The European Union must open accession talks with both Albania and North Macedonia before next May’s EU-Western Balkan summit in Zagreb, the European commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy said in Brussels on Wednesday.
Addressing a session of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Olivér Várhelyi urged support for the EU aspirations of the Western Balkan countries, saying that they were located “in the heart of Europe”.
Europe also has a vested interest in supporting the region, the commissioner said, arguing that ensuring prosperity and security in the Western Balkan countries would benefit the entire continent.
Given that the Western Balkan region is a part of Europe, the European Union must offer its countries a credible outlook for joining the bloc, he said. The reforms prescribed by the EU should enhance growth, create jobs and improve the standard of living in those countries, Várhelyi added.
Várhelyi: Rule of Law, Economic Growth Crucial for Balkan Countries to Future EU Membership
The commissioner said that next month the European Commission will unveil its plans for speeding up the accession talks. He added that it was important for all of the region’s candidate countries to join the European Green Deal, the Digital Agenda for Europe as well as the bloc’s shipping and energy network prior to becoming full-fledged EU members.
He said the EU must also do its part so that it is ready to take on the new members once they meet all the criteria.
Várhelyi said the Western Balkan countries were cooperating well with the EU on the handling of migration, adding, at the same time, that they would require further assistance in overcoming their continued challenges.
In response to a question, he underlined the importance of standing by Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Until there is progress in the implementation of the Minsk process on Moscow’s part, the EU must not ease sanctions on Russia, he added.
As regards Belarus, he said EU cooperation with the country was “modest”, adding, however, that the bloc should maintain a presence there so that it can represent its values.
Asked about the handling of collective minority rights in the EU, Várhelyi pointed out that not all member states recognised the rights of minorities as collective rights. At the same time, the protection of minority groups is an EU value, he said, adding that it must be preserved under all circumstances.
On the topic of Turkey’s EU integration, Várhelyi said that as long as Turkey considered itself a candidate country, it must address the bloc’s concerns over its approach to fundamental rights, press freedom and every area in which respect for rule of law is deteriorating.
Featured photo by Mátyás Borsos/Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade