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'2025 is ambitious for Western Balkans to join EU'

Barbara Wesel
April 17, 2018

Tensions in the Western Balkans can only be overcome if all countries in the region join the European Union, says enlargement chief Johannes Hahn. The EU's door should remain open for Turkey, he told DW.

West Balkan flas aside an EU flag
Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot/Qian Yi

DW: Looking at the new progress reports for the Western Balkans, who are the frontrunners in this process, which is not as easy as some people might think?

Johannes Hahn: I have to admit I don't like the term "frontrunner," because it might indicate something different, but I suppose you refer to Serbia and Montenegro. They are usually called frontrunners, because those are the two countries which have already started negotiations with us. But if I look at the six countries in the region, I can fortunately say there is more or less focus everywhere.

Read more: Opinion: Western Balkans have a place in the European Union

Where is this progress in detail? 

It's in the [areas] of rule of law, the fight against corruption, economic development. But what we would like to see is a sustainable track record in particular areas. So that's why I prefer to speak about a process, not simply about negotiations, because it's not only to tick the box saying we have adopted this law, but it's about how it is implemented. And here we would like to see more progress in the fight against corruption, a stronger, more independent, more transparent judiciary. Albania, for instance, has adopted a very comprehensive judicial reform, and now we are already in the implementing phase. 

Which are the two countries where you think, "We do have a lot of problems," and you look at them with a certain misgiving?

Johannes Hahn
Johannes Hahn has been the EU commissioner for enlargement since 2014Image: DW/B. Riegert

I wouldn't say misgiving, but it's no secret that Bosnia-Herzegovina is still a huge challenge, because the situation there is even more complicated than in the neighboring countries. And Kosovo is another area where we have to see how the dialogue with Serbia continues. [There] must be a legally binding agreement for both [on Serbia and Kosovo's] relationship. On the other hand, if you take Kosovo, we all appreciate that they could adopt a necessary legal provision settling the border conflict with Montenegro. After two and a half years this is definitely due to the European perspective.

Read more: Scenarios to end Kosov and Serbia's frozen conflict

Speaking of conflict, how hopeful are you for an agreement between Macedonia and Greece on the dispute over the use of the name "Macedonia?"

I'm very confident that in the next couple of weeks there could be an agreement. I think they have now moved to a new page in their relationship. Also the relationship between Skopje and Sofia has improved; they have now agreed a good neighborly agreement. I think the new government in Skopje is doing a good job. I also appreciate that the opposition is now in a much more constructive mode, has returned to parliament, is participating in political life and in particular towards the overall goal: the European perspective. 

On the problems of Hungaryand the anti-democratic process that's unrolling there: With the rise of nationalism in Serbia, for instance, and the close connection between Serbia and Hungary, don't you foresee that we are buying into many more problems in the future that we can't handle as the European Union?

A map shows the Western Balkans and their relationship to the EU

Now first and foremost, there's an overall understanding outside and inside the region that many of the tensions and difficulties can only be overcome if all parts of this region are members of the union. The situation as a whole can only be settled and improved if there is this European perspective. And this is also why, we are looking at all this in the process [of EU accession], meaning countries have to prove, to testify to us, that they are making progress also in terms of cultural, political change. And this includes not to be nationalistic, not to be populist, but to contribute to the bigger European project.

Read more: Western Balkans joining EU would be wrong move for wrong reasons

But if push comes to shove, don't we need tougher instruments on the side of the Europeans to force people?

Our toughest instrument is the negotiations. I always say: We have some leverage before starting negotiations; we have a lot of leverage during the negotiations. And we see, unfortunately, we have almost no leverage after accession. And we have learned our lesson: We care a lot about the process during the negotiations. That's why it will probably take some time. For instance, the negotiations and the process with Croatia took seven to eight years. So it's about seeing if a country is making sustainable progress in the right direction.

Is 2025 realistic for the Western Balkan states to join the EU?

It sounds and looks far away, but it would mean completing negotiations in 2023. It's doable, but it's very ambitious.

Read more: My Europe: How realistic is 2025 for the Western Balkans?

The EU has begun using tough language on Turkish political developments, and how the country is gradually moving away from the European Union, instead of coming closer.

Indeed. [When it comes to] so-called European standards, which we apply to a candidate country, we have to admit that Turkey is backsliding in the areas of rule of law, judiciary, transparency, freedom of expression. This has been clearly spelled out in our [progress] report.

Read more: EU: Turkey's membership hopes at an all time low

So there really is no hope? But you still keep on saying: "Let's keep the accession negotiations alive, let's not close the door on Turkey." 

I think "not close the door" is the right picture. Due to an agreement amongst member states, there is an understanding not to open any new chapters, to adjust the pre-accession financing to the current stage of play. This is where we are. On the other hand, I think it would not be wise to close doors, having in mind that a huge share of people in Turkey are very much still oriented towards Europe, they expect our support — No matter if it's with a European perspective or if it's generally about democracy, rule of law, etc. And at the end of the day, Turkey's a very important neighbor for Europe, and we are both well-advised to have good and normal neighborly relations.