Yes, we need to reform the European Union! But this process to deepen the EU which is clearly overdue is not incompatible with its enlargement. A larger EU that is at the same time more capable, self‑assured and democratic can create more security for its people. That is why the outgoing EU Commission President Juncker is completely right to call it a “historic mistake” that the EU heads of state and government refused to give the go‑ahead on 18 October to the planned launch of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. The decision would have needed a unanimous vote. People were shocked by this repeated postponement – both in the Balkans and in the EU. After all, the EU has given its word. The two countries have fulfilled the conditions set by the EU, as long since confirmed in the reports by the European Commission.
Our primary goal has to be to do all we can in the Western Balkans to promote peace, reconciliation and democracy. After all, the region is not the backyard of Europe, as it were, it is at its heart. Stabilising and drawing the region closer is in the primordial interest of both Germany and the EU. If the EU turns its back on the Western Balkans, it leaves the field open to other actors such as Russia, China or Turkey whose primary interest is certainly not to bolster democracy and the rule of law.
A positive decision would have sent the right message: the EU is serious about its responsibility for the whole of Europe and the Western Balkan’s prospect of accession. And it would have paid tribute to the fact that Albania and North Macedonia have moved mountains and consistently pushed ahead with reform. In both countries, the population and governments have proven time and again that they are prepared to make painful compromises to move closer to the EU.
The repeated postponement does serious damage to the EU’s credibility. In the region, it is strengthening the forces which have no interest in reform and progress. North Macedonia’s head of government Zaev has now announced his resignation with elections scheduled for April. The danger is that there will be a resurgence in nationalism, a re‑opening of healed wounds and ethnic conflicts.
It is a bitter setback to see the launch of EU accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia now being prevented due to the opposition of individual member states. Burying heads in the sand would be the wrong thing to do now. In spring 2020, the issue is to return to the agenda of the EU heads of state and government. Then we need to be unequivocally clear that we uphold the prospect of accession. It would be irresponsible to allow further delays.
Meanwhile, North Macedonia and Albania need to maintain their commitment to reform. That is the best way to thwart the sceptics. At the same time, we need to do our homework in the EU and work out how to deal with the reservations of individual member states. The EU has long since learnt its lesson after giving the go‑ahead too quickly on occasion in early enlargement rounds. We have reworked the methodology underpinning the enlargement processes and are now putting major emphasis on democracy and the rule of law.
In the months to come, we need to step up cooperation with both countries. The EU needs to be more visible in the Western Balkans. The new European Commission needs to finally make the region a top priority! We can help them by providing experts who can push ahead with the necessary reforms. Turning to the Berlin Process, we should engage more and invest more in regional cooperation. What is more, we need to bolster the Western Balkans Youth Office so we can win over the young generation as ambassadors of peace and reconciliation. The Western Balkans remains a litmus test for the lasting success of the European model. We aren’t going to make Europe better by breaking our word.