Youth Workshop & Public Discussion organised in the framework of the Western Balkans Reflection Forum initiative
The Western Balkans Discuss the Future of Europe!
Widening versus Deepening:
a dilemma for the European Union and the Western Balkans?
24-25 September 2019, Tirana, Hotel Rogner
I am grateful for the honour to open today’s discussion on the “future of Europe”. I am saying this also on behalf of Ambassador Soreca, who cannot unfortunately be here himself this morning. It is an honour for me to speak just before the very distinguished panel that is to follow, but it is more than anything also a pleasure to speak here in front of a group of such motivated young people.
Let me first of all applaud the organisers – notably the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and EU Policy Hub, but many others have been involved too – let me applaud the organisers for putting the emphasis on the role of the Western Balkans in the reflection on the future of Europe. Because this reflection is indeed about a Union the countries of the region want to join. A Union of which the young people of today – and in fact not only the young ones – will be the citizens of tomorrow. The organisers are therefore right in stressing the need to create joint ownership of the European integration project also here in the Western Balkans.
Now, the specific topic in the subtitle of today’s discussion – “widening versus deepening” – is of course not only related to the “future of Europe”, which is in the headline of the conference programme. In fact, this issue has been with us since the very beginning of European integration more than 60 years ago. And I would dare to say that these more than 60 years of history have shown us that “widening” and “deepening” do not, in fact, represent a dilemma, as the subtitle of our discussion suggests. The two are by no means contradictory.
Allow me to just briefly go over some major milestones of European integration. The southern enlargement of the 1980s went hand in hand with the foundation of the single market and the roll-out of substantial cohesion and regional policies. The accession of Sweden, Finland and Austria in the 1990s unfolded together with the creation of the single currency, the lifting of internal border controls and the strengthening of the common foreign and security policy. The Eastern enlargement in the 2000s came at the same time as the Union gained significantly in powers in the important areas of justice and home affairs and when EU institutions and their democratic governance were strengthened with the Treaty of Lisbon.
And since the latest enlargement, that of Croatia in 2013, European integration has been further deepened with the Banking Union and integrated financial supervision, as well as the Defence Union aiming at European strategic autonomy. Even though the European Union has more Member States today than ever, they have entrusted Europe with powers in areas unthinkable years earlier when the Union counted much fewer countries – take as recent examples the new European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which will increasingly patrol our external borders, and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, which will have the power to bring corrupt European and national officials (that defraud EU money) behind bars.
Of course, “deepening” Europe is not only about institutions and laws. It is as much about what people feel and believe. But here, too, deepening and widening have advanced in parallel. Today, almost three-quarters (73%) of Europeans living in the Union feel they are “European Union citizens”. This is the highest figure ever measured, despite the fact that the EU is wider than ever. Eight out of ten Europeans believe today that what brings EU citizens together is more important than what separates them.
In short, over the past decades there has been no contradiction between widening and deepening the European Union. The two have progressed in parallel. This brings us to the present and at the future.
The European Commission’s policy on EU enlargement in the Western Balkans is based on an ambitious strategy that was released at the beginning of last year. It commits the Commission to continuing pursuing both widening and deepening. The strategy leaves no doubt that the Commission sees the future of the Western Balkans within the EU. The Western Balkans are part of Europe, geographically surrounded by EU Member States. We have a common heritage and history and we face shared opportunities and challenges. The Western Balkans’s EU integration is therefore in the Union's very own political, security and economic interest. It is a geostrategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe based on common values. And, importantly, a credible accession perspective is the key driver of transformation in the Western Balkans.
At the end of the day, the decision to invite candidate countries to come closer to the EU rests with EU Member States. Their national leaders have continuously stressed their unequivocal commitment to the European perspective of the Western Balkans, notably at last year’s EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia. Next month will show if this translates into the opening of accession talks with Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia. The European Commission believes it should.
Looking forward, this commitment by the European Commission will not change. The Commission’s President-elect, Ursula von der Leyen, has promised to “sustain and accelerate” the accession process, based on merit and progress made by each country. In fact, the President-elect has left no doubt about her personal conviction that deepening and widening of the European project move together. I quote: „For my generation, Europe was an aspiration of peace, prosperity and unity that we brought to life through our single currency, free movement and enlargement.”
To conclude, I would like to wish us that we do not get caught up in a false dilemma. Let us not focus on whether widening and deepening exclude each other – as I think the history of European integration has shown that they do not. Let us focus on how and where we wish to deepen Europe, and how we can widen it in the Western Balkans in a way that is in the interest of the people in both the current and the future Member States.
There is so much on the agenda for the future of Europe. How can we make Europe the first climate-neutral continent in the world? How can we ensure that everybody benefits from economic integration? How can we make Europe fit for the digital age? How can we ensure that people in Europe feel protected in a more uncertain world? How can we preserve the multilateral world order and strengthen Europe’s place in it? And what is the best way to nurture, protect and strengthen democracy on our continent?
These are all questions in which the people in the Western Balkans should have their say – because they will be affected by them as much as other people in Europe. I hope that by taking the conversation on the future of Europe to the Western Balkans, today’s discussion can make a contribution to this end. At the same time, and this goes to the young people from the region: do hold your national leaders to account to ensure they deliver on the EU-related reform promises they have made at home and in Brussels. In this way, you will make your contribution that widening and deepening will continue to go together.