The EU integration process – from Stabilisation and Association Agreements to accession negotiations
Speech given in Sofia by Victor Bostinaru on 2th October 2008.
Dear colleagues, let me also welcome you here in Sofia and share with you some remarks concerning the road of the Western Balkan countries to the European Union and in particular the role of the parliaments in this process.
All your countries have come a long way since the turbulent and tragic wars of the 1990s. Now we are at a very different stage, with the EU integration processes ongoing and well advanced in some countries. We hope that the next year will bring important steps forward in the region – Croatia will hopefully finish the negotiations and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia get the date for start of the negotiations. The ratification process of the SAAs will go forward, we hope to see the process unblocked in Serbia and also going fast and smoothly in the other countries.
What lies ahead, even for the countries more advanced on their way to the EU, is still going to be a difficult and sometimes lengthy process, as I’m sure the Croatian colleagues can confirm that. The Stabilisation and Association Process and the Stabilisation and Association Agreements are the means to prepare the Western Balkans countries for the demands of the membership of the EU. In a way there is no big difference in the process from the accession negotiations coming next – it’s all about clear objectives and conditions, formal mechanisms and agreed benchmarks, which need to be fulfilled before the candidate status can be granted.
As you know, the SAAs focus more on the economic aspects on the relations with the EU, free trade area, competition and state aid rules, intellectual property and so on. Big task ahead is surely the harmonisation of national legislation concerning technical standards, sanitary and phytosanitary measures and other trade related laws with that of the EU. Although the restrictions like tariffs and quotas are gradually phased out, the need to comply with different norms at home and in the EU increases the costs and can pose a big barrier to exports by Western Balkans firms. The SAAs are a good starting point to deal with these problems and their effective implementation is necessary before the step to the next stage, the accession negotiations, can be taken.
Then the accession negotiations. As you know, the first step is the screening of the acquis, which can take around a year and which gives a good picture of what needs to be done. Of course the more you already do before, within the Stabilisation and Association Process, the less work there will be at this stage.
So what is exactly the acquis? It can be overwhelmingly vast at the first glance – it includes most importantly the Treaties, and the legislation and decisions adopted on their basis. To this comes the case law of the Court of Justice and other acts, adopted within the Union framework, such as interinstitutional agreements, resolutions, statements, recommendations, and guidelines. On top of it come two big fields – justice and home affairs and the common foreign and security policy, where the adoption procedures are slightly different but they are equally important – joint actions, joint or common positions, resolutions, declarations, conclusions, conventions and so on. Finally, the international agreements concluded by the Communities, the Communities jointly with their Member States, the Union, and those concluded by the Member States among themselves with regard to Union activities. All together, more than 80 thousand pages, divided in 35 chapters, all of it to be implemented by any country which wants to become a member of the EU. Still, at the general level, the keys are a well-functioning and stable public administration built on an efficient and impartial civil service, and an independent and efficient judicial system.
Of course all that is not easy. It is surely more difficult now than it was 30 years ago as the acquis is constantly evolving, which makes it harder to catch up with it, with all the new regulations and directives adopted every month by the Parliament and the Council. During the screening the Commission explains the acquis to the candidate countries, you also have access to the technical assistance and capacity-building programmes (I am sure that the Commission can tell you more in detail about the available projects). The total funding under the Instrument for Pre-Accession for the current financial framework (2007-2013) is € 11.5 billion, for the Western Balkans and Turkey, which is surely not little.
Let me emphasize one thing because I think it is very important. The EU’s commitment from Thessaloniki from 2003 stands firm, we expect you to join the EU as soon as you are ready and we will do our utmost to help you on the way. There has been a lot of talk recently about „accession fatigue” or the „absorption capacity”. That’s true that the EU has its problems, you know it well yourselves, just to mention long and complicated process of agreeing on the Lisbon Treaty, which is still not over. But I want to assure you that these problems, or let’s better call them challenges, will not affect your path to the EU. You belong in the EU and we are looking forward to you joining as soon as possible.
One aspect of the transformation in the region I find very important. Regional cooperation is in the interest of everybody, in all the fields – political, economic, cultural, justice and police. It can work very well – the best example is us sitting in this room, at a seminar co-organised by the regional secretariat for parliamentary cooperation. But there are many fields, where it can still work better. To give you just one example, the economic cooperation has surely got a big boost with the extension of CEFTA into the Western Balkans. Still, the interregional trade is still tiny compared to the exports to the EU.
The progress with the reforms will depend on you and only on you. The parliaments are vital in this process – you are the primary institutions in the democracy. Let me just share with you some observations on what I think are important aspects of the functioning of the parliaments. I know that my colleague Kristian Vigenin will talk about his practical experience in more detail so I’ll only make a couple of general remarks.
First of all, it’s the debate and dialogue between the political groups. I don’t need to tell you how complicated are the integration and accession processes. They require a common work of the governing parties and the opposition, otherwise the progress will be blocked or not as fast as could be possible. Political confrontation, personal attacks and blockages of the work of the parliaments, both on the side of governing and opposition parties, at the end harm not only your work but above all the citizens, by slowing down the speed of necessary and urgent reforms. I know from my own experience as a previous member of the Romanian Parliament, how difficult it is sometimes to communicate with the other parties and to try to find a consensus. It might be sometimes also difficult to coordinate among different political, constitutional, religious and ethnic agendas but there is just no other way if you want to progress.
Another very important aspect is the parliamentary scrutiny of the activities of the governments. Let me give you just one example: budget. In the European Parliament we start the budget procedure around February, when the first documents are sent from the Commission, and we finish with the final vote in December. This is a very lengthy and complicated procedure, which of course does not have to be so long and heavy at the national level, but I just wanted to underline that the parliament’s voice should be important in this process. You know what should be the priorities of your countries and the job of deciding on them should not only be left to the government.
And finally something which is equally important for the Western Balkans and for all the EU countries, where we also still have to do better. It is crucial for the parliaments, for all of us who are their members, to maintain continuously a close link with the electorate and to dedicate time and energy to explain the purposes of the European integration project. Citizens’ support for reforms and new policies, adopted in line with EU requirements, is essential. They need to be explained the implications of the SAA implementation and of the EU accession negotiations, to see the benefit for themselves. This should be the role of the parliamentarians, of course not only, but you are their voice and they should hear from you what are going to be the steps and actions to take.