After the keynote speech of Zsolt Németh, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian National Assembly, the panel discussion entitled “Hot Spots of the Western Balkans” took place with the moderation of László Dux, Head of the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy and Enlargement Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary. During the discussion special representatives from European countries as well as a representative of the Hungarian government expressed their views about the political and security situation in the Western Balkans and the future of the EU accession process of the countries concerned.

Haakon Blankenborg, Special Representative of Norway for the Western Balkans, explained the main reasons why Norway is strongly supporting the European Union’s (EU) enlargement towards the region. Firstly, Oslo welcomes the six countries’ ambitions to join. Secondly, Europe cannot afford itself to have “an enclave of relatively weak states” in the middle of the continent. Third, enlargement would be a mutually beneficial partnership. In his view, yet not willingly but Vladimir Putin has managed to unite Europe. Therefore, it is now urgent to support the reforms while also considering each country’s specificities and stop handling the Western Balkan countries as a block. Beyond essential political dialogue, the unique position of Norway, as a country who has implemented all common regulations of the EU, makes the Norwegian Government focus on reforms strengthening rule of law and institutions in each country to achieve a proper integration. The next institutional period is seen crucial, as well as the set of priorities which seems to be orientated in the right direction with the announcement of the opening accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina by the European Commission on the 12th of March. However, there is an urgent need to find new instruments to foster achievements based on principles. One of the main “hot spots” for Norway – the EU should also act creatively and focus on it – is the Kosovo–Serbia dialogue that has to succeed to make the integration tangible. Special Representative Blankenborg also emphasized that EU integration must be visible, and that alignment with the EU regulations should be faster than accession.

Márton Ugrósdy, Deputy State Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister’s Political Director, affirmed that the EU has proven to be the way to achieve peaceful coexistence in the past, which is undoubtedly what is needed right now. However, to calm the rising critics about EU double standards, the credibility of commitments regarding the integration process needs to be restored. The EU must decide whether it will pursue a merit-based approach or a geostrategic one. Hungary has always supported enlargement and now we are more ready than ever to do whatever it takes to integrate the countries concerned, since our security starts way ahead of the borders. Hungary provides political support to these states and has well embedded advisors in the region. Besides that, Deputy State Secretary Ugrósdy pointed out too that the world is changing fast, and thus the EU does not have another 20 years to waste. This is the reason why enlargement should be moved ahead as soon as it is possible. The biggest advantage of integration is being able to change political structures but now it cannot take several governments to implement reforms. The conditionality of the process needs to be clarified and concrete projects are needed rather than ultimatums. The upcoming European Parliamentary elections will not change a thing: the Hungarian EU Presidency will stay consistent about the integration of the Western Balkans and hopefully others will follow, even now that free trade agreements and visa agreements exist in the area, enlargement cannot be seen as appealing on the outside than it is on the inside.

Anžej Frangeš, Director-General of the Directorate for European Affairs and Special Envoy for the Western Balkans of the Republic of Slovenia, reminded the audience and fellow panellists that as a member of former Yugoslavia, Slovenia took a great interest in the Balkans’ EU integration. Slovenia’s role is to translate what is going on in the region but also furthermore to “translate emotions” which is taken very seriously. Enlargement is considered a key means to avoid atrocious events, experienced in the past. As Director-General Frangeš underlined, for Slovenia enlargement is not a black and white process: geostrategy and merit-based principles are not antinomic. Member states who are not ready to join the European Union should not be urged and each country needs its specific timeframe. During the last twenty years each Slovenian government has acted the same towards the Western Balkans, looking at the area as one of its priorities, not only because of the shared values and geography, but above all because of Slovenia’s self-interest in bilateral trade. The country has provided not only political but also technical support, by sending experts and helping with the region’s development. The momentum provided by Putin and the war in Ukraine is still there according to Director-General Frangeš and has created opportunities in countries where development is possible, especially in Montenegro: now we need success stories to move forward. He also highlighted Bosnia and Herzegovina as a positive example, which has made a lot of progress since it was granted candidate status. Nationalisms in the region have resulted in terrible events in the past, while the European perspective can keep the situation calm and address reconciliation. The perspective can also address the challenge of the development gap experienced in the Western Balkans and keeping the region away from losing several generations to the threat of “brain drain”. The latter phenomenon is seen as a major obstacle to future development.

René Troccaz, Special Envoy for the Western Balkans of France, recognized that even though in the past France was seen reluctant on the enlargement issue, Paris now holds a clear position and handles it as a priority. The war in Ukraine has urged France to reconsider its position. To properly succeed, two dimensions need to be considered: the internal tensions regarding identities and ethnicities, and the total of 17 million people living inside the six countries. Speeding up the enlargement process is now a priority for France as it was underlined by President Macron during the Bratislava Summit in 2023. In order to get this region closer, France has already engaged in concrete initiatives, like the joint initiative with Slovenia creating the Western Balkans Cyber Capacity Center in Podgorica. Speaking of numbers, the French Development Agency has invested more than 1 billion euros in the region’s six countries since 2019. Special Envoy Troccaz underlined that even though the public opinion has been fatiguing since 2003, it is the EU’s duty not only to offer benchmarks but provide clear signs and convince the Western Balkans’ public of a broader European perspective. Furthermore, the EU as a multinational entity can provide the right framework to overcome the difficult historical heritage and tensions in the region. In the era of uncertainties, the EU has to stay united on the European path and enlargement is heading this way.