Brexit Will Not Hurt Balkans’ EU Prospects, Ambassador
Montenegro’s chief negotiator with the EU, Aleksandar Andrija Pejovic, told BIRN in an interview that European Union policy towards the Western Balkans had not changed as a result of Britain’s June 23 vote to leave the club.
“The progress of [Balkan] candidate countries towards [EU] membership … was confirmed at the July summit in Paris, part of the Berlin process, as well as during the intergovernmental conference, under which Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey have continued opening new chapters in their EU negotiations,” Pejovic explained.
He said that support from Brussels for enlargement remained clear and had been repeated from all the important addresses.
He said Britain’s vote to leave the EU, as well as other challenges, had prompted an extensive debate on the future of the EU, on public trust in its institutions, structures and decision-making processes.
“But, when it comes to enlargement policy, so far we did not see any change in the attitude of the EU,” he said.
Since Britain voted to quit the EU on June 23, leaders of the remaining 27 states have been widely discussing the future of the European project.
It has meanwhile become clear that the formal procedure for the UK to quit the union – activation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty - will not be launched before the new British government under Theresa May is ready to do so, possibly in spring 2017.
However, the failure of the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, to mention enlargement in his annual state-of-the-union speech last week, which focused on Brexit, alarmed some observers of and in the Balkans, where several countries are hoping to join the club in the next few years.
But Pejovic recalled that immediately after the UK referendum, the EU had affirmed its global strategy, explaining that the policy of enlargement in the Western Balkans and Turkey would continue in accordance with “clear, strict and fair conditions.”
“The recent decision of the EU to accept Bosnia’s membership application was also proof that the policy of enlargement continues,” the ambassador noted.
“The strong support of the current Slovak presidency for further expansion is an additional reason why we look with optimism to the continued path towards EU membership,” he added.
Turning to Montenegro, Pejovic said the impact of external factors such as Brexit had not disrupted the pace of reforms.
Montenegro has already opened 24 out of its 35 negotiating chapters, including the most challenging ones on the rule of law, judicial reforms and the fight against organised crime and corruption.
“We have also recorded good results in the other negotiating areas, which gives us the right to expect that by the end of this year, some of them [new chapters] may be opened, too, as well as closing some of those in which we fulfilled the required conditions,” Pejovic said.
He said enlargement and regional cooperation was also in the focus of a number of meetings held on the sidelines of this year's UN General Assembly session, held two weeks ago.
“EU Enlargement Commissioner [Johannes] Hahn and Foreign Policy and Security Commissioner Federica Mogherini told us in New York that EU support remains clear and unequivocal,” he recalled.
“They also reiterated the need to maintain the momentum of reforms in the region, and to improve political and economic relations.”
He said they had agreed that the continuation of measures agreed in the framework of the Berlin Process, which primarily relate to infrastructure connectivity in transport, investment and deepened economic integration - and establishing a regional electricity market - were the way forward.
“We had never held so many meetings devoted to the region as during this [UN] session,” he said.
This “says two things - that countries in the Balkans cooperate very well, and secondly, that there is significant interest among our partners in the EU and NATO to continue reforms and the integration of this region,” he noted.
Speaking of the possible impact of Brexit on levels of support for EU membership, Pejovic said support for European integration remained solid in Montenegro at around 70 per cent.
He also does not believe that support for the EU in the Western Balkans will fall in future, noting that the latest surveys showed that most people still believe in the EU accession process and in the internal reforms and benefits that membership will bring.
Montenegro has yet to see the emergence of Euroscepticism as an organized and formulated idea, although it appears in various forms. But the percentage of potential Eurosceptics, Pejovic said, remained stable at between only 15 and 25 per cent of the population.
“Events in the EU and some previous crisis did not go unnoticed by our citizens - but have had no significant effect on their attitudes and preferences,” Pejovic maintained.
“I do not think there will be a decline in support for the EU in the Western Balkans, especially if the opening of the negotiation chapters continues, as does the trend towards better connectivity,” he concluded.