by Alexandra Brzozowski
Western Balkans representatives should join their EU counterparts more regularly to align with the bloc’s common foreign and security policy, according to a non-paper on “deeper cooperation” with the region, produced by a group of EU countries and seen by Euractiv.
“We call on EU institutions to present a clear agenda for gradual and accelerated integration with concrete implementation steps until 2024 and beyond,” Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Slovakia, and Slovenia wrote in the document they circulated ahead of a joint ministerial meeting with the six Western Balkan countries in Brussels.
The discussion paper was initiated by Austria, a staunch advocate of enlargement, who had actively lobbied for similar steps before and launched the “Friends of the Western Balkans” group earlier this summer.
“Enhanced cooperation would make us more effective in facing external pressures and countering Russian and other harmful narratives in the region that are incompatible with EU values and a rules-based international order,” the non-paper stated.
With the region facing foreign interference, disinformation and illegal migration, the EU ministers argue about the need to “establish a more regular and structured exchange with our partners following established EU procedures and policies”.
This would include an invitation to Western Balkans ministers to join formal and informal EU Foreign Affairs Council meetings “at least once per semester” and the countries’ ambassadors to join informal meetings with their counterparts in the Political and Security Committee (PSC) “on topics of common interest at least once per semester.”
Alignment of EU candidate countries with the bloc’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) is one of the prerequisites for joining the bloc.
According to the document, the EU’s diplomatic service EEAS could moreover “provide tailor-made Lines to Take (LTTs) upon request” to Western Balkan ministers ahead of meetings with third countries to align positions with that one of the EU.
The increased alignment effort would also come with “more regular and coordinated visits” to the region on behalf of the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell and more regular exchanges for diplomats and civil servants.
The discussion paper came just before EU foreign ministers were due to meet their counterparts from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia on Monday (13 November) and were expected to discuss the next steps in their alignment with the bloc’s foreign and security policy.
Euractiv understands the idea has found ample support in the region, with some of the Western Balkans six having raised the issue publicly and privately over the past year.
Some Western Balkans ministers had earlier voiced frustration about moving goalposts in the EU’s enlargement process and argued in favour of bringing the region on a gradual path of ‘progressive’ integration – with access to the EU’s single market and in various policy fields like energy or transport – before actual accession to the bloc.
“We will have a separate meeting with the Western Balkans [Foreign Affairs] Ministers in order to show how important this region is, to discuss the recent proposals of the [European] Commission for enlargement, to insist on the need of following closer our foreign policy,” the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said ahead of the meeting.
“Some countries have not a bright record on alignment with our foreign policy and sanctions,” Borrell added.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the EU imposing eleven rounds of economic sanctions on Moscow, countries like Serbia and Turkey have so far resisted fully aligning with the bloc’s policy.
The EU-Western Balkans ministerial meeting comes a week after the European Commission published its annual enlargement progress reports and a few weeks before EU leaders are expected to meet their counterparts from the region at an EU-Western Balkans summit in mid-December.
*first publlished in: Euractiv.com