Western Balkans panel: It's high time for region to join EU
The debate initially revolved around the appointment of Matthew Palmer of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs of the US Department of State as a special envoy to the Western Balkans.
Palmer told the panel that what the US had done was "demonstrate responsiveness to the demands by partners and allies who have told us that we are not sufficiently engaged with the Western Balkans".
According to him, the US supports the goals of helping North Macedonia and Albania open EU membership negotiations, facilitate dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, and supporting deep reforms in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the benefit of all its people.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić first half-jokingly said he "expected nothing" from Palmer, but then added that the appointment was a sign that the US wanted to have a clearer presence in the region.
"It is certain that he will have a lot of work and his term should last until the relationship between Belgrade and Prishtina gets resolved," Dačić said, adding that Serbia would try to be efficient and constructive in the talks with Kosovo.
According to him, Serbia supports visa liberalisation for Kosovo and opening of EU accession negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania. He admitted that the leaders in the region should express more solidarity among each others.
This was a good point of reference for Kosovo Foreign Minister Behgjet Pacolli, who admitted that the responsibility was on the shoulders of the region and that constructive relations with the neighbours should be established.
But he also lamented the fact that Kosovo "remains the only place deprived of the opportunity for its people to travel into the Schengen area without time-consuming, expensive and degrading procedures".
Pacolli also stressed the importance of peace, saying that "Serbia and Kosovo need peace immediately", while adding that "we need someone who knows to talk a little bit loud to us" in reference to Palmer.
From the perspective of a country that has made the biggest progress, Montenegrin Foreign Minister Srđan Darmanović said that "we are clearly frontrunners in the process" but that the region would be a "success story only when all of us get in there".
He hopes that North Macedonia and Albania are given a chance in October and the EU accession talks start as they have worked hard towards this goal. "We also expect from the EU to know what to do in the Western Balkans."
According to Darmanović, it is high time for this as the negotiations had stalled. "We can understand there are some serious issues in the EU, including Brexit and the rise of populist parties", but the EU should not forget about the Western Balkans.
Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov expressed the frustration for his country "losing almost a generation" while being frozen in the status of a candidate country, while making a huge progress and recently making a name deal with Greece.
"We have reached a compromise, something very European, and something that is very rare in the region," he said, adding that it was thus high time to start the accession talks instead of discussing historical disputes as the young people were leaving the country.
"If Europe fails us this year, then I'm afraid there is no European perspective any more," Dimitrov added, arguing that the message from the people would be that "we should not bother resolving difficult issues".
Speaking on behalf of Albania as a former minister and MP, Majlinda Bregu of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) said in reference to the Western Balkans' progress in EU accession that "I feel that we are mired in gloom every time we try to take a step forward".
She believes that the "EU will not be enlarged with the Western Balkans, but be completed with the Western Balkans", and that "nobody has the luxury to lose time any more", as people are leaving the region.
The point that the region was approaching a critical moment was also stressed by Foreign Minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina Igor Crnadak, who said that the EU needed to "understand that this process needs to be completed; it is so natural, so normal".
"It's high time that we understand that we are at a some kind of a turning point," he said, while expressing the frustration that his country had not been able to form a government ten months after the election.
But Crnadak nevertheless noted that there was one positive thing, with the European idea being very much alive among the people, who believe that the rule of law as well as security would be enhanced with the country's EU accession.