Fleckenstein: Western Balkan countries need more support

Knut Fleckenstein [Wikipedia]

Western Balkans countries need to fully implement EU-related reforms, Knut Fleckenstein told EURACTIV. However, the tough economic situation has made it difficult for them to do so.

Knut Fleckenstein is Vice-President of the Socialists and Democrats. He spoke to EURACTIV Greece’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

The Albanian premier recently talked in favor of the “unification of Albanians from Albania and Kosovo”. How can such statements accelerate Tirana’s EU path? Have you talked about it with Edi Rama?

The statements by the Albanian prime minister, which you are referring to, were received with a lot of astonishment by myself and my colleagues in the European Parliament. It is clear to me that they were addressed to a local audience and (were) highly influenced by the tense pre-election climate in Albania before the local elections on 21 June. Nevertheless, such statements are certainly not helpful in highlighting Albania’s hitherto very constructive role on regional stability and cooperation. and I have therefore discussed them with the prime minister.

Has the Greek economic crisis affected the path of Albania, and of the Western Balkans in general, towards EU integration?

The Greek economic crisis has not affected the actual procedure according to which accession to the EU will take place. However, it has undeniably had an impact on public perceptions of EU enlargement in general. Today, EU citizens are more concerned about future accessions. As elected representatives, we have to take this into account. At the same time, it is our duty to find political answers that show that we can do both – strengthen our EU-internal economic and social prosperity and solidarity – and offer to share it with those neighbours who wish to contribute to it as well.

What is the main challenge, in your view, regarding the FYROM’s EU future? How can it get over the serious political turmoil it has been through?

The current situation in the FYROM first of all requires a thorough and independent investigation of all allegations arising from leaks exposing mass surveillance in the country. Secondly, the country needs to be more committed to implementing substantial reforms that strengthen the independence of the judiciary and the media. [In recent weeks], the citizens of the FYROM have shown their discontent and despair with the current state of the country. The demonstrations underline the citizens’ wish to live in a democratic country whose political, economic and social life is based on the rule of law.

The European Commission has decided that no enlargement will take place during the next five years. Do you think this has discouraged EU-hopeful states?

Yes, I believe that Juncker’s statement according to which “no further enlargement will take place over the next give years” was indeed unfortunate. It caused a lot of unease in the Western Balkans, despite some reassuring statements that followed. It also caused unease to all those who are committed to an active EU enlargement policy. My social democratic colleagues in the European Parliament and I were among the first to criticise such an approach to enlargement policy in the new Commission.

It is crucial that the countries of the Western Balkans fully implement the necessary EU-related reforms. They need to do their homework. However, the difficult economic situation has visibly reduced the countries’ capacity to implement ambitious economic and also political reforms. This, in turn, makes it more difficult to fulfill the EU’s accession criteria. But it is important to avoid a serious backslide in the reform momentum and to counter the “enlargement fatigue” in the EU member states and the “accession fatigue” in some of the candidate countries.

Recent developments clearly show that the Western Balkan countries need more support in order to maintain the reform momentum over the next five years. Therefore, I believe that we need to continue offering an active and committed EU enlargement policy.

Serbia does not participate in the EU sanctions against Russia, and part of the political elite in Belgrade allegedly seeks closer ties with Moscow. Can the Russian factor slow Serbia’s way toward the EU?

The speed of Serbia’s EU accession process will solely be determined by the speed with which the necessary EU-related reforms will be implemented. On the other hand, it is also true that as an EU member state Serbia will be bound by common EU positions on foreign policy issues. The current leadership should be aware of this. Other candidate countries have already been aligning their foreign policy on the EU now. Albania is a very good example for that.

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