Brussels (Brussels Morning) Slovenia assumes the Presidency of the EU with a very full agenda, but the enlargement aspirations of Western Balkan states is right at the top. Belgrade and Pristina have obvious differences over the status of Kosovo and negotiations over the course of the last year have come to a standstill. German minister Heiko Maas recently stated that the only viable path is an EU-mediated solution, with the prospect of EU membership playing a key role.
Damijan Fišer, the spokesperson for the new Slovenian Presidency began by telling us what he considers to be the concrete steps in beginning to solve this problem in the Balkans:
“As stated in its 6-month Presidency programme, Slovenia will make every effort to ensure continuation of the enlargement process with the Western Balkan partners in accordance with the revised enlargement methodology. Enlargement is one of the fundamental levers for reform processes in the Western Balkans and we will support progress in the resolution of open security and political issues in the region, such as the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, where Slovenia fully supports the facilitation of EUSR Lajčak.”
Mr Fišer emphasised the necessity of ongoing discussion: “In a recent presentation of the priorities of the Slovenija Presidency at the European Parliament AFET committee (14 July), Slovenian minister of foreign affairs, Dr Anže Logar, stressed that the EU-facilitated Belgrade–Pristina dialogue remains key and both countries need to constructively engage in the dialogue, to achieve a comprehensive legally binding agreement in accordance with international law and the EU acquis.”Slovenia has put the enlargement process as the highest priority during its chairmanship of the EU, while Albania and North Macedonia are looking for a breakthrough. Despite the obvious tension between Sofia and Skopje – that effectively resulted in a standstill for North Macedonia – Mr Fišer is confident that the Slovenian Presidency can make a difference over the next six months:
“Strengthening the European perspective and sustainable development of the Western Balkans will be a central task during the Slovenian Presidency, which will place particular emphasis on continuing the enlargement and stabilisation and association processes with the Western Balkans partners. An emphasis will be on adopting the negotiating frameworks for the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Albania.”
It is seen as very much a process which continues to build on results:
“As stated by Minister Logar in the AFET committee, in line with the March 2020 Council conclusions, the Slovenian Presidency is committed to continue the work required for the formal opening of accession negotiations with Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia, as soon as possible. It is important to ensure that the enlargement process continues with other countries of the region – the political Intergovernmental Conference with Serbia and Montenegro marked a milestone, being the first such meeting held under the enhanced enlargement methodology.”
Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia are seeking membership of the Schengen zone – something Mr Fišer says the Presidency is very much in support of; but he accepts there is still much work to be done on:
“The Slovenian presidency will add the point on the Schengen enlargement to the agenda of the meeting of interior ministers as and when there is a consensus in the Council of the EU. In our assessment, there is not yet a consensus between Member States.
“In addition, a few weeks ago the Commission presented the new Schengen strategy, at the same time the revision of the Schengen evaluation mechanism has been proposed. By the end of the year, the Schengen Borders Code will be presented. During its Presidency, Slovenia’s goal is to thouroughly discuss within the Council the proposed legislative acts with the aim to returning to the full functioning of a stronger, more robust Schengen area without internal border controls, that is equipped for the challenges ahead.
The recent leak of a non-paper authored in Ljubljana advocating the redrawing of borders in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is not formal Slovene policy, is not a matter that the Presidency spokesperson wished to comment on:
“Slovenia’s policy towards Western Balkans and Bosnia remains unchanged. Slovenia fully supports the European perspective of the Western Balkans and territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states in the Western Balkans.
“Speaking on behalf of the Council in the European Parliament plenary in Strasbourg in July, Minister Logar stressed that the Council stands firmly by its unequivocal commitment to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU perspective as a single, united and sovereign country. He also reiterated the 14 key priorities identified in Commission’s opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s application for EU membership.
Mr Fišer said the priorities for the Western Balkans during the Slovenian Presidency were clear:
“Slovenia will pay special attention to the Western Balkans and to this end host the EU-Western Balkans summit in Slovenia on 6 October. Over and above, the EU needs to give a boost to the enlargement aspiration of the Western Balkans and enlargement should again become one of the EU’s strategic priorities, or else the influence of other powers in the region will increase, to the EU’s detriment. There are two levels here: on one hand, a credible continuation of the EU enlargement process needs a boost.”
Enlargement is not just seen as a technical issue by the Presidency:
“(It is) a highly political, (even geopolitical, one and thus important in the context of the discussion on the Future of Europe. The EU’s geopolitical ambitions can only be realised with stable Western Balkans with European perspective. At the same time, the EU must focus on deepening of cooperation with the region in the areas of mutual interest.”
Mr Fišer says the Presidency will direct the Council of the EU towards continuing the process of EU enlargement, to foster the European perspective of the countries in the region:
“In addition, it will focus its efforts on economic recovery in the Western Balkan states and will work to strengthen the region’s resilience in the field of cybersecurity, improve connectivity, implement the Green Agenda and ensure a positive perspective for young people.”
The Presidency will also aim to include the region’s partner countries in the initiatives of the common security and defence policy:
“The Western Balkans should also be mentioned as a geographical priority in the area of home affairs. The aim will be to strengthen cooperation with partners in the region regarding among others the transposition of EU standards, provide support for migration management and strengthen police cooperation in the areas of terrorism, environmental crime, prevention and investigation of online child abuse and exploitation, and cross-border tracing of missing children and other missing persons.”