Sunday

16th Jan 2022

Opinion

2018 will be important for Western Balkans

  • Tirana: Rama warned that EU momentum could be lost (Photo: lassi.kurkijarvi)

The door to EU enlargement has at last creaked open, three years after European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker slammed it shut by saying there would be no enlargements in his five-year term in office.

For whatever reason - crises survived, an improved continental economy, Brexit - Juncker now feels the time is right to inspect the queue outside and hand out admission slips. But only two. And of those most eager for accession, these two are not among them.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Accession remains a controversial topic in both Serbia and Montenegro, currently tipped as the top candidates for the next round of enlargement.

Their leaders deserve great praise for forging ahead regardless, but the hard truth is that there are other nations, also in the Western Balkans, equally deserving of joining our Union and, crucially, far more enthusiastic about doing so.

The rumour in Brussels is that Montenegro and Serbia are the top candidates because they are most apt to switch sides and cozy up to Moscow.

Personally, I do not give much credit to this. Apart from oil and missiles, Russia has little to offer. But even were it true, it is not a sufficient reason to approve entry while denying others.

The EU is not a cult formed to frustrate the ambitions of Russia. It is a union of nations with ambitions of their own, with common values, a shared culture and a shared perception of how to achieve prosperity and peace in the future.

Nations which share these values belong and should be given every possible encouragement to do so.

I'm not arguing here that the front-runners do not belong in the EU. Far from it. Both are already negotiating the terms, and Montenegro in particular is well advanced in the process.

What is regrettable is that the EU, perhaps inspired by Juncker's early scepticism, has kept others in the region in the slow lane, including those most enthusiastic about joining.

Take Albania: Polls consistently show over 80 percent of its citizens want to join the EU. This shouldn't in itself qualify the nation for membership. But where there is a strong consensus for accession, history tells us that the institutional and policy reforms required for accession are much easier to implement.

In fact, Albania is proving this to be true. For over a year, its opposition Democratic Party fought furiously against particular aspects of the reform package the EU has asked of the Socialist Party government.

Albania

The result? Prime minister Edi Rama's Socialists were returned to power in June with a clear majority.

It is a mandate which should ensure continued progress towards alignment with EU standards, especially in the five areas Brussels has specified as prerequisites for formal negotiation: administrative reform, human rights, the battle against corruption, justice system reform, and action against organised crime.

But the opposition is still resisting these reforms, as witness some shocking scenes of chaos and disruption recently in the Albanian parliament, when the minority Democrats tried to block the appointment of a new prosecutor general.

"The people of Albania should not be surprised that their politicians are fighting amongst themselves," a tartly-worded statement from the US embassy observed. "This means the judicial reform is finally being implemented." It added: "The prosecutor general who refused to prosecute politicians is gone."

In other words, with reforms now at an advanced stage, this is exactly the wrong moment for the EU to keep Albania at the back of the queue. It is time to send a strong message to the Albanian voters that their support for reform and for the EU is having an impact.

Similarly a clear majority (54 percent) of Macedonians want EU accession (compared with just 26 percent in Serbia).

True, its disagreement with neighbouring Greece over the use of the name - which Athens insists applies to one of its provinces - continues to pose a problem. But given the incentive of a faster-track entry to the Union, I suspect the Macedonian authorities would find a solution.

And then there is the Republic of Kosovo, where I was once UN Special Representative.

Kosovo

A remarkable 90 percent of Kosovars want to join the EU. Sadly I doubt their wishes will be granted soon, with both Serbia and five current EU members refusing to recognise its legitimacy. But here too the EU needs to be more proactive, encouraging Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, Spain as well as Serbia to accept the inevitable and acknowledge Kosovo's sovereignty.

It is an example of how the EU's enormous "soft power" assets could achieve important results - if applied.

My feeling is that Brussels has, until very recently, deliberately ignored the Western Balkans. Granted there have been distractions: Ukraine, the migration challenge, unemployment, Greece, and more recently Brexit and Catalonia.

The mood music seems now to be changing. "If we want more stability in our neighbourhood, then we must also maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans," Juncker said in his state of the union address in September.

My country, France's new president, Emmanuel Macron, has said much the same thing, declaring in the same month that the EU "will have to open up to the Balkan countries."

EU membership is part of the solution to Balkan instability and its long history of inter-ethnic conflict.

Last month, Albania's Rama issued a clear warning: "The Balkans in general, and Albania in particular, will progress," he told a Brussels audience, "but if the prospect [of EU membership] fades away or becomes an illusion, then things can turn out wrong."

Bernard Kouchner is a former French minister for foreign and European affairs, co-founder of Medecins Sans Frontières, founder of Médecins du Monde, and the former UN Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Interview

EU outshines Russia in Western Balkans

Russia cannot compete with the EU for attractiveness in the Western Balkans, but can play an 'obstructive' role, Albania's foreign minister said.

EU sets date for next wave of enlargement

The EU is preparing to pledge a 2025 deadline for the next wave of enlargement, a leaked paper says, but Balkans disputes could hold things back.

Tension ahead if Kosovo left out of EU strategy

It is crucial that the EU strategy and the Sofia summit provide the same accession perspective to all six Western Balkan countries, Kosovo president's top official says.

EU needs commitment to rights in West Balkans

The European Commission's new West Balkans strategy means well - but it will need serious commitment to respecting the rule of law, not just paying attention when violence flares.

News in Brief

  1. Ukraine hit by cyber-attack on government websites
  2. Russia threatens military deployment to Cuba, Venezuela
  3. Polish minister warns of risk of war in Europe
  4. French teachers strike against Covid confusion
  5. Denmark warns of increased spying in Arctic
  6. Erdoğan: Turkey 'committed to EU membership'
  7. German court gives Syrian intelligence officer life sentence
  8. EU to impose sweeping sanctions on Mali

Gas and nuclear: a lose-lose scenario for Eastern Europe

The strong advocacy of Central and Eastern European capitals for including fossil gas and nuclear power in the EU's green taxonomy only leads to another unsustainable energy lock-in for the region, leaving their grid exposed to third-country coercion.

Column

Breastfeeding for democracy

Clubs, associations and social networks help to give meaning not just to life, but to the entire democratic system. Be they dinner groups, voluntary fire brigades, citizens' councils, environmental NGOs, neighbourhood committees coaching refugees, and yes, why not, breastfeeding-support groups.

Latest News

  1. MEPs seek probe into EU commissioner over Bosnia
  2. EU's Borrell contradicts Germany on Russia gas pipeline
  3. It's time for a more geopolitical EU-Turkey cooperation
  4. EU gas and nuclear rules derided as 'biggest greenwash ever'
  5. Even without war, Russia has defeated Europe already
  6. Nato and Russia in talks to reopen embassies
  7. Record-breaking Omicron wave sweeps across Europe
  8. EU agency warns ETS emission-cuts are off track

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us