Maintaining stability and security in and of the Western Balkans is vital for Europe. Due to its geopolitical characteristics the Western Balkans constitutes a natural political and economic resort for the European Union. With all this in mind the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Hungary organized a conference entitled „European Union and Western Balkans: Confidence and Continuity” on 23rd of February in Budapest to facilitate an in-depth discussion about the recent developments that impact the European prospects of the Western Balkans. The open panel of the conference took place in the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The event was opened by Ambassador Márton Schőberl, Director of IFAT and Mr. Frank Spengler, the Resident Representative of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Hungary. Ambassador Schőberl emphasised that the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade sought to create real added value for the professional discussion on international relations with a special focus on questions that are in the forefront of Hungarian foreign policy. The topic of European integration of the Western Balkans belongs to these questions. He maintained that the Visegrád countries shared similar experiences and mind-sets with Western Balkan countries, therefore, the Visegrád countries have always paid special attention to this region. This is especially true for Hungary as a neighbouring country of the region. The Director also mentioned that Germany as well – the Visegrád countries’ most important economic and one of their most important political partners – shows a particular attention in the happenings of this area. Finally, he expressed his gratitude towards KAS for co-organising the event and for keeping the issue of Western Balkan integration on the agenda.

In his welcome speech, Mr. Spengler emphasised that KAS cooperated with like-minded think thanks and institutions in many EU countries on the basis of joint interest and common values. He also stressed that KAS gives high priority to the Western Balkan region too, as does the German government through the Berlin process. He noted that the EU shall give a strategic priority to this region as well due to the many complex problems that it has to face. He further argued that there was a need for more cooperation and more comprehensive dialogues to enable friendly cooperation with each other in order to speed up the reform processes in the Western Balkan region. He asserted, however, that regional disputes shall be settled by the countries themselves to prevent future deteriorating situations.

After the welcoming speeches, Mr. István Mikola, Minister of State for Security Policy and International Cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary held his keynote speech in which headdressed the relationship between Hungary and the Western Balkans. He underlined that the Western Balkans has been a strategic priority for Hungary due to its geographical proximity and that Hungary invests a lot in order to maintain good ties and trade relations and to better understand the complex situation in these countries. The Minister of State also pointed out that the Western Balkan was important for whole of Europe, especially in terms of cooperation regarding fighting terrorism and energy issues. He also highlighted how important a stabilising factor the European perspective was, even though it was not a panacea for every problem of these states. He added that Hungary provided expertise for the Western Balkan countries and their administrations and he also stressed that Hungary supported the accession of Western Balkan countries to NATO and encouraged all NATO members to ratify the membership protocol concerning Montenegro’s accession as soon as possible since Western Balkan states are important and valuable partners in the fight against terrorism. He expressed his hopes for further cooperation in this matter within NATO. In connection with the current migration crisis that the EU has to face, the Minister of State drew attention to the continuing support of the Western Balkan countries in tackling illegal migration in the region.

After the keynote speeches, a panel discussion took place with the participation of Doris Pack, President of the Robert Schuman Institute, Aleksandra Joksimović, President of the Center for Foreign Policy (Serbia), Milica Kovačević, President of the Center for Democratic Transition from Montenegro and Prof. Dr. György Schöpflin, Hungarian Member of the European Parliament in the European Peoples’ Party. The discussion was moderated by Márton Ugrósdy, Strategic Deputy Director and Research Fellow of IFAT.

According to Doris Pack, the European Union has been working together with Western Balkan countries for a long time who have been promised to be able to join the EU if they meet the Copenhagen criteria. However, the political, economic and social circumstances within the EU has not become more favourable from the enlargement’s point of view since then. The 2004 accession round where a lot of new members joined the community has not been communicated in a constructive way to the societies of Europe and this could be abused by far right movements that were able to frame the 2004 accession round in their own negative way. She highlighted also that governments shall not forget to communicate to their people that „Brussels” is not just an entity on its own, but member states and governments which also have responsibility for the decisions, are represented as well in Brussels. Western Balkan countries are geographically in the middle of Europe, therefore, they belong to our community, and the EU has to help them to come closer. She further explained that every single country had its own uniqueness, however, the principles of rule of law, the fight against corruption, the protection of ethnic minorities mean the same everywhere. Everyone shall believe in the same principles, which is the guarantee for a mutually secure Europe.

Aleksandra Joksimović started with a rhetorical question whether we are facing the Europeanisation of the Western Balkans or the Balkanization of the EU. She underlined that the role model for candidate states – the EU itself and its European values – are jeopardised within the EU itself. She maintained that the Union had to be able to make member states continue to fulfil the criteria of EU treaties once they were inside the Community. She further elaborated on the issue that there was not enough support for the EU inside the EU since in Greece the level of support among the population was only 27%, and only 48% in France. Considering these circumstances, it is not easy to promote accession and all those reforms in the Western Balkan countries. However, she added that the good news was that the majority population in Serbia was supportive towards the EU. She also mentioned the issue of NATO membership and expressed that a crucial stability factor would be the NATO membership which was a first step towards the stability of the region.

Milica Kovačević claimed that Montenegro had chosen the alternative way of constructing Europe which had ended up in war, refugees and destroyed economies of former Yugoslavian members. Later, it was realised that the EU presented a good offer at the very beginning with EU involvement which on the one hand required a lot of commitment, but on the other hand, knowledge was invested in the region since the 1990s. She asserted that it would be a pity if that would be abandoned. She highlighted based on the previous speeches that the EU is the only democratic alternative for the region. She pointed out that alternative offers were threat to the region which could result in instability and war. She expressed her hope that Montenegro would become a NATO member by the end of the year. The president also mentioned that Montenegro really had to remain focused in order to be able to join the EU since the economy still has major problems. On the other hand, from a European point of view, neglecting the Balkan region will have detrimental effects immediately, not just on the Western Balkans but on the European Union as well.

According to Professor Schöpflin, the fragility of the Western Balkan region should be in the focus of disputes since the region is in a more fragile state than it had been 10 years ago. The attractiveness of the EU in the eyes of the Western Balkan countries declined. Previously, at the Thessaloniki summit there was only this road imaginable, hence everybody had the promise of accession. However, now there is a power gap, an authority gap in Europe in which Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia is also a player. He added that the fragility was the responsibility of the EU because soft power did not work well in the region. Professor Schöpflin maintained that the European method for conflict resolution was not the best. There will always be conflicts in this world, so it is not the existence of conflicts that is the problem, but rather how the EU tries to resolve them. He underlined that if the West acted correctly, potential conflicts could be resolved in long negotiations. The question is how the EU can balance the twelve new member states, which after ten years are no longer new ones. The West developed a system which was effective within member states and at a certain international level, but in 2004, former communist countries entered with different legacies, cultures and traumas which were not necessarily released. Westerners all have an imperialist past due to colonialism, yet those „new” countries did not have it, they were part of empires, which created a different set of fears and aspirations. In 2014, the Union said there will be no enlargement until a long time which is a mistake as they did not think through the unexpected consequences that this statement could cause.

After the speeches, the panellists reacted to the comments of each other and then the members of the audience could raise their questions which led to an intensive discussion about the accession process in general as well as about the future of the EU.