Austria’s vehemence at the latest meeting of EU leaders not to leave behind the hopes of the Western Balkan club as Brussels accepted bids from Ukraine and Moldova added momentum positive for the region long stuck in the bloc’s waiting room, Austrian Federal Minister for EU and Constitution Karoline Edtstadler told EURACTIV in an interview.
At the last EU leaders’ meeting in June, where member states granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, Austria urged not to neglect the Western Balkans and tried to plead their cause.
“The concrete prospect for Bosnia and Herzegovina to obtain candidate status, the compromise between Bulgaria and North Macedonia and the holding of the first accession conference with Albania and North Macedonia are important results of these efforts,” she said.
Joining the bloc being a long process strewn with pitfalls, Austria also supports the French desire for a “European political community” which would allow the gradual integration of the candidate countries even before they officially join the EU. Union.
In June, Austria circulated a document among EU countries that led some to believe it was trying to alter the bloc’s membership process, which Vienna has denied.
“Austria has proposed a so-called ‘gradual integration’ of candidate countries in important policy areas on the way to full membership,” Edtstadler said.
“This means that the EU enlargement process should bring concrete benefits to candidate countries from the start,” she added.
Balkan power vacuum invites foreign influence
According to Edtstadler, if the EU fails to give a clear perspective to the Western Balkan countries, its reluctance could open the doors to influence from other foreign actors.
Austria has long been one of the strongest supporters of the Western Balkan countries on their way to full EU membership and maintains close historical, economic and cultural ties with the region.
“If Europe allows a vacuum here, Russia, China or Turkey will fill it. It can’t be in our interest. The Western Balkans belong to us, the six countries have already achieved a lot and these achievements should be recognized,” said Edtstadler.
However, the Western Balkans is not only a “security issue”, but above all a question of EU credibility – especially since the “Western Balkan countries have been in the waiting room for almost 20 years “, underlined the Austrian minister.
For Austria, it is therefore crucial not to marginalize the Western Balkan countries to the benefit of Moldova and Ukraine.
“With all due understanding for new applicants for membership, we must be careful not to create applicants for membership of different classes,” Edtstadler said.
“For this reason, Austria has always stressed the need for progress in the Western Balkans, in particular the start of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina and visa liberalization for Kosovo,” she added.
While Austria has consistently condemned Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine and shown solidarity with Ukrainians who “show daily how to defend European values”, the new candidate countries should not be measured another scale.
“The EU treaties do not provide for a fast-track procedure, and there are no shortcuts. The same standards must apply to all candidate countries in the process,” said the Austrian minister.
EU reform and enlargement?
While the EU is currently stepping up its efforts to admit new members to the bloc and has seemingly overcome its decade-long enlargement fatigue, there is also new momentum for EU reform.
Germany and France argue that enlargement would only be possible if the EU reorganized its institutional frameworks and abolished unanimity in certain policy areas.
While Edtstadler said it would be important “to initiate reforms” in line with the recommendations of the Conference on the Future of Europe, which concluded in May, she also stressed that “the abolition unanimity is not a panacea”.
“On the one hand, it just demonstrated the united strength of the EU in the case of sanctions against Russia, for example. On the other hand, qualified majority voting already applies in many areas anyway, including those where there are no solutions yet, such as migration,” she said.
Austria has long been reluctant to abolish the unanimity requirement in EU foreign policy. In mid-June, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer stressed that the principle of unanimity would be important for a medium-sized country like Austria to continue to have influence in the EU.
However, Austria has apparently softened its stance since then.
“In principle, I am in favor of reconsidering unanimity in order to make decisions more quickly,” Edtstadler said.