From 6 to 7 December 2018 took place in Vienna / Austria a seminar on the topic “Western Balkans on their way to Europe”, organized by EUROFEDOP (Europese Federatie van het Overheidspersoneel), with the support of EZA and of the European Union. The seminar took place in the framework of the EZA special project for workers' organisations in the Western Balkans.
The president of Eurofedop, Fritz Neugebauer, opens the meeting and explains that the objective of this meeting is to prepare in a proper way the meeting that we will have the next day with the Commissioner, to find out what our trade unions from the Western Balkans can do in order to make the process towards EU accession more quick and efficient for their country.
The implementation of the acquis communautaire, of which social dialogue is a part, is a condition for EU accession. If governments or employers refuse to have real social dialogue with trade unions, they will be in violation of the EU treaties and cannot join the Union. This is the issue we should mention tomorrow to the Commissioner.
The president subsequently gives the floor to the representatives of trade unions from Western Balkan countries.
Trade union issues as presented by trade unions from Western Balkan countries
In many countries of the Western Balkans, the practice of social dialogue is still problematic. Social dialogue is not always functioning well and is not taking place on a regular basis. Employers, government officials, are often reluctant to get involved in discussions with the workforce. In some cases, the benefits of social dialogue are simply denied. Employers refuse to recognise the benefits of discussing with workers matters which, beyond any doubt, will have a beneficial impact on productivity and the public service performance.
Social dialogue is part of the acquis communautaire and its implementation is a condition for countries to be allowed to join the European Union. Practices such as favouring trade unions over others, excluding trade unions from social dialogue, not respecting the principle of free trade union membership, not implementing decisions which have been made with the framework of social dialogue discussions, are against the regulations as established by the European Union and must be condemned. The members want to ask the Commissioner to put pressure on governments for accepting the criteria on social policy and employment as laid down in chapter 19 of the acquis communautaire.
One of the issues that Western Balkan countries are tackling with today, is the brain drain: workers, especially young people, leaving the country to work abroad. In this way, professional knowledge is exported, which could be used in the home country. A sector which is particularly suffering from brain drain, is healthcare. One aspect of the problem are the training courses organised by EU member states. Instead of returning to their home country once those courses are finished, employees prefer to stay in the country where they have followed those courses. There is a need for developing policies to convince workers to stay and exercise their profession in their home country. Moreover, EU member states should refrain from inviting “silently” workers from Western Balkan countries to work in their country.
Other questions raised were about the need for speeding up the accession process, for allowing trade unions to be involved in discussions on reforming the public sector, for improving the practice of social dialogue at local and regional level, for giving all representative trade unions the opportunity to take part in social dialogue.
In order for countries to attract foreign investors that will create jobs, those countries should work for the realisation of certain objectives, namely establishment of the rule of law, independence of justice, democratic decision-taking in parliament, respect for human rights, religious tolerance and fight against corruption.
Meeting with Commissioner Hahn
Hahn: All six Western Balkan countries should have the same prospects for joining the EU. Statement: “EU will not import open conflicts.”
According to the EU‘s enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, all six Western Balkan countries should have the same prospects for joining the European Union. Even when it is “not likely” that all six countries of the Western Balkans will join the EU simultaneously, Hahn declared before a meeting of European trade unions in Vienna that, when the first country joins the Union, the sixth country should already have the same “realistic prospects”.
At the same time, the Austrian EU Commissioner and ÖVP politician clearly underlined that the European Union will not “import open conflicts”. “Each country has to solve the bilateral (...) conflicts it has with its neighbours.” The EU would exercise “the strongest influence during negotiations” on those countries, but “has almost no influence, once a country has become a member”. By no way the European Union wants to experience that “a new member places it before unpleasant surprises”.
Similar clear demands to the candidate member states have already had “dynamic impacts”, said Hahn. He referred to the agreement which came into being earlier this year between Macedonia and Greece and which should put an end to the name dispute which dates back to several decades. He hopes that the EU will approve the opening to accession talks for future “Northern Macedonia” and Albania in the course of summer 2019.
When he was asked about what the prospects for EU accession are for the country of Ukraine, the Commissioner took a rather hesitant stance. “One should think about taking the next two steps before thinking about the twentieth”, he declared. Although he did not firmly exclude any prospect for joining the EU for the Eastern European country, he also warned against "raising expectations that cannot be met in the short or medium term".
Hahn also referred to the conflict which has intensified again between Serbia and Kosovo, in regard to the 100% tariff levied on Serbian goods by Kosovo. "That is not something to contribute to stability and (...) prosperity in the region." Earlier this week, the European Commissioner has been for talks about this in Belgrade and Pristina. The introduction of tariffs by Kosovo "has confirmed how fragile the situation in the region still is".
When speaking about the fight against corruption, he was critical of the way this was handled by many countries. When you look at the submitted list of convictions, you often have the feeling that the “small fish” are caught in the first place and hardly any action is taken against the “big fish” at higher or the highest level. And when this happens after all, the persons concerned are allowed to leave the country, “in a way that all national parties give their cooperation to this, to an extent that I would like to see in other areas”, Hahn said ironically, clearly alluding to the recent flight of the convicted Macedonian ex-prime minister Nikola Gruevski to Hungary.
The EU Commissioner appealed to countries of the Western Balkans for ensuring that ethnical differences would not create “divisive lines” in society in the future and that people would never have to deny or give up their identity. More than ever the basic EU slogan of “united in diversity” counts, stated Hahn. Such tensions should “be transformed into something positive”.
The EU Enlargement Commissioner was given the floor at a meeting of Eurofedop, the European Federation of Employees in Public Services. The chairman was Fritz Neugebauer. Several trade union officials of Western Balkan countries (Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia (FYROM), Kosovo (UNSCR 1244), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania), who attended the meeting, pointed in their remarks to the problems which exist in their countries, such as the brain drain, the difficulties they have to get legal recognition as a trade union or the legal uncertainty which exists in many areas.
Hahn promised to include concrete demands of the trade union representatives in the forthcoming negotiations he will be involved in. To recurrent questions about “pressure to be exercised by the EU” on governments for the realisation of one or the other demand, he had to reply however that the EU “cannot create the ideal State”. What the EU can do, is “to contribute to the internal adoption of European values”. The realisation however is the task of the separate candidate states.