Andrej Zorko, Member of the EESC:
Western Balkans need to see widely open door
Highlighting in its main priorities the European perspectives of the region, the Bulgarian Presidency sends very distinct signal to these six countries
Maria Koleva, Brussels
9 February, 2018
Close-up: Andrej Zorko is a member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) since September 2010 and is representative of the Workers' Group. He is an executive secretary to the presidency of the Association of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia, the biggest one in the country. Currently he is working for three EESC sections for the Single Market, Production and Consumption, for External Relations and for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship. Andrej Zorko is the author of the EESC draft exploratory opinion on Economic and social cohesion and European integration of the Western Balkans - challenges and priorities, made at the request of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council. The document will be put to the vote in EESC plenary in April.
- Mr Zorko, does in your view the political message of the Commission's new Western Balkans strategy is strong enough to marshal new wave of enthusiasm in the region?
- It is very important that the EU now sends a positive political message to the Western Balkan states. And this is significant because of two reasons. First is that these six countries - Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, need strong motivation to do the necessary reforms, and that the ordinary people also need positive message that the Union's enlargement will include their states when they meet all criteria. I am from Slovenia, and before the accession to the European Union we were all sure that our life will change for the better when we join the Union. Maybe it was the same with you in Bulgaria. So I think that it is very similar in all the Western Balkans states from the citizens' point of view. They need to see a widely open door. I am sure that this message really triggers more enthusiasm for the people in the region who are expecting better, decent life, to get a job easier, quality job, to be well paid at work and also to see lowering of the corruption levels in their countries. The second reason is that this strategy is also important for the EU - for the stability and the future of Europe. And it is very important that the EU institutions are active in this area and that the Western Balkan states will become member countries as soon as possible, of course after meeting all the conditions. Also, it is important that the enlargement process could be an answer to Brexit. A lot of people in the Balkan states think that the Union is now busy with the divorce with Britain, and nothing will happen with the enlargement. Some of them also think that Brexit means an end of the European Union. And we all know that is not true. The strategy signals sound commitment that the enlargement process is going on, and it will be useful if this process speeds up. At the recent public hearing that the EESC held in Brussels on the economic and social cohesion and European integration of the Western Balkans, with participation of different civil society organisations, think tanks, EU institutions and people from academia, it was underlined that a very clear roadmap for accession of these countries is necessary, with a very clear timeline, and it will for sure encourage the people in the Western Balkans.
- The Bulgarian Presidency set the Western Balkans among its key priorities. Was it a surprise for you, and do you agree with the open approach the Presidency uses about the European perspectives of these countries?
- Frankly speaking, I was surprised, but in a very positive way, when I heard about the decision of the Bulgarian Presidency to highlight this topic among its priority undertakings. It sent very distinct signal to these six countries. Because, as I already said, the stability of Europe also depends on how the EU deals with the Western Balkans. And the EU should be more active to help all these states to become one day a fully-fledged part of the EU family. I agree with the Bulgarian Presidency approach that the EU should directly say to these countries if they ought to cherish any hope they will become part of the EU anytime soon, or not. It is also fair for citizens of the Western Balkans to know that they have to give up something, but on the other hand they will get something from becoming members of the EU. We have to say very plainly what these countries have to do, what kind of reforms they have to carry out as to fulfil the conditions for membership. It is true that the accession of these countries was somehow put aside from EU's top agenda as, since 2008, the Union was dealing thoroughly with the crisis. I hope that this period is over, and the Western Balkans will continue to be priority also for the next Presidencies, those of Austria and Romania, and beyond, until all countries of the region become EU members.
- Are you optimistic that in 2025 the EU can give green light for Serbia and Montenegro?
- Maybe this date is realistic for Montenegro, with whom the negotiations started back in 2012, and I hope that Podgorica will receive the invitation even sooner. For Serbia it is more difficult to say, but it is also possible to see it as an EU member in 2025. The negotiation process with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania will probably go to the end that time. With Bosnia and Herzegovina I expect during this period to start pre-negotiation process.
- As rapporteur on the EESC's draft opinion that focuses on challenges and priorities for the Western Balkans, what do you think should be the first task in respect to the EU integration of the states in the region?
- As we know, Balkan states are so different to each other that it would not be easy to point which common task they should deal with first. The important thing is that the EU is opening the door, and the process to fulfil conditions to become a member is easier for them. Adoption of standards and making reforms is very crucial, but I'd like to emphasise that it is very important - and I also point it out in my opinion - to continue helping all those countries during the first five years after they become members of the EU. Also, the civil society should be supported, as it can play crucial role during the whole process and help when the people decide whether to go to the EU or not. We underline a lot of times in our Joint Consultative Committee, and in the declarations that we adopted, that the civil society organisations need stronger support from the EU, and especially that they must be actively involved in the negotiation process.
- Why is it so significant to involve in a more formal way the social partners and civil society organisations from the region in the European integration process, as it was underlined during a recent hearing at the EESC?
- I think that it is one of the most important things that we need to change in the integration process, because the civil society organisations and of course the social partners, they work on the ground, and all the efforts to make needed changes to become EU members, for example in the tax, or on some social security systems, and all the consequences, they will feel on their shoulders together with the whole society. But the role of these organisations is also to explain to the people why they should pass through exactly these changes. And as we already had some examples in our states when the authorities, the business or some foreign investors want to introduce something that can harm labour rights, they sometimes say “we need to do that because the European Union want us to do it.” But as we know, that is not always thorough. Also, there are some business rules in the EU which are unknown for some companies in these countries, because they don't have a lot of contacts with foreign companies, or they can't hire experts, and it is the part of the civil society organisations and the social partners to help them to understand, so they could be more flexible when the countries from the region become EU members. I am pleased to say that the EESC is organising Civil Society Conference on EU-Western Balkans relations in Sofia on 15 May, only two days before the big summit that will gather heads of states and prime ministers.
- Certain part of the analysis is devoted to the political situation in these six countries. What is the pace of the reforms concerning spheres such as the rule of law and the fight against the corruption there?
- When we talk about the Western Balkans, we have to bear in mind that there are big differences between these countries, and they are with very different historical backgrounds. But the need of strengthening the rule of law and the fight against the corruption is something which is common in all these countries. Let us not forget that media freedom is also very important. There are some very sad incidents with investigative journalists from the Western Balkans who write articles about corruption. The six countries should clearly show zero tolerance towards all forms of corruption, towards breach of the rule of law and oppression of the media freedom.
- What are the prospects in the region concerning the economic stability and prosperity and the social cohesion?
- On the one hand, it is very positive that the growth of the economies in the Western Balkans is ongoing, and according to the last available data the GDP growth is expected to expand by 2.6% in 2017. But on the other hand, there are still big problems with the standard of living and the quality of life in these countries. There is a huge gap between the wages in the Western Balkans and the wages in the rest of Europe, and even if regulation that ensures minimum wages exists in all Western Balkans states, in many cases it is not enough to cover a minimum existence level for families. These countries should do more for the social cohesion and change this situation. In the estimations of experts, the full convergence of the Western Balkan countries to EU living standards can range from 40 years, in an optimistic scenario, to over 200 years in a pessimistic scenario. Significantly higher than the average in the EU is the unemployment rate, and this hits a big percentage of the young people. And that is why especially the young men and women are leaving their homes, their country, and going to work abroad, maybe some of them in the EU. Presently, it is very popular to emigrate in Australia (if we are looking outside of the EU) in order to look for a job. Most of these people will make families there and will never go back, or just a few will return to their own country. As a trade unionist, I have personal contacts with syndicate organisations in all countries of the region. The people from Western Balkans say, “we want a better life, we want to have better jobs, we want to be honestly paid, we want to have social security, we want good education and different future for our children.” They don't want to work 10-12 hours per day and in some cases even more, and for this to get very low wage.
That is why I think that the social cohesion must be also one of the priorities of the EU when it comes to the negotiation process. These countries have to know exactly what they have to reach in this respect towards their accession.
I'm sure that stability and prosperity in the economic field could be sped up in a positive way when these countries become members of the EU. The Western Balkans really see the EU as a light at the end of the tunnel. And in fact, once they are part of the Union, the quality of life would be better than at the present time. There will be new opportunities for the companies that will result in more quality jobs and better incomes. This positive movement will affect the workers too, and their standard of living will be improved. And we all ought to have that in our mind!