International Conference – The Future of EU Enlargement: Judiciary and Fundamental Rights

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Croatia will continue to be a strong advocate of the enlargement process within the Union. The challenging times behind us, but also those ahead of us, show that only a stronger and more resilient Union can respond to the growing challenges of the 21st century.

The conference organised by the European Commission Representation in Croatia and the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration, which was held at the National and University Library from 19 to 20 February, brought together ministers, deputy ministers and experts from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Georgia, Kosovo, Moldova, North Macedonia and Ukraine.

Judiciary and fundamental rights represents one of the most challenging and complex negotiation chapters, and the speed and duration of the negotiation process in this area have a direct impact on progress in other areas of negotiations with the European Union. Chapter 23 is divided into four main and interrelated areas of competence: judiciary, fight against corruption, fundamental rights and the rights of EU citizens, which can be further subdivided into a number if sub-areas.

Minister Malenica pointed out that, 10 years after the EU accession process, Croatia is proud of all the changes made in the judiciary to meet the accession requirements, emphasizing that reform processes in the judiciary did not stop there.

“Taking into account Croatia’s negotiating experience as well as current trends within the European Union, including on the global geopolitical scene, it will be challenging for all of you in the negotiation process to reach the required standards, as well as to keep the enlargement policy in focus of the Member States of the European Union. Through the EU integration process, countries are and will continue to go through dramatic and comprehensive transformations. It is therefore important to bear in mind that the European Union is not only a union of states, but also a union of citizens, a union of values”, he said.

Acting Head of European Commission Representation Andrea Čović Vidović described the enlargement process as one of the most successful and fruitful policies of the European Union, especially over the last 20 years, with 13 members joining the Union in 2004: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Malta, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia; Bulgaria and Romania in 2007; and Croatia, as the youngest Member State, in July 2013.

She reiterated that there was no viable alternative to EU membership for the countries of the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Türkiye. “There are cultural and historical links, but also geopolitical ones. For the countries of the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Türkiye, this is a historic opportunity to link their future to the European Union by implementing reforms, especially in the areas of the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, fight against corruption and protection of fundamental human rights", said Čović Vidović.

Čović Vidović reminded that in the current term, since 2020, the European Commission launched a new mechanism - the Rule of Law Report. It monitors the situation in all Member States in four areas: judiciary, fight against corruption, media pluralism and media freedom, and other institutional aspects related to the principle of checks and balances i.e. the separation of powers.

“The prospect EU membership based on merit is a key driver of change, fosters reconciliation and stability across Europe and has the power to encourage and advocate the same even beyond European borders”, concluded the Acting Head of Commission Representation.

Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi, in a video message recorded specifically for this ministerial conference, pointed out that enlargement was a strategic issue of the Union that guarantees peace, stability and security, and that the Croatian path of accession to the European Union would remain an inspiration for all countries wanting to join the Union in the future.

In a total of five panel discussions to be held in a closed working format on Monday 19 February and Tuesday 20 February 2024, representatives of the European Commission, the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration and representatives of candidate and potential candidate countries will discuss ways to meet the EU standards in Chapter 23 of membership negotiations, as well as the independence, accountability and efficiency of the judiciary. The panels will also address the fight against and prevention of corruption, the creation of a strategic anti-corruption framework and the strengthening of independent institutions on the path to Union membership.

The panels include ministers of justice of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Georgia, Moldova and Kosovo, deputy ministers of justice of Albania, North Macedonia and Ukraine, along with experts and judicial professionals from these countries, experts from the Commission’s DG Justice and Consumers, DG Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations and DG Migration and Home Affairs, Advisor to the Minister of Justice and Public Administration and associates, a judge of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia, university professors, experts and advisers in the field of justice.