Within the series of Shuttle Diplomacy Talks organized by the IUS Balkan Studies Center (BSC), the first guest lecturer was Ambassador of the Republic of Austria to BiH, Her Excellency Ulrike Hartmann who visited IUS on Thursday, April 27, 2023. During her talk, Ms. Hartmann focused on Austria's perceptions of the EU integration of the Western Balkans (WB).
Her Excellency addressed the attendees and made clear from the start that the European Union had promised that all Western Balkans countries will join the EU once the required criteria in the candidacy status has been fulfilled reiterating the pledge made at the Summit in Thessaloniki in 2003. WB countries are part of Europe, and the EU is not complete without them.
Candidate countries need to put an effort into fulfilling the required criteria during the EU integration process in order to align to the same legislation and become more competitive in the EU market. Commenting on the financial aspect of the integration process, Ms. Hartmann underlined that there is significant EU funding but that the WB countries need to enhance their spending capacity to implement all the projects offered by the EU.
Austria’s perception on this issue is two-fold: one that wants to push the integration and the other one being more cautious of the process. Considering Austria’s geographical location and its proximity to the WB countries, it is in the country’s interest to have allies in the region and the integration in the EU is the best path to ensure these alliances.
Ms. Hartmann further added that the second common point between the two countries is BiH diaspora in Austria. Out of 9 million Austrians, half a million come from ex-YU countries. The migration started in the 1970s and many people decided to stay and continue their lives in Austria. And the third common point is student exchange between the two countries, which brings numerous students from the region to study in Austria.
Having shared all the above-mentioned information, H.E. Hartmann added that Austria is the biggest investor in BiH with around 200 companies investing here. Despite the political instability in the country, Austrian companies are interested in investing here especially after BiH was granted the candidacy status because it implies that the country is on the right path and will become a much stronger economic market in the future.
Her Excellency concluded that Austria will provide its full support to BiH during its integration to EU by lobbying for BiH in Brussels in order to facilitate the integration process. However, the local politicians need to be encouraged to take important decisions crucial for joining the Union. Big and rich countries can afford to stay outside the EU, but it is in the best interest of BiH to join the Union to ensure better living conditions for its citizens. A strong BiH within the EU is an asset to both its people and other EU member countries.