Joint Press Statement EU – Western Balkans Ministerial Forum on Justice and Home Affairs

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The Ministers of Home Affairs and Justice of Spain, representing the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, together with the European Commission, represented by the European Commissioners for Home Affairs and for Justice, met on 26-27 October 2023 in Skopje with their counterparts from the Western Balkans at the annual EU-Western Balkans Ministerial Forum on Justice and Home Affairs. The meeting was also attended by representatives of the incoming Belgian and Hungarian presidencies of the Council of the EU.

The following matters were discussed:

HOME AFFAIRS

Counterterrorism and Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism

The representatives from the EU and the Western Balkans welcomed the results achieved throughout the five years of implementation of the Joint Action Plan on Counterterrorism for the Western Balkans, which allowed for a strengthened partnership in an essential area for the security of Europe. The Ministers discussed the future of the Joint Action Plan and its related bilateral implementing arrangements in view of emerging threats such as violent right-wing extremism, violent extremist content spreading online and possible attacks on critical infrastructures. Ministers agreed that the return of Foreign Terrorist Fighters still deserved full attention and commitment from the angles of prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration. The EU and the Western Balkans reconfirmed their determination to eradicate the trafficking and proliferation of small arms and lights weapons and recalled the agreement reached in May 2023 to prolong the Roadmap for a comprehensive small arms and light weapons control in the Western Balkans beyond 2024. 

Countering the impact of drugs on our societies

The EU and Western Balkans stressed that the consequences of drug use and drug trafficking on the health and security of our societies are devastating. They noted with concern the constantly increasing amounts of illicit drugs seized in Europe. Ministers welcomed the enhanced police cooperation over the last years, which allowed to jointly dismantle large numbers of organised criminal groups involved in drug trafficking across Europe and beyond, and to increase seizures. But they highlighted that increased seizures were also a clear indicator that trafficking continues to be dangerously on the rise.

Joint efforts must therefore continue and intensify. Addressing the drugs phenomenon requires an evidence-based, integrated, multidisciplinary and balanced approach, aiming to reduce both drug supply and drug demand as well as drug related harm. Both sides agreed to further increase police cooperation, including through Europol and within the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT). Ministers stressed in particular the operational added value of liaison officers posted at Europol Headquarters, and of an increased use of the Secure Information Exchange Network Application (SIENA) by law enforcement agencies.

Western Balkan representatives recognised the need to swiftly establish and operationalise National Drug Observatories and National Early Warning Systems, making effective use of existing tools such as the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance. Both sides shared the need to strengthen the cooperation with the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA, the future EU Drugs Agency). 

Strengthening migration, asylum, and border management

The EU and Western Balkan partners acknowledged the progress made on the implementation of the EU Action Plan on the Western Balkans presented by the Commission in December 2022. Ministers highlighted that thanks to coordinated actions – in particular on aligning visa policy in the Western Balkans with the EU visa policy – the overall migratory pressure on the Western Balkan route had so far decreased in 2023 compared to 2022. However, they acknowledged that the route was still very active with high numbers of detected irregular border crossings. That is why the EU and the Western Balkans reiterated their commitment to intensify their action for a full implementation of the EU Action Plan as an overarching priority on migration matters and to further strengthen the monitoring of trends along the route to be able to swiftly react and take appropriate actions.

The EU and the Western Balkan partners welcomed the signing of new Frontex Status Agreements with North Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania and recognised the crucial role additional Frontex deployments can have in reinforcing border management in the region. The EU reaffirmed that new Frontex Status Agreements should be negotiated and concluded without delay with Serbia as well as with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The establishment of fully operational National Coordination Centres (NCC) is paramount for an efficient flow of information among all authorities in charge of border control.

The EU welcomed progress made on visa alignment by several Western Balkan partners, which allowed to address the misuses that impacted the migration and asylum systems of many EU Member States in 2022 but asked for further alignment to prevent future misuses. The EU side also asked Western Balkan partners to refrain from adopting investor citizenship schemes or other schemes for fast-track acquisition of citizenship that would enable nationals of other visa-required third countries to circumvent the EU short stay visa procedure through the acquisition of citizenship. These schemes entail migratory and internal security risks for the EU.

One year after the launch of the Anti-Smuggling Operational Partnership to strengthen law enforcement and judicial cooperation against criminal smuggling networks, the EU and the Western Balkan partners welcomed the results achieved with the launch of a new regional programme under the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA), EMPACT, and Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre. The Ministers reiterated the importance of dismantling criminal smuggling networks to counter irregular migration. 

On readmission, the EU welcomed the efforts made by Western Balkan partners to improve the implementation of existing Readmission Agreements between the European Union and the Western Balkans. On their side, the Western Balkans welcomed the additional financial and technical support provided by the EU – including via Frontex – to support increased cooperation on returns and readmission towards countries of origin.

Ministers highlighted the importance of improving the registration of migrants and enhancing asylum and reception systems across the Western Balkans in line with EU standards and to this end to continue to engage with the EU Asylum Agency.

Source : Consilium