Minister for Foreign Affairs Haavisto: EU enlargement is in the interests of Finland

Finland welcomes the efforts to integrate the Western Balkans, located at the very heart of the continent, into Europe.

With Brexit occupying headlines almost daily, it can easily escape our attention that the European Union is also enlarging. Accession talks are under way with Montenegro and Serbia.  North Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have submitted membership applications. Kosovo is on the road towards EU membership. Even Turkey is still a candidate country, although its accession talks are currently at a standstill.

In other words, enlargement is taking place in the Western Balkans. After the Yugoslav Wars ended, resulting in the breakup of Yugoslavia, the European Union offered the prospect of EU membership to all the affected countries. The policy was consistent: The Western Balkans are not a neighbouring region; they are at the very heart of Europe. The EU must honour its commitments, because other players such as Russia and China are also showing an interest in the area.

The desire to become an EU member state is something that the otherwise highly divided political players in the Western Balkans have in common. However, EU membership is not something the aspiring countries can take for granted. Stringent criteria must be met, and continuous fulfilment will be carefully monitored.

The road to membership is long, and accession talks can take years. Each country is separately monitored to assess the progress it is making. Steps must be taken to ensure that enlargement strengthens the whole Union.

Accession to the EU requires a lot of work, but the efforts will benefit the citizens of the candidate countries even before the actual membership begins. The steps required to fulfil the membership criteria will make societies better, whether they involve updating environmental legislation to meet EU standards, or creating a functioning market economy.  For the EU, its enlargement policy is a unique instrument for exerting influence, and enlargement is a way of making the EU a stronger player in the global arena.

Candidate countries will be required to pay closer attention to the rule of law. This is an area where each of the Western Balkan countries has significant room for improvement. Taking more determined action to combat corruption and organised crime and improving freedom of speech are at the top of the list. Responsibility lies first and foremost with the political leaders of the candidate countries. When assessing whether membership criteria are met, the EU pays special attention to reforms in the sector of the rule of law, and justifiably so. For the sake of its own credibility, the EU must also uphold the rule of law within the existing Union.

The Western Balkans have their historical burden, but people should stop clinging to the past and focus on the future instead. This is where young people have a key role to play. Last summer I travelled in the Western Balkans by train and met many young locals who had a strong European identity and who were eager to participate in building a better European Union. For the sake of the future of these young people, I would very much like to see the EU assume a stronger role in the Western Balkans, and the prospect of EU membership to remain a realistic possibility. It is also important to invest in student exchange programmes and interaction between civil societies.

Letting go of the past requires reconciliation. Even if the burden of history is heavy, disputes can be settled, as indicated by the agreement that Greece and North Macedonia were able to reach in the long-running name dispute. Next, it is time for Serbia and Kosovo to finally normalise their relationship.

In recent years, Turkey’s accession negotiations have stalled. Turkey has made little or no progress in reforms associated with the rule of law and EU convergence.  In fact, in some areas, the development has been moving alarmingly in the wrong direction. Unless Turkey adopts a very different approach to its reforms policy, accession talks will not continue.

Finland has experience in building relations between the EU and Turkey. We feel it is important to maintain a dialogue and collaborative relations with Turkey, and to include difficult and sensitive subjects in the discussions. Collaboration on matters concerning immigration is important, but the EU and Turkey need a new and more wide-ranging strategic approach.

Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union will be a busy time, including in matters relating to enlargement. Accession talks with Montenegro and Serbia will continue,  and the Member States will decide whether to open negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Finland supports these steps.

Work to integrate the Western Balkans into Europe continues, and Finland welcomes this development. In the past few decades, Finland has played an active role in promoting peace and stability in the Western Balkans through peace mediation, peacekeeping and other international duties. Creating stability and wellbeing in the Western Balkans is in Finland’s interest.

Originally published as a column in Helsingin Sanomat