The European Union must find the right narrative to address the frustrations of the Balkan countries, which are losing hope of joining the bloc as EU appetite for enlargement fades, said Croatia Prime Minister Andrej Plenković in an interview with EurActiv.com in Davos.
Andrej Plenković has been the prime minister of Croatia since October 2016 and chairman of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) since 2016. He was one of eleven Croatian members of the European Parliament, serving from Croatia’s accession to the European Union in 2013 until his resignation as MEP when he took office as prime minister.
He spoke to EurActiv editor-in-chief Daniela Vincenti.
In Davos we have heard quite a lot of frustration from other Balkan countries about the lack of momentum in EU enlargement policy. Croatia was the last country to join the EU. How do you think we can maintain the drive of Croatia’s neighbours to join the EU and prevent them losing interest?
I think we need to find the right balance. We need to motivate the accession countries to continue with reforms, to continue with the institutional advancement towards the EU. At the same time we should insist on the fulfilment of the criteria, and especially those criteria on systemic chapter. For example, the chapter on judiciary and fundamental rights are critical.
We are aware of the general mood in the EU where there is no drive for enlargement as we remember at the time of the big enlargement of the 10 plus 2, plus Croatia.
So, we need to direct this process in a very intelligent manner, underpin the aspiration and the ambitions of these countries in the process and at the same time create a more conducive atmosphere within the European Union, especially in some member states that this policy is still worthwhile and that the European project is attractive for countries to join.
How can Croatia engage more with its neighbours, precisely to show this attractiveness, for example with Serbia where public support for the EU is dramatically falling?
The novelty of the enlargement process in its new methodology with the standards of the economic governance, which is extremely important because the political criteria, economic criteria and the sectorial acquis criteria are all seen in one.
I believe it’s critical that there is a mixture of activity of all the national governments responsible and other political actors if they manage to create a consensus on Europe.
Secondly, we must invest in what the French would say ‘pedagogie politique’ by the necessity of the process. That is where the trick lies, because of the rise of the populist parties from far left to the far right as they are anti-systemic. They exist everywhere. It is the responsibility of the mainstream party to address this issue.
Of course, the EU, its institutions, Commission and Parliament, should help the countries to address these concerns.
How can they help?
They can by intensifying the dialogue with these countries, by being present, by giving coherent messages with the advancement of the institutional path if the conditions are fulfilled.
We are in the 60th anniversary year of the Treaty of Rome. What kind of discourse should EU leaders have at a time where there is not a real appetite for further integration?
I think we need to be realistic, sober, but at the same time enthusiastic about the project. Brexit is a very unfortunate event. We need to find a way, I would not say new but reinvigorated narrative on the same values and the same objectives that we can stand for.
Of course in Malta, at the informal European Council, we need to address the timely issue of migration. But for Rome, we will need a document that will take stock of where we are and give us guidelines on how to motivate member states, our populations, our institutions to maintain the European reflex work on sensible and useful project, whether they are in the political field, economic field or legal security.
The EU has been very much a project forged by law. This is why it will remain with us. We should be proud of what we have achieved.
But isn’t this an emotionless way of putting it? Don’t you think we also need an emotional message to balance the populist, Eurosceptic one?
We should not exaggerate with the expectations for Rome. We need a narrative but it needs to be put in the context of today. It will happen around the day the UK makes its notification, so we need to be realistic.