ZAGREB, December 19, 2019 – The Central European Initiative (CEI), established at the time of the fall of the Iron Curtain, marked its 30th anniversary in Rome on Thursday, in the presence of six prime ministers, including Andrej Plenković of Croatia, and sent out a strong message of support for further EU enlargement.
The CEI was launched in Budapest in 1989 with the idea of helping countries of Central and Eastern Europe join the EU.
“The foreign ministers of the four countries realised what was happening and seized the opportunity” to launch the initiative, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union, said Giuseppe Conte, the Prime Minister of Italy which has chaired the CEI this year. Croatia chaired the initiative in 2018.
The first four CEI members were Italy, Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia.
Even though in the meantime Austria has left the initiative, it has expanded over the years and now has 17 members – apart from the former Yugoslav republics, it also includes Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine.
“The father of the initiative, Italian Minister Gianni De Michelis, realised early that divisions on the old continent were disappearing,” Conte said, stressing that thanks to De Michelis’ vision Italy had focused on dialogue and integration, which it did today as well.
This is evidenced by Italy’s commitment to EU enlargement to the Western Balkans and to maintaining close relations with Eastern Europe, the Italian PM said, adding that Italy would be the chief advocate of EU enlargement until it happens.
That goal drifted further away in October, when France, Denmark and the Netherlands opposed the launching of membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia, the country which agreed to change its name for the sake of its Euro-Atlantic integration.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said in Rome that despite that Tirana would continue the reform process and that Europe would decide when it felt ready.
He also said that one should be frank and admit that French President Emmanuel Macron, the most prominent opponent of enlargement, was right to claim that the EU should start functioning better before further enlargement.
This is not about the Balkan countries but about Brussels, Rama said.
However, opponents of that view stress that launching membership talks does not mean a speedy accession to the EU, and PM Plenković recalled in Rome that closed policy chapters could be reopened if they turned out to contain something contentious.
The issue of enlargement will gain new impetus with Croatia’s EU presidency in the first half of 2020. Zagreb has said that this is one of its main goals and in May a summit meeting will be held between EU and Western Balkan countries in the Croatian capital in an effort to step up the accession process.
Pleković said that the Zagreb summit would send out a message that such systematic dialogues should be held every two years. The last summit in Zagreb, focusing on the same topic, was held in 2000. It was followed by the Thessaloniki summit in 2003, after which there was a 15-year break, followed by the Sofia summit in 2018.
The Zagreb summit will discuss ways to make the accession methodology “simpler, clearer and more encouraging”, the purpose being to open talks with North Macedonia and Albania before the summit, said Plenković.
Also attending the CEI meeting in Rome was new European Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi of Hungary, a country that also strongly advocates the accession of Western Balkan countries to the EU.
Serbian PM Ana Brnabic, Montenegrin PM Duško Marković, Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev and Moldovan PM Ion Chicu also arrived in Rome for the meeting.
Addressing the closed-door session of the CEI, Plenković also spoke about Croatia’s EU presidency during which Zagreb will also focus on Brexit, the new European budget, a conference on the future of Europe, the European Green Deal and the digital agenda.
Next year CEI chairmanship will be taken over by Montenegro.
More news about Croatia’s foreign policy can be found in the Politics section.