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Time to get EU enlargement back on track – POLITICO

Kyriakos Mitsotakis is the Prime Minister of Greece.

The South East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) Summit taking place today in the ancient port city of Thessaloniki, a great center of trade and ideas for many centuries, comes at a critical time. This is an opportunity to meet and exchange in-depth ideas with my fellow leaders, and to take stock of where we are and what urgently needs to be done.

History teaches us that there are times of rapid change that demand immediate revival. The world has changed a lot in recent months and as a result we stand at a watershed moment, particularly for the Western Balkans and wider South Eastern Europe.

It is time for the European Union to recognize the existential importance of the integration of this region into the European family, and it must therefore commit itself with confidence, starting with the Western Balkans.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a widespread belief in the West – since proven naïve – that the battle of values ​​and ideals had been won. Europe’s history, defined by violent conflict and two world wars, was supposed to have turned the corner towards peace, prosperity, cooperation and the rule of law.

The unprovoked, illegal and horrific war in Ukraine has ruthlessly exposed how misplaced such notions are.

While the end of the Cold War was a time of great hope and optimism, it simultaneously fueled a dangerous complacency. It is a complacency for which we are now paying a high price, and we cannot afford to be complacent again.

Today’s meetings come less than two weeks from the EU-Western Balkans meeting in Brussels and the European Council, where important decisions for the region and the future of the bloc could be taken. And the Balkans, as so many times before in its history, once again find themselves on the front lines of competing spheres of influence – disturbing tremors can be felt beneath the surface.

It is therefore time for the EU to be honest with itself and with the region.

In 2003, also in Thessaloniki, the EU proposed a political vision of membership and proposed a process that would lead to the accession of the Western Balkans to the European family.

But in the almost 20 years that have passed, membership processes have become increasingly elaborate and demanding, and the vision has become blurred, fading in the eyes of frustrated and disillusioned citizens.

The EU continues to speak of a concrete commitment to the Western Balkans and expects the conditions and reforms it has set to be fully respected. However, the region interprets this as fatigue with EU enlargement and a constant shift in focus. The war in Ukraine has only deepened the feeling that the EU’s focus is shifting.

Reflecting on all of this now in 2022, once again from Thessaloniki, where we will be joined by the President of the Council of the EU and the German Chancellor, it seems to me that we, as EU member countries, We must take the bold but necessary step to complete the political vision of 2003. And we should do so in a historically and politically significant way, finally establishing a tangible, time-bound perspective to deliver on our promise. We need to build trust that when the EU sets a vision, it has the intention and the ability to deliver it.

I look forward to making this point, not only to today’s summit participants, but to other leaders across the EU, including my good friend, French President Emmanuel Macron. He is both a deep thinker and a man of action who has already formulated ambitious and innovative ideas for the future of Europe, which could inspire our reflections.

But my message today is clear: in accordance with the established criteria, propose the integration of all the Western Balkans into the EU by 2033 – an ambitious but achievable timetable. It’s been long overdue. And the first step must be a decision in two weeks in Brussels to unblock the road to North Macedonia and Albania.

Zooming out on the wider region, the EU must come to terms with the fact that the new geopolitical landscape has imposed a different reality – a reality that includes countries like Ukraine and Moldova from the perspective of the EU. . This is reflected in the joint summit statement to be adopted today. The EU should not see this as a distraction from its evolution, but as an opportunity for transformation.

Looking back, the EU should be proud of all it has achieved. The European project is a unique experience which has proven to be the best guarantee of peace, stability, economic growth and social prosperity on the Continent. But the future won’t wait, and we can’t stop time – all life is evolution after all.

It is clear that such profound changes in the world around us urgently require the EU to have a serious and honest internal discussion about the future of enlargement — about how and when. We need to reflect and decide how we see ourselves growing and evolving.

In the Balkans, as elsewhere, hostile actors seek to undermine our efforts. They have a worldview and competing aspirations that flout human rights, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms. They use the language of resentment, revisionism and imperial nostalgia. They think they can crush the human spirit with intimidation and military muscle. We cannot allow a vacuum to develop in which these actors can operate – a vacuum in which they think they can succeed.

These will be the thoughts that I will take with me from Thessaloniki to Brussels. I want to believe that the EU is ready to take up the challenge of shaping the future of our continent in a way that will ensure stability and prosperity for generations to come. It’s time to keep our Thessaloniki promise.


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