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Echo Of The “Bled Pledge”

Tanja Fajon, Deputy Prime Minister And Minister Of Foreign Affairs Of The Republic Of Slovenia

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The strong message of European Council President Charles Michel at the Bled Strategic Forum 2023 that both the EU and the Western Balkans should be prepared for enlargement by 2030 resounded loudly throughout the region and in Brussels, and I sincerely believe that this is an important chance for both sides that’s not to be missed

The countries of the region should recognise the “recent new window of opportunity for enlargement” opened by the EU. It is essential for the Western Balkan countries to fully implement the required reforms in order to “grasp the 2030 opportunity”, suggests Slovenian Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon.

You are very well acquainted with the situation in the Western Balkans. At a time when it is often suggested that the required “momentum” now exists to accelerate the pace of the region’s EU integration process, would you say that the tempo of accession depends more on the current state of affairs in the EU or the level of preparedness of the countries of the region?

― As a staunch supporter of the EU enlargement to the Western Balkans for the past 15 years, I very much welcome the recent new window of opportunity for enlargement. Let me remind us all of the strong message provided by European Council President Charles Michel at the Bled Strategic Forum 2023 that both the EU and the Western Balkans should be prepared for enlargement by 2030. The so-called ‘Bled pledge’ echoed loudly throughout the region and in Brussels, and I sincerely believe that this is an important chance for both; a chance not to be missed. I think the main message is very clear: countries that are serious about joining the EU should grasp this ‘2030’ opportunity. I am also glad to see that it is ever clearer to everyone that the enlargement policy is the EU’s most powerful stabilisation instrument, which is greatly needed in a world full of destabilised regions and alarming conflicts. However, a new approach – one that’s more geostrategic and less bureaucratic – doesn’t mean lowering enlargement standards. Full reform implementation, which is in the hands of the Western Balkans, remains essential.

Regional initiatives help the region address common challenges like energy shortages, environmental pollution, transport infrastructure, cross-border criminal activities etc

That’s why I believe that the EU’s internal reforms should run in parallel with the EU enlargement process. Enlargement to encompass the Western Balkans shouldn’t wait for changes to the founding treaties. We should work to find sufficient political will to reform in the region and to enlarge in the EU. The opportunity is here and we have to seize it fully and with full speed. We need to complete the Union, but also to prepare the Union for this clear objective by 2030. In the coming months, political leaders will have to show the political willingness and determination to consider substantial internal EU reform. The report recently presented by the Franco-German group of experts will be a good starting point for reflection, as will the Commission’s announced pre-accession reviews of EU policies.

Namely, EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, plus to the East to a potential 36 Member States, would have major implications for the EU budget. This is why we will need to find the right way to manage this complex transition. It is important that the EU remains at the forefront of the green transition and makes progress on deepening integration in areas like energy and climate, the single market and digital transformation. It is clear that EU enlargement and deepening various policy areas will have to go hand in hand. To this end, creative solutions, such as innovative forms for the gradual integration of future new members into EU policy areas (Green Deal, Single & Digital Single Market, CFSP etc.) will be crucial. We certainly need to do more to close the development gap between the EU and future new Member States.

What kind of scope do regional initiatives with a European agenda have – with one such initiative being Slovenia’s own Brdo-Brijuni Process. There is some concern that these initiatives (the Berlin Process, Open Balkan…) represent a kind of alternative to EU accession itself, which remains a long way off. How do you view them?

― I don’t think we should see these initiatives as “either-or” options. They do not exclude one another, but rather are complementary. As regional cooperation is an essential element of the enlargement process, guiding the Western Balkan countries towards EU membership, I see regional initiatives as being useful. They help the region address common challenges like energy shortages, environmental pollution, transport infrastructure, cross-border criminal activities etc.

For instance, the Western Balkan region is still confronted by a lack of reconciliation or slow progress on it, and regional initiatives contribute significantly to building mutual trust. For example, the Brdo-Brijuni Process brings together countries linked by historical, geographical, cultural and political ties, and which have a common interest in sharing experiences and supporting each other in the EU integration process.

When it comes to the perspective of young people in the Western Balkans – youth mobility, cultural and social exchanges, and education are all vital if we want to achieve lasting and sustainable reconciliation in the region

It serves as a natural platform for open debate and cooperation in all areas of common interest and for addressing outstanding issues in the region, as it is often easier to address them in an informal setting, through open and frank discussion.

When we talk about the perspective of young people in the Western Balkans, youth mobility, cultural and social exchanges, and education are all vital if we want to achieve lasting and sustainable reconciliation in the region. In this context, the RYCO (Regional Youth Cooperation Office) is an important mechanism that enables youth cooperation in the region and thus contributes to reconciliation. Slovenia strongly supports regional cooperation among the countries of the Western Balkans – inclusiveness remains crucial to the successful functioning of regional initiatives. So, I would say that regional initiatives should seek synergies and complementarity with the enlargement process, and not as any kind of alternative to EU enlargement, which remains an absolute imperative for the region.

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