Romania’s EU presidency will push to improve the prospect of membership talks for Western Balkan countries Macedonia (FYROM) and Albania, but only after the European elections in May, the country’s European affairs minister told EURACTIV in an interview.
George Ciamba, whose country took over the rotating presidency from Austria on 1 January, also said one of the main tasks of Romania’s six-month stint at the helm would be to reinforce the message of unity of the EU-27 after the UK’s departure from the EU on 29 March.
“The message of unity is going to be the one that should be dominating. The Romanian Presidency is looking at the Sibiu Summit (on 9 May) by projecting this image of unity. If we’re going to be able to do it there, this is going to be a good omen for the upcoming European elections.”
He said the EU’s enlargement, which has barely progressed since Croatia joined in 2013, “is high on our agenda, we are the children of enlargement, we know very much the value of enlargement”.
“For us and Croatia and Bulgaria and Austria, this is a matter that should be moved jointly. It is part of the programme of the trio and there we have to use all the opportunities,” he said, referring to the recent and upcoming presidency holders, but cautioned:
“It’s not an easy one. There is still political misunderstanding in some member states and [European] elections are not helping, but there is a window of opportunity and we are ready to do whatever is needed to move the issues, but we’ll need the help of the countries, they should deliver their own reforms.”
The integration of the Western Balkans were at the centre of the Bulgarian presidency in the first half of 2018, but the issue was less of a priority for the Austrian presidency which succeeded it. The countries to hold the next two presidencies after Romania will be Finland and Croatia.
Ciamba praised the so-called Prespa Agreement, a deal reached between Skopje and Athens last June after almost 30 years of dispute over the name of Greece’s northern neighbour, as an “important achievement that should not be wasted”.
“Everyone speaks these days but doesn’t see the added value of the Prespa agreement. If it is ratified in Greece too, we are going to have a clear example of what Europe can deliver and the soft power of Europe in giving hope and winning hearts and minds in countries that are so willing to come in.”
“This is even more refreshing at a time that someone wants to leave the Union, or is on the way out, to see that so many want to join the Union.”
Significance of Macedonia name deal
If the Prespa agreement is endorsed in the Greek parliament on Thursday, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will officially change its name to North Macedonia, which should unblock its plans to join the EU and NATO.
“We should put our efforts behind the Prespa agreement. It is an important example and could create momentum for other things to be solved in the region,” Ciamba said.
Of the six Western Balkan EU hopefuls, only Montenegro and Serbia have opened membership talks, FYROM and Albania are official candidates, but without a date, while Bosnia and Kosovo lag further behind.
Asked if FYROM and Albania may be able to get a concrete date, or even open accession talks by the end of this year, Ciamba replied:
“This is what we are aiming for at the General Affairs Council in June, of course, if everything goes on, if everything is on track.”
“But I would not like to say too much now because the danger is if we say too much at the initial stage, having in mind the campaign that is coming in Europe, this would be injected there and I don’t think this should be the case. We are ready after the elections to be the first issue that we’ll tackle.”
Turning to his own country, Ciamba said he was confident Romania would handle its EU presidency well and this should boost its chance of joining the EU’s passport-free Schengen area, from which Bucharest and Sofia have been kept out for 11 years.
“We are fully convinced that, as we are going to perform, and I am confident that Romania is going to perform as presidency, this is going to have a positive effect on the Schengen issue for Romania, as it did for Bulgaria [which held the presidency in early 2018].
“We are confident that our performance is going to be good, great, and is going to leave something for Europe. This is going to increase not only our clout, but also the expectations and at the same time, is going to strengthen the political decision about Schengen.”
He said Romania was meeting the criteria for joining Schengen, which is also the opinion of the Commission.
“We are meeting the criteria, we invested a lot, we are fully aware this is the external border of Europe, it has to be reinforced and strengthened. I don’t see any other issues than what is related to different type of politics in a different type of member states”.