union.

The opening speech was held by Péter Szijjártó, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary, in which he emphasised the importance of the conference as a future enlargement of the EU – by the integration of the Southeast European countries – would be highly beneficial for both the region and the Union. “Our interest is the European Union to be strong again. […] The more we are, the stronger we are.”- Minister Szijjártó pointed out. The EU is currently undergoing a transformation which ought to include the accession of the Western Balkan countries to the community, as well as moving out of its current deadlock. To strengthen the Union, Hungary and the V4 countries should urge the European institutions to consider enlargement as a solution to the current challenges it is facing, including terrorism, economic hardships, and migration. The acceleration of the accession process is necessary to ensure credible support to those political actors in the region that are engaged towards the European Union.

After the speech of the Minister, the programme continued with a panel discussion entitled “Connecting EU and the Western Balkans – the Berlin Process and beyond”. Representing Montenegro, Serbia, Germany and Hungary, the panellists highlighted the EU-Western Balkans relations from various perspectives. In his opening footnote, the moderator of the panel, Norbert Beckmann-Dierkes, resident representative of KAS in Serbia, Montenegro, underlined that our image of Europe should not only cover the EU member states but also the neighbouring countries with which the EU shares many cultural and historical heritage in its variety. The Berlin process launched in August 2014 was an important initiative in that direction.

Montenegro’s chief negotiator with the EU, Aleksandar Drljević, explained that it is significant not only to Montenegro, but to the entire EU to let the Western Balkans retake the place it once had in the circulation of Europe. EU accession enjoys high public support in Montenegro and the citizens expect responsible behaviour from the EU side as well. It would be the project of public interest to act responsibly and dedicate to the joint efforts of building out interregional infrastructure and cooperation.

Vesna Marković, the member of the National Assembly of Serbia added, to maintain the fragile stability in such a conflict-torn region as the Balkan Peninsula, cooperation is the most important tool they have. Nevertheless, she pointed out that the process of decision-making and implementation related to the Berlin process is not transparent enough. Regarding the future EU enlargement policy, she believed that the turnout on EP elections will be a key factor.

Doris Pack, the President of the Robert Schuman Institute, warned that we should use the term Southeast Europe instead of “the Balkans” to cut out the stereotypes concerning this territory. Unfortunately, many local politicians strengthen such perceptions through their rhetoric. Despite this, she did not agree with those who believed that EU internal reforms should come first. She strongly emphasised that the integration of the region is in the interest of the EU as well. At the same time, she also added that setting deadlines might not help, but instead be represented as unkept promises. Furthermore, she underlined the importance of real reconciliation and warned the dangers that solutions through ethnic division could bring.

Zsolt Németh, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian National Assembly took a historical perspective, reminding that since 1989, Europe has been in the process of reintegration, but it is still not over. Having the given geopolitical situation, Central Europe has a very important role as a mediator in the process of integrating the Western Balkans, not only on the political field, but also with the aid of deeply rooted business cooperation. He also mentioned that the current economic system could be refreshed best through the integration of the Southeast European economies. In that case, the drain of young labour force from the region would stop, and it would also mean a competition to the Turkish, Chinese and Russian investors that are more and more active in the Balkan region. However, Mr. Németh drew attention to that currently, the position of President Macron is the mainstream that is a challenge to the enlargement of the European Union.

To conclude, everyone agreed on that deepening business integration with the Western Balkans region and encouraging respectful and reasonable negotiations on a future membership in the EU would only bring on positive effects for all involved.