Newsletter 10/2011 - From Brussels angle

INTERVIEW with Wouter Van de Rijt, Principal Administrator, General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union

Common spirit of integration allows peaceful miracles to occur

Mr Van de Rijt, what are the key benefits of a regional approach to justice and home affairs in South East Europe from an EU perspective?

We should always remember that there are two processes which should evolve in parallel: the first has to do with the European prospects of the countries of the Western Balkans, and thus with their capacity to adapt their internal legislation and government practices so as to comply with the entire EU acquis. That is obviously a huge task. It requires the adaptation of existing internal rules to EU legislation, standards, norms and best practices, which have evolved over the fifty years since the EU was created.

The second process is that of regional cooperation. It seems logical to require that the countries of the Western Balkans cooperate amongst themselves as closely as the current EU Member States do. Reality on the ground shows that this is not evident to everybody. The Western Balkan countries should show the same spirit as, for instance, the Benelux countries, the Nordic countries or the Visegrad countries usually show. Indeed, Germany and France prove that, despite their long history of conflict and war, a common spirit of integration allows peaceful miracles to occur. Sometimes, we are too busy with the details of our daily lives and lose track of these fantastic stories of countries which have united their forces in the interest of their peoples. Therefore, I can only emphasise the importance of regional cooperation. Countries should prove that they are not only interested in the advantages of the EU, but also that they are ready to adopt those standards among themselves and for the sake of the whole region. The role of a body such as the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) becomes self-evident in this light.

Does the European Union have any specific requirements from the countries in South East Europe when it comes to regional cooperation in this sensitive area in the context of EU enlargement?

Regional cooperation cannot be imposed from the outside; it should be established by the people of the region. However, there are obviously many examples of good cooperation in the EU which deserve to be promoted in the Western Balkans. Let me take the example of Schengen cooperation, as I have been associated with that process since the time when there were only five EU Member States involved (1985!). The Schengen model has gained so much in performance, in best practices, in standards, such as the mutual evaluation mechanism, that it would be a waste not to use that model and those experiences to set up similar mechanisms in the Western Balkans. I was happy to see that the model is being used by the Police Cooperation Convention for South East Europe (PCC SEE) in its data protection evaluations.

How, and through which mechanisms, will the EU support implementation of the Regional Strategic Document on Justice and Home Affairs 2011-2013?

The EU considers that progress in the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) area is vital for further advances in the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) as testified by the SAP conditionalities, the visa liberalisation roadmaps, various Council conclusions and the recent opinions on Albania and Montenegro. The enlargement agenda is largely dominated by rule of law issues, a well-functioning judiciary, and success in fighting corruption and organised crime.

The EU will encourage and support efforts to implement the Regional Strategic Document with all its instruments: Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA), TAIEX providing technical assistance and twinning, the European Partnerships, cooperation in the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), the EU Delegations and EU Special Representative (EUSR) offices, and verification and expert missions on the ground. JHA issues are part of the constant dialogue between the EU, the Member States and EU institutions, and the region. Not a single day passes without one or several high-level political contacts between leaders of the EU and the region.

The most recent JHA Western Balkans Forum created additional momentum for cooperation, involving EU agencies such as EUROPOL, EUROJUST and FRONTEX and regional structures such as the Regional Cooperation Council and the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI) Centre/SELEC. JHA is too important not to be addressed with the full range of instruments at our disposal. Here I would like to add that we are encouraged by extradition agreements signed in the region, reconciliation efforts, the engagement of regional task forces, etc. If it is true that you can lead the horse to water, I am confident that it will drink well. The EU will make sure that – at least – there will be enough water.  

How do you see the Regional Cooperation Council as a promoter of regional cooperation in South East Europe in this context?

The role of the Regional Cooperation Council can best be explained by recalling the crucial importance that integrated projects have had in major breakthroughs in the recent history of the EU. People are not always aware of these things. Schengen's success, to a large extent, can be explained by the fact that in one single Convention, an all-encompassing, overall approach was chosen. That approach included key objectives such as control-free internal borders, as well as harmonised procedures at the external borders, in consulates (visas), between police and judicial authorities etc. Also, the EU Internal Market was realised by adopting one all-encompassing list of objectives (the "300 measures" in the EU White Paper adopted in 1986); and more recently, the Stockholm programme lists one long set of objectives to be realised in the area of justice and home affairs between 2010 and 2014. In my view, the RCC should set the framework for regional cooperation and ensure overall coordination, while leaving the day-to-day business to those who have the mandates for it.[1]

Wouter van de Rijt is a Dutch official who works at the EU Council of Ministers in Brussels. He is in charge of the External Dimension of Justice and Home Affairs, assisting the EU Presidencies in their tasks towards the USA, Russia, the countries of the Eastern Partnership, Mediterranean countries and, not the least, the Western Balkans countries. He is also one of the founding fathers of the Schengen cooperation.

[1] The views expressed in this paper are the author’s and do not bind the Council of the EU.


Wouter Van de Rijt, Principal Administrator, General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union. (Photo courtesy of Mr. Van de Rijt)

Wouter Van de Rijt, Principal Administrator, General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union. (Photo courtesy of Mr. Van de Rijt)