Newsletter 27/2013 - From Brussels angle

INTERVIEW with Joost Korte, Acting Director General, Directorate General for Enlargement, European Commission, Brussels

Croatia's accession, an incentive to all EU-aspiring countries of the region

Mr Korte, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has just ended its South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) Chairmanship-in-Office and it was taken over by Romania for the coming year. How would you assess the activities of the former SEECP Chair-in-Office and what do you expect from the current one?

The outgoing Chair-in-Office has had a busy year. The highlight was the SEECP Ministerial meeting in Ohrid, which was organised in a constructive and inclusive manner with Kosovo* participating as a special guest of the Chair. It ended with a positive result: public handshake between the Serbian Foreign Minister Mrkic and Kosovo* Deputy Foreign Minister Selimi together with a joint family photo. The Ministerial also adopted the Ohrid Declaration and Joint Statement on Solidarity. Finally, it endorsed the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) Annual Report and RCC Strategy and Work Programme 2014-2016. Without the hard work of the outgoing Chair-in-Office, these results would not have been possible.

Unfortunately, the SEECP Summit in Ohrid was cancelled due to differences over Kosovo*. This demonstrates that further efforts are required to ensure that regional cooperation is inclusive, and I sincerely hope that a sustainable solution on this can be achieved under the incoming Chair-in-Office, Romania.

The European Union (EU) enlargement process faces the member states’ lower support but there is also a ‘reform fatigue’ present with the EU aspiring countries from the Western Balkans. How would you explain the link between the two?

If there is a perception in the Western Balkan countries that the EU is losing interest in enlargement, then the willingness to pursue difficult but necessary reforms may wane.

The reverse also applies. If progress towards meeting EU membership criteria slows down, the EU will not be rushing to enlarge. The key word for us is credibility. This is crucial for the success of the enlargement process. Maintaining the momentum for enlargement and for reforms are two sides of the same coin. The criteria are clear. We need to be credible on the EU side and move forward in the enlargement process once the candidate country meets the conditions. And the candidate country needs to ensure reforms are pursued so that they meet the established criteria. A credible enlargement process is the key to ensuring the support of Member States and their citizens. It is also a key tool to stimulate reforms and give incentive to deal with challenges many enlargement countries are facing.

The economic crisis has had a severe impact especially on the Western Balkan countries, unemployment in which is high and rising. What can be done to help economic recovery of the region?

The fact that the average unemployment rate of the region exceeds 20% is worrying. This has eroded the good results achieved in reducing poverty before the crisis. The young are particularly affected, as is the case in many Member States. A number of the unemployed are resorting to the informal sector, which may appear an attractive temporary solution, but can create longer term problems.

The Commission and the countries agree on the main reforms to be pursued. There is little room to stimulate economy with fiscal measures. Investment needs to be attracted by improving the business environment, which will give foreign and domestic operators more legal predictability. Labour markets need to be reformed so that growing firms can hire. Through improved logistics, innovation and internationalisation, companies need to find ways to increase exports to the EU and emerging markets. Recovery in the Western Balkans is dependent on recovery in the EU, as most of the region's exports are destined for the EU's Single Market. The Commission is engaged in a dialogue on reforms and supports the process with Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) funds. The International Financial Institutions are also part of the dialogue and channel their loans towards the agreed priorities.

How would you asses current state of regional cooperation in South East Europe, given it represents a cornerstone of the stabilisation and association process for the EU aspiring countries?

We have seen substantial progress on regional cooperation over the past months. In February 2013, Kosovo* was welcomed as a full and equal participant to the RCC. The decision was reached by consensus and demonstrates that reconciliation in the region is feasible. In April, Serbia and Kosovo* reached a historic agreement as the parties have committed to jointly work towards a future within the European Union. Further progress is required to ensure inclusiveness in all regional organisations and initiatives but the developments so far this year demonstrate that it is possible.

The Commission has started a new dialogue on employment and social programmes with the participating countries from the region. What does this process involve?

Indeed the Commission wants to engage in a new strategic dialogue with enlargement countries on employment and social issues, in order to support policies for inclusive growth. The dialogue shall help the countries to identify policy reform pathways for tackling their challenges in a mid-to-longer time perspective through employment and social reform programmes. It is important that programmes include concrete measures for policy delivery on the ground. In practical terms, the process starts with joint identification of the core challenges, and it is then up to the country to present their proposal for a reform programme. We are rolling out the process gradually and have recently started with Turkey. In the coming months the first countries of the Western Balkans will follow.

The EU welcomed Croatia as its 28th member. What will it mean for the EU and in your mind, what lessons could be learned by the other Western Balkan countries from this process?

The accession of Croatia to the EU shows that the prospect of accession drives political and economic reforms, consolidating the rule of law and creating new opportunities for citizens and business. The enlargement process thus has a transformative and stabilising effect to the benefit of both the EU and the countries aspiring to join. In this way, the enlargement process continues to contribute to peace, security and prosperity in Europe and allows the EU to be better positioned to address global challenges and pursue its strategic interests.

Croatia's accession to the EU was the result of a rigorous process, with strict conditionality at all stages, ensuring that Croatia was fully prepared for EU-membership on 1 July 2013. It shows that the EU delivers on its commitments once the conditions are met. Croatia's accession should act as an incentive and encouragement to all the countries of the region to step up their own preparations for eventual EU membership.

Joost Korte has been Deputy Director-General for Enlargement since January 2012. Prior to that, among numerous other duties, Korte was Director responsible for Relations with the Council,  Commission representative in Coreper II (July 2009 to January 2011), G8 Foreign Affairs Sous  Sherpa (since October 2010) and Advisor at the General Secretariat; Head of Cabinet of Commissioner for Regional Policy Danuta Hübner; Deputy Head of Cabinet of Commissioner for External Relations Chris Patten. He was also Lecturer in the Law of International Organisations at the Europa Institute, University of Utrecht, and Leverhulme Visiting fellow in the European Community Law at the Centre of European Governmental Studies, University of Edinburgh.

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ  Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.


Joost Korte, Acting Director General, Directorate General for Enlargement, European Commission, Brussels (Photo:

Joost Korte, Acting Director General, Directorate General for Enlargement, European Commission, Brussels (Photo: