Exclusive interview with MEP Fajon: what challenges for the EU accession of Western Balkans?

The European Commission has recently taken a bold new initiative to bring the Western Balkans closer to EU accession, demonstrating a desire for Serbia and Montenegro to become full members of the Union by 2025. This renewed momentum supporting the EU accession of Western Balkan countries comes amidst the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU, highlighting the different attitudes towards Brussels across the European continent.

The path to European integration for the Western Balkans, however, is far from easy. Issues spring up on all sides, from the controversy over the name “Macedonia”, to the question of recognizing the independence of Kosovo, not to mention the interests that major powers like Russia and even China have shown in this region. Many of the concerns regarding the Balkans are also particularly sensitive among the EU’s own member states, such as Spain’s refusal to recognize Kosovo amidst its own secessionist politics back home.

VoteWatch Europe reached out to Tanja Fajon, an MEP from Slovenia’s Social Democratic Party (S&D), to hear her insights on the current relationship between the Western Balkans and the European Union.

The Slovenian MEP has plenty of experience on the matter, and in fact served as the main rapporteur on the visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans. She is highly influential on this specific policy area, as discovered by our special assessment of the influence of MEPs on the EU enlargement and neighbourhood policies.

In addition, our latest influence assessment found Fajon to be the most influential Slovenian MEP, as well as one of the most influential MEPs overall. Recently, MEP Fajon was mentioned aspotential successor to Pittella as head of the S&D group. Her potential election to the helm of the second largest group in the EP would bode well for the EU aspirations of the Balkan countries, as Fajon could use the extra visibility provided by this role to draw attention to the issues affecting the Balkan area. 

Check the full interview below to discover her insights on the Western Balkan’s path to EU accession: 

1) VoteWatch Europe: Ms. Fajon, this is already your second term in the European Parliament, will Slovenians have the chance to find your name again on the ballot papers in the upcoming 2019 European elections? If yes, what do you stand for and what is the achievement that better describes the 9 years of serving the interests of the Slovenian citizens at the European level?

Tanja Fajon: The European environment is my home. So is European politics. It is too early to say with certainty whether Slovenians will have the chance to find my name again on the ballot papers. It is not only up to me to decide. But if I had support from my political party, I believe I would run again. For the last 9 years, I have been part of creating policies that protect and promote the life of our citizens, ensure dignity and respect for all, especially children, women, and vulnerable people. I stand for open, modern and tolerant societies that put people and fundamental rights at its heart. I defend civil liberties and freedoms and I believe in an enlarged Europe which provides jobs and safety to all Europeans and to all those who want to share their values with ours and contribute to a better and stronger Union. As a proud Slovenian I also fight for a stronger voice of Slovenia in Europe and abroad.

2) VoteWatch Europe: At the beginning of your first term in the EP, you contributed to providing Albanian and Bosnian citizens with the right to travel across the EU Schengen Area without visas. This is just a first step on the two countries’ path to European Union accession. How would you describe their progress towards meeting the criteria for EU accession?

Tanja Fajon: I am a strong supporter of the freedom of travel. I haven’t been fighting only for BiH and Albania, I was also a Rapporteur for the abolishment of visas for the citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. And I am currently fighting for Kosovo. Western Balkan countries have a clear EU perspective. I am actively involved in their accession process, I work with all stakeholders in the region and I offer my full support in their efforts to become members of the EU. I sincerely hope that both countries, BiH and Albania make progress before the summer break. Albania by opening negotiations with the EU, BiH with completing the questionnaire. In Albania there is a strong support for EU membership. Recent justice reform was an important step towards the improvement of citizens’ lives. In BiH, the adoption of the EU coordination mechanism and commitment to social and economic reforms brought some optimism that the country will, despite of all its complexity, work hard in pursuing the EU agenda.

3) VoteWatch Europe: As a full member of the Delegation for relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, how do you perceive Serbian refusal to recognize the sovereignty of Kosovo and what could EU’s mediate this conflict, without interfering in Serbian domestic business?

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Tanja Fajon: It is crucial for Belgrade and Pristina to continue dialogue with the aim of facilitating the life of their citizens on both sides of the border. I am glad to hear that there will soon be a new round of talks at the technical level. Progress is absolutely necessary. And I can only recall our EP’s call to the five remaining countries to recognize Kosovo as soon as possible. Cooperation is crucial and I sincerely hope that both countries can find mutual understanding and way forward to political and economic stability in the region. We need progressive politics on both sides, wisdom and courage in politicians to break the existing deadlocks, continue on their EU path and work for the interests of their citizens. Dangerous nationalism should be replaced by cooperation, tolerance and responsible politics.

4) VoteWatch Europe: The decision to accept Croatia into the Schengen Area by the beginning of 2019 has become one of the strongest objectives of the political elite in Zagreb. Once the technical requirements will be met, do you think there will be a consensus point between all the 28 Member States? Do you expect any country to veto this decision? 

Tanja Fajon: Today, Schengen is at stake. We have to restore freedom of movement in Europe. I believe that five governments have to abolish the interior border controls as soon as possible. Currently, we are revising the Schengen Border Code and I as Rapporteur I will ensure that we will not have first or second class Schengen countries and that clear rules will equally apply for all. First of all, we have to open the door to Bulgaria and Romania. They are both ready and have been waiting for far too long in the waiting room. I hope Croatia joins Schengen soon, as soon as it meets criteria. Schengen is the most tangible result of the European integration and without Schengen there is no EU. Interior border controls which we have been facing for more than two years, also at the border between Slovenia and Austria, must not be politically motivated. Economic and political damage will be too high if Schengen falls apart, therefore we must firstly ensure that the revision of Schengen rules will set up clear vision for restoring the Schengen area.

5) VoteWatch Europe: Greece has regularly blocked attempts by the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to join NATO, and may do the same with regards to European Union accession because of the dispute over their neighbor’s use of the name “Macedonia”. How do you see the resolution of this conflict and how should the EU be involved in this process?

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Tanja Fajon: I sincerely hope that Skopje and Athens will resolve the name issue before the summer. There is positive development and both governments are working hard to get out of this deadlock that blocked FYROM for far too long on its EU path and helped deteriorate people to people relations. The EU is mediating and offering its full support, we have several EU parliamentarians actively engaged in the discussions with all involved and we strongly support efforts of both Prime Ministers Zaev and Tsipras. It is a sensitive issue that needs a lot of fine tuning on both sides, but I am confident that the solution will benefit all – firstly people, but also business and economy. I hope the EU can finally start accession negotiations with FYROM and I wish for the whole region a better year with more optimism, cooperation and future-oriented politics.

Discover more about the activities of MEP Fajon, as well as her fellow MEP colleagues on our website www.votewatch.eu. Should you need additional information, feel free to contact us at [email protected]