Newsletter 4/2010 - From Brussels angle

PARALLEL INTERVIEW: Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/ Vice President of the European Commission

Regional cooperation is at the heart of EU’s policy towards South East Europe

Ms Ashton, what are the main challenges for the countries of South East Europe in meeting the criteria for EU membership?

The South East European countries each have their own specificities. The Western Balkan countries have developed differently after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Albania has never been a part of it.  Yet, regime changes, orientation towards the European integration and reforms on the path to the European Union pose similar challenges to the whole region, in particular in the area of the rule of law, judicial reform, fight against corruption and organised crime, build-up of administrative capacity to handle the EU accession process as well as – ultimately – EU membership.

The EU stands ready to support the countries in their efforts. Politically in high level contacts and in the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Process. Financially via the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance. Technically via the TAIEX office. Hardly any day passes without direct political contacts at the highest level. We had the Sarajevo conference on 2 June 2010, the President of the European Council has visited parts of the region in early July and I just chaired a ministerial meeting with the Turkish Foreign Minister in Istanbul.

The break-up of Yugoslavia as well as the recent conflicts have left some issues unresolved. But unresolved conflicts need to be addressed and solved before accession, through the regional cooperation process and not through the accession process. They must not be imported into the EU. If rest unresolved, they are a baggage becoming heavier on the path towards the EU. We hope that all of them can be solved in a European spirit. I realise that this demands political courage, intuition and tact, but European integration is not only about free trade and open borders, it is about solving disputes in a spirit of compromise.

It would be a clear and concrete manifestation of the resolve of the South East European countries to leave the past behind and engage in a European future. There are encouraging examples.

Improving relations with neighbours, playing a constructive role in the region, solving bilateral conflicts – these are all important challenges on the way towards EU membership. as well as dealing with the past, full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and pursuing war crimes at home. I warmly applaud attempts of reconciliation such as the Srebrenica declaration of the Serbian Assembly in March or the joint visits to Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Presidents of Croatia and Serbia.

What could be the added value of regional cooperation in this context?

I could give you a long answer or I could simply say: the European Union is about regional cooperation.

To be more explicit: regional cooperation strengthens solidarity, largely facilitates solution to unresolved issues and advances the cause of moving closer to the EU. But beyond this regional cooperation has a value in itself. Let us hope that the RCC will remain the platform for regional cooperation for the countries of the region way beyond their EU accession.

The idea to strengthen regional cooperation has been at the heart of the EU’s policy to the region since the mid-nineties as part of a gradual consolidation of peace. The philosophy then: The European orientation of the South East European countries should be reinforced by close cooperation with the other countries of the region on as many issues as possible and should deal with open issues so that they will not burden cooperation with (future) Member States and EU institutions.

This is why, in 1999, regional cooperation was made an essential element of the EU’s Stabilisation and Association Process for the Western Balkans: the more constructive a country operates with its neighbours, the better for its advancements in the SAP. In 2000 during the Zagreb Summit, the EU offered accession on the basis of the EU Treaty, the Copenhagen criteria and the conditionalities of the SAP, in particular regional cooperation. This policy has not changed.

The Lisbon Treaty introduced several important changes for the EU. To what extent and in which way do they affect the EU enlargement process?

The EU has developed rapidly in the last years, almost without pause. It has more than doubled the number of member states within 15 years and has implemented several Treaty revisions. Lisbon not only consolidates the EU, it provides the EU with a new architecture and a new manual for European integration. In Foreign Policy, the Lisbon Treaty allows us to become more coherent and efficient. It introduces new elements also in other areas. And it gives the Union the instruments necessary for further enlargement.

Regarding enlargement the focus is now on preparation for EU membership, including implementation of the acquis of the Union. The philosophy behind being: the better the preparation, the more any acceding state can profit from the EU - which has become more attractive thanks to the Lisbon Treaty.

What are the key messages for the countries of South East Europe from the recently held EU-Western Balkans High Level Meeting in Sarajevo and what is the expected follow-up to the meeting?

In Sarajevo we sent a message of our unequivocal commitment to the European perspective, encouragement and recognition of the efforts made. We said that EU accession is a performance based process and attainable. We also said that we look forward to moving to the next stages of the process. I hope that this message of encouragement was well received by the citizen of the Western Balkan countries.

It is vital that our commitment is matched by everyone else’s. It was therefore encouraging to hear the commitment of the Western Balkans to intensify the pace of reform in key areas and to further strengthen regional cooperation on the basis of the principles of inclusiveness and regional ownership.

In Sarajevo we also appreciated recent commendable initiatives regarding reconciliation and encouraged further efforts to this effect. We recalled the importance of regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations and encouraged all parties concerned to address outstanding issues with neighbouring countries.

As for the follow-up, the 2003 Thessaloniki Agenda provides for ministerial meetings between the EU and the Western Balkans. These meetings are convened every year. As said before, we have ample opportunity to meet at political level in various configuration.

How do you appraise the results of the Regional Cooperation Council so far and see the organization’s role in the future?

The RCC has increased local ownership of regional cooperation and continued the many regional activities inherited from the defunct Stability Pact and, where appropriate, developed new ones. We welcome efforts in areas such as Climate Change, Research and Development, Disaster Management. The new RCC Strategy provides a clear roadmap for the years ahead and should help to make regional cooperation more result-oriented, coherent and rational.

The Regional Cooperation Council has become the key interlocutor of the EU concerning regional cooperation. It is necessary for us to keep close contacts with the RCC and vice versa. The EU and EU Member States are represented in the RCC Board. The EU has taken a step back when the Stability Pact was dissolved and left the driving seat of regional cooperation to the region, but it remains ready to support the RCC meet the various challenges ahead:  the economic and financial crisis, implementation of the RCC Strategy; Kosovo’s participation and streamlining the regional initiatives.

For me the RCC should become the centre of gravity of a regional cooperation landscape, coordinating the various regional activities. The RCC’s privileged access to the SEECP should help muster political support for its agenda. I hope that in a few years time the region will have moved significantly closer to the EU, bilateral issues will have been solved or will be on the way to a solution, more activities like the Investment Committee and the Ljubljana Process will be regionally owned, the difficulties in CEFTA will be overcome and the Transport Treaty and other international conventions signed. 

If I may, here is a question to you. Where does the RCC want to be in five years time? This is now up to you to answer.

Catherine Margaret Ashton, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, has been the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union (EU) since 1 December 2009 when the post was created by the Treaty of Lisbon. She is also the First Vice-President of the European Commission. Previously, Ms Ashton was Commissioner for Trade in the European Commission. She was appointed Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Queen's Privy Council in Gordon Brown’s first Cabinet in June 2007. As well as Leader of the Lords, she took responsibility in the House of Lords for equalities issues. She took the Lisbon Treaty through the UK's upper chamber.


Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/ Vice President of the European Commission (Photo:

Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/ Vice President of the European Commission (Photo: