(Joint article by Irish Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton and Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle)
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the EU – Western Balkans Summit, which took place in Thessaloniki in June 2003. It was at this Summit that the EU Member States gave a commitment that “The future of the Balkans is within the European Union”. Ten years on Croatia stands ready to take its place. But what of the other countries?
Croatia's forthcoming EU entry provides fresh evidence of the transformative power of EU enlargement policy: torn by conflict only two decades ago, the country is now a stable democracy, capable of taking on the obligations of EU membership and of adhering to EU standards. This transformation is also a powerful signal for all the potential candidates in the region.
Enlargement is a key policy of the EU. It is not part of the current problems in Europe. It is part of the solution. The primary goal is to strengthen the EU. The current year is promising in this regard. Following the release of reports by the European Commission in April, the EU member states, under the leadership of the Irish Presidency, will consider whether sufficient progress has been made to open accession negotiations with Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and to approve a mandate to start negotiations with Kosovo on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement. For Montenegro, the first so-called ''screening'' phase of negotiations has already been concluded in the key areas of judiciary, fundamental rights, justice, freedom and security. EU candidate status remains within reach for Albania and the conduct of this year's elections will be a crucial litmus test for democracy there. With the accession of Croatia, the EU will literally touch Bosnia and Herzegovina; the shared EU border can become a real bridge if the country can focus on reforms.
With the accession of Croatia, the EU will literally touch Bosnia and Herzegovina; the shared EU border can become a real bridge if the country can focus on reforms.
The perspective of European integration remains open to the whole Western Balkans region. Of course, EU accession is not taking place in a vacuum; with the current economic climate, people on both sides are increasingly concerned about how it may impact on their lives. The enlargement process reflects these concerns; it is based on strict conditionality, with each step forward based on real progress achieved on the ground, and agreed by all the actors. It is also based on lessons learnt. And the benefits work both ways: just take Ireland for example; since the 2004 enlargement exports from Ireland to the new EU member states grew each year (with the exception of one) by between 7% and 40%.
Respect for the rule of law, democratic principles and human rights remains at the centre of the enlargement process. Strengthened rule of law improves the capacity to tackle organised crime and corruption, bringing direct benefits to citizens. So too does progress in the application of human rights and democratic standards and freedoms.
The Irish Presidency has taken the opportunity of the tenth anniversary of the Thessaloniki Summit to reflect on the commitment given back in 2003.
The Irish Presidency has taken the opportunity of the tenth anniversary of the Thessaloniki Summit to reflect on the commitment given back in 2003. At a Conference at Farmleigh House in Dublin today, a number of leading politicians and experts will come together to examine the progress made by the countries in the region towards EU integration, the difficulties encountered along the way, and the outlook for completion of the process.
This year is full of opportunities for enlargement. How these opportunities will be used is in the hands of the candidates and potential candidates. We, on behalf of the EU, can confirm that we remain committed to the process and will keep our promise – to move these countries closer to the EU once the necessary reforms are delivered and the criteria have been met.