Osmani: 2030 as a date for entry into the EU can create a reform competition towards achieving the goal of membership

Photo: Bujar Osmani, Facebook

The gradual integration of the candidate countries for EU membership into the bloc's structures is not an alternative to membership, but the best way to keep the enlargement process on the right track and to achieve faster results in the reforms, the foreign ministers of North Macedonia and Austria, Bujar Osmani and Alexander Shallenberg in a joint interview for the Brussels portal "Euraktiv".

According to Osmani, setting 2030 as an indicative target date for membership can reinvigorate the accession process and create a positive reform competition towards achieving the membership goal.

"It is completely achievable, and its fulfillment will depend on what we as candidates and the EU will do until then in terms of our readiness and institutional and political adjustment." We need a new level of reliability and credibility," said Osmani.

According to him, the previous major enlargement of the EU, when the bloc grew from 15 to 25 members, had a strong geopolitical impulse that was the culmination of the partial unification of a Europe that had been divided for half a century by the Iron Curtain and the Cold War.

"Full reunification was left as unfinished business and now needs to be finalized with the new geopolitical momentum created by the brutal aggression against Ukraine." Success with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe also depended on the indicative timeframe of 2004 as a target set as a driving force towards meeting the criteria and the adjustments the EU had to make to welcome the newcomers. It worked before, so why shouldn't it be the same this time," said Osmani regarding how realistic it is to treat 2030 as the date for the new expansion of the Union.

Schlenberg answers the same question that the setting of this date as a goal by the President of the European Council was a "wake-up call".

"Too early for some, too late for others." We must quickly fulfill our promise that the future of the Western Balkans is in the EU. That's why I initiated the "Friends of the Western Balkans" group. From my point of view, this means that expansion can and will happen. We need to do our homework and prepare both the EU and the candidate countries. At the same time, enlargement is a merit-based process, which means that each country has to decide how quickly to move forward on the EU integration path. If North Macedonia continues with its current reform agenda, its approach is within reach", noted Shallenberg.

Regarding the concept proposed by us for "greater integration before accession", Osmani points out that it is complementary to the previous efforts to speed up the accession process and can be realized by the presence of representatives of the countries of the region at sectoral meetings of the European Council without the right to vote, with a strengthened focus on the criteria for the rule of law, democratic standards and economic reforms, with progressive accession to the EU single market even before full membership, with access for the countries of the Western Balkans to the structural and cohesion funds of the EU, as well as with their inclusion as observers in the work of the Union's institutions.

"The current commitment of the EU institutions in this regard is welcome and we have approved their proposals - be it Michel's promise for 2030, the Growth Plan or observer status for our national MPs in the work of the European Parliament," said Osmani. .

For Schallenberg, on the other hand, the EU must abandon the old binary thinking that a country is either a full member or not part of the club and instead should promote a gradual process of integration that gives faster results and is more tangible for citizens.

"Let me emphasize that gradual integration is not an alternative to membership: it is a path to full membership, but it allows for faster results. Austria has proposed concrete steps to promote gradual integration and will commit to their implementation in 2024. We want to see the countries of the Western Balkans gradually participate in the single market and other areas such as transport, science and education, energy and climate, migration and justice. Ukraine and Moldova already have access to the single market in certain sectors, and we want to offer the same to the Western Balkans," Shallenberg said.

According to him, enlargement is not a one-way street and both sides should prepare and accelerate reforms.

- But if we are discussing the reforms in the EU and our readiness, we must not allow it to become an excuse for delaying the enlargement, the head of the Austrian diplomacy pointed out.

According to Osmani, on the other hand, internal reforms in the EU and enlargement are not mutually exclusive, but closely complement each other and it is best if they are carried out in parallel.

"What we need to do from our side is to concentrate on reforms, to open clusters and to use the possibilities of the new methodology to offer our citizens more integration benefits along the way and already before membership." Until we finish our homework, there is enough time for the EU to prepare," said Osmani.

He believes that the first serious test of the EU's seriousness regarding the next enlargement will be the discussions on the EU budget for the period 2028-34, but also on the revision of the current budget.

- If we get involved in these frameworks, it would specifically mean that the conditions for its materialization have been set. I dare to say that this new geopolitical momentum does not allow any excuses for the enlargement, on the contrary, the EU should immediately and without further hesitation take the necessary steps, which means already at the EU Summit next week, concretely show their readiness for enlargement, Osmani believes. .

Regarding the EC Plan for the growth of the Western Balkans, Osmani assesses that it represents a step in the right direction and should be expanded further with access to the single market and the structural and cohesion funds.

"While IPA funds aim to support reforms with financial and technical assistance, structural and cohesion funds aim to support job creation, business competitiveness, economic growth, sustainable development and improve the quality of life of citizens. If the EU does not act and urgently reduce this disparity, there is a risk that our development paths will never meet in the future and the divergence will increase further. Therefore, the Growth Plan is a step in the right direction, but it should be maintained in the future to a level so that convergence can be achieved," Osmani believes.

And Schallenberg agrees that the Plan is a step in the right direction, but now we need to see rapid implementation of the proposed integration of the Western Balkans in some areas of the single market.

- It is also a good proposal to connect the conditional payment of funds with the fulfillment of the existing reform agenda. Austria wants to see a clear implementation agenda and the first results from it already in 2024. Moreover, we need to improve our communication with the region. Today, the EU and its member states are the biggest donors and investors in the region, but disinformation from other players did not remain without effect, Shallenberg concludes.

Shallenberg expects the citizens of North Macedonia to continue striving for the European future and, in this context, to succeed in passing the necessary constitutional amendments, as the next step towards the Union.

Regarding what could be achieved before the expiration of the mandate of the current EU institutions, Schallenberg says that clear achievements would represent visible progress in the EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania and the start of negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"I hope that the people of North Macedonia will continue to advocate for a European future and I hope that the country will succeed in making the necessary constitutional changes so that it can take the next steps towards the EU." Let me assure you that Austria sees North Macedonia as a strong future partner in the EU and we will continue to wholeheartedly support the country on its path to EU integration. Not only because we are a friend of the Western Balkans, but also because it is a geostrategic necessity," said Schallenberg.

According to Osmani, however, it would be important to include the enlargement in the next budget cycle of the EU.

– The basic package may include at least attendance at sectoral ministerial meetings without the right to vote and participation in the EU single market. This model could depend on certain preconditions such as the full compliance of the candidates with the common foreign and security policy of the EU for a seat at the table of the Foreign Affairs Council. North Macedonia has 100 percent compliance with the common foreign and security policy, along with flawless visa compliance, as a clear sign of our geostrategic positioning. And to be completely honest, it hurts our economy, but we remain committed Europeans. That is why we need incentives from the EU to show that the EU is on our side, concluded Osmani.

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