On 17 April the EU Commission recommended that accession negotiations be opened with Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Now we are called upon to make wise decisions, taking into account geopolitical and strategic factors as well as our own economic and security interests. What are the issues here? What is at stake?
We are connected with the region not only because of its geographical proximity, but also through a wide range of historical, cultural and economic relations. We have a keen interest in anchoring the Western Balkans firmly in Europe and making them resilient – in the face of both destabilising factors within the region and harmful influences from outside.
The Balkans have always been at the intersection of different spheres of interest. The EU needs to become more visible in the region and to make much greater use of its influence and its scope for shaping developments. Moving closer to the EU in no way has to involve cutting political, economic and cultural ties with other states. But every political vacuum that we Europeans allow to emerge will inevitably be filled by others who are more interested in instability and who call into question our model of a democratic, values-oriented and rules-based order.
China is active in the region and undertaking strategic investment particularly in infrastructure. Russia has a history of close relations with the Christian Orthodox countries and creates dependencies through energy and arms supplies. Some Arab states are promoting a strain of conservative Islam that does not correspond to the western-oriented form of Islam on the Balkans.
That goes against our interests. After all, the Western Balkans are in no way Europe’s backyard, but rather the inner courtyard of the house that is Europe. The region is surrounded by a number of EU member states – geographically it has long been at the heart of Europe, and is only being kept at a distance politically.
The entire region has had a prospect of accession to the EU since the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003. However, it is clear that there is still a great deal to do along the path towards membership: all the countries are grappling, to a greater or lesser extent, with corruption and organised crime, deficits in governance and unresolved regional conflicts.
Yet compared to the situation twenty, fifteen or even five years ago, enormous progress has been made – as the EU Commission has ultimately confirmed with its recommendation that accession negotiations be opened. But the path to accession is coupled with clear conditions. This step will not, therefore, automatically lead to accession, but is rather the first stage on a long journey.
Discussions on accession prospects – first nationally, then at European level – will therefore also centre around what political decisions will be best for further stabilisation and democratisation. It is crucial to find the right balance between encouragement and clear conditions. And it is about deciding what message the EU should send to the entire region to ensure that difficult reform processes continue to receive popular backing. For EU accession is a task for the whole of society, not just for political elites and legal experts.
Albania has embarked on a far-reaching and unprecedented judicial reform process. If this is successful, it will advance the country considerably, particularly in its fight against organised crime. After years of stagnation, street protests and a recent peaceful change of government, Macedonia has markedly improved relations with its neighbours and is enthusiastically working to implement its reform agenda. Yet in both countries, the reform-oriented governments are under fierce attack from the opposition. For those in power – and maybe also for some citizens – it would undoubtedly be easier to embrace the system of patronage and corruption rather than to fight to overcome it.
A goal that seems to move further and further away threatens to become a mirage. The danger is that it loses its attraction and eventually its power of transformation. That ultimately affects issues as reconciliation, good relations with neighbours and respect for minorities. Following the devastating wars and internal unrest in the 1990s, many wounds have not yet healed. Centuries-old historically engrained animosities between ethnic groups and religious communities exist in some areas. It is therefore all the more encouraging to see how closely the six countries of the Western Balkans, driven by their common goal of moving nearer to the EU, now cooperate in the fields of business, transport, digitisation and youth exchange.
The Western Balkans are a litmus test for the lasting success of the European model, which combines democracy, freedom and the rule of law with security and prosperity. This last benefit is what the young people in the Western Balkan states hope for above all. The transformation process, which has been under way for many years, is placing high demands on them. The opening of accession negotiations would send an encouraging message to the people in both countries. We ought to show them that we mean what we say.