Recent progress on Balkan enlargement due to Vienna’s efforts, minister says

Recent progress on Balkan enlargement due to Vienna’s efforts, minister says

In an interview with EURACTIV, Karoline Edtstadler, Austrian Federal Minister for the European Union and the Constitution, said that the pressure exerted by Austria at the last meeting of European leaders not to neglect the aspirations of the countries Western Balkans keen to join the bloc, as Brussels recently accepted applications from Ukraine and Moldova, has added positive momentum for this region long held in the waiting room.

At the last EU leaders’ meeting in June, where member states granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, Austria called for not neglecting the Western Balkans and tried to make hear their voice.

“The concrete prospect for Bosnia and Herzegovina to obtain candidate status, the compromise between Bulgaria and North Macedonia and the holding of the first accession conference with Albania and North Macedonia are important results of these efforts”she explained.

Since accession to the European Union is a long and difficult process, Austria also supports France‘s efforts to set up a “European political community” which would allow the gradual integration of the candidate countries even before they officially join the Union.

Last June, Austria circulated a document among EU member states leading some to believe it was trying to alter the bloc’s membership process, which Vienna has denied.

“Austria has proposed a ‘gradual integration’ of candidate countries in important policy areas on the way to full membership”said Ms. Edtstadler.

“This means that the EU enlargement process should bring concrete benefits to candidate countries from the start[du processus d’adhésion]»she continued.

Balkan power vacuum fosters foreign influence

According to Edtstadler, if the EU fails to give a clear perspective to the Western Balkan countries, it could open the doors to influence from other foreign actors.

Austria has long been one of the strongest advocates of Western Balkan countries joining the EU and maintains close historical, economic and cultural ties with the region.

“If Europe leaves a void here, Russia, China or Turkey will fill it. It can’t be in our interest. The Western Balkans belong to us, the six countries have already achieved a lot, and these achievements must be recognized”said Ms. Edtstadler.

No favoritism

However, the Western Balkans are not only a ” Security Question “but above all a question of credibility for the EU, especially since “Western Balkan countries have been in the waiting room for almost 20 years”underlined the Austrian minister.

For Austria, it is therefore crucial not to sideline the Western Balkan countries by favoring Moldova and Ukraine.

“With all the consideration we should give to new applicants for membership, we must be careful not to create separate classes of applicants for membership”said Ms. Edtstadler.

“This is why Austria has always insisted on the need to move forward [sur la question des] Western Balkans, in particular on the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, on candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina and on visa liberalization for Kosovo”she added.

While Austria has consistently condemned Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine and expressed its solidarity with the Ukrainians, who ” show every day how to defend European values”the new candidate countries should not be assessed on a different scale.

“The EU treaties do not provide for a fast-track procedure, and there are no shortcuts. The same rules must apply to all candidate countries during the process”said the Austrian minister.

Reform and enlargement of the EU?

As the EU is now stepping up its efforts to welcome new members into the Union and seems to have overcome the decade of enlargement fatigue, a new momentum for EU reform is emerging.

Germany and France believe that enlargement will only be possible if the EU reviews its institutional framework and abolishes the principle of unanimity for certain policy areas.

If Mrs Edtstadler said that it would be important “to initiate reforms” in line with the recommendations of the Conference on the Future of Europe, which ended in May, she also underlined that“the abolition of unanimity is not a panacea” in itself.

“On the one hand, it has just demonstrated the strength of EU unity in the case of sanctions against Russia, for example. On the other hand, qualified majority voting already applies in many areas anyway, including those where there are no solutions yet, such as migration”she recalled.

Austria has long hesitated to abolish the principle of unanimity in European foreign policy. In mid-June, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer stressed that the principle of unanimity was important so that a medium-sized country like Austria could continue to have influence within the EU.

However, Austria seems to have softened its stance on the issue since then.

“In principle, I am in favor of a review of the principle of unanimity in order to reach decisions more quickly”said Ms. Edtstadler.


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